Thrills and playoff drama abounded Saturday night (Aug. 26) at Daytona International Speedway. So much interesting strategy played out under green flag conditions and in the end, the final round of green flag pit stops determined the players at the end of the night. That pivotal round of stops meant the difference between who’s in and who’s out of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Buescher Win Comes Together on the Final Green Flag Pit Stop
Chris Buescher found himself in victory lane for the third time this season after a huge push from his RFK Racing team owner Brad Keselowski in overtime. It all really came together, though, on the final round of green flag pit stops with 13 laps to go. Buescher, along with Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott and Keselowski were among the leaders when a huge group led by Kyle Busch came to pit road.
The No. 17 and No. 6 stayed on the racetrack for an extra lap with their group, and together, the group ran a lap two and a half seconds faster than the pack of cars who had just pitted. Doing this, they all but assured themselves the track position needed to be in contention for the win.
Though Harvick and Elliott came out as the two cars at the front of the group, Buescher and Keselowski came out in the right place at the right time, as a caution for Ryan Preece‘s scary crash came out with six laps to go. That put the field back together and the RFK Racing Fords near enough to one another to be able to work together to get the win.
Harrison Burton and Michael McDowell’s Gutsy Call Puts Them Out Front
Earlier in the race, near the middle of stage two, another round of green flag stops served, perhaps, as inspiration for the race winning round of stops. Michael McDowell and Harrison Burton waited as every car in the field stopped for their pit stops on back-to-back laps. McDowell and Burton pitted at just the right time and their crews completed their service fast enough to get their cars out in front of the snarling pack. They in turn, were able to blend back in with the lead group, gaining valuable track position.
It didn’t work out for Burton, who found himself involved in the biggest crash of the night at the end of stage two, but McDowell was able to get a respectable 13th place finish, continuing to show the team’s improvement this season.
Another Race, Another Pit Crew Mistake For Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin is always a threat to win at Daytona. He’s won the Daytona 500 three times, after all. On Saturday night, though, pit road problems again reared their ugly head for the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry as they have had tendency to do over the years.
Before the cycle of green flag stops during stage two, Hamlin had easily one of the fastest cars on the racetrack. He had driven up to the top 10 rather quickly from his 19th starting spot and looked to be a favorite to win. When Hamlin came to pit road for his green flag stop, his crew jumped over the wall too soon. Hamlin had to serve a pass-through penalty and came out of the pits clinging to the lead lap. The main pack was able to run Hamlin down rather quickly, and he did, in fact go a lap down to leader Ryan Blaney.
Don’t worry, it gets worse. As the field came to the line for the end of stage two, Ty Gibbs was inadvertently turned into the outside wall by his teammate Christopher Bell, and the melee was on from there, collecting 16 cars including Hamlin’s. He was never able to recover, as his damaged car limped across the line in 26th. Going into the night, Hamlin had a good chance of winning the regular season championship over his teammate Martin Truex Jr. This mistake, compounded by Hamlin’s inability to beat Truex for the stage one win, may have cost the driver a huge playoff advantage.
Looking Ahead to Next Week: Playoffs?!
Now that the field is set for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, their attention turns to the famous ‘Lady in Black’ — Darlington Raceway on Sunday, Sept. 3. Tires will be king, as the old racing surface is famous for chewing up Goodyear tires and spitting them out. Keeping your tires on the race car will be paramount for anybody wanting to win themselves a ‘crown jewel’ and move on to the next round.
It also means that for guys like Elliott, Daniel Suarez and Ty Gibbs, the playbook is open to make some wild swings at strategy to try and get the victory. The right balance of handling and strategy could mean the difference in elimination or advancing, but also between continuing disappointment or redemption for a season lost.
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