DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Chris Buescher was pushed by car owner Brad Keselowski to win at Daytona International Speedway for a RFK Racing 1-2 finish on Saturday night, Aug. 26. Behind them were drivers Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano to round out the top five.
The result is the first time RFK has finished 1-2 since Bristol Motor Speedway in 2014 and the first time it’s earned three wins in one season since 2013.
But What Really Happened?
As the roar of engines began to die down at the crossing of the checkered flag and the No. 17 of Buescher celebrated on the frontstretch the roar of thousands of fans, there was another story that could prove to be bigger than all others on Saturday night.
Climbing out of his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on pit road was Martin Truex Jr., who was greeted by the Cup Series regular season trophy that stood next to his car. Despite finishing 24th, Truex had won the regular season championship and the 15 playoff points that come with it.
Only a couple cars ahead of him stood Bubba Wallace, who was soon to be embraced by the towering NBA legend and 23XI Racing co-owner Michael Jordan in congratulation. Wallace had qualified into the Cup Series playoffs.
And both victories had come pretty easily.
There was no thrilling battle for position like we saw one year ago in the closing laps at Daytona. Instead, at the end of stage two, Truex had already clinched the title and Wallace had all but secured his playoff berth save for a first-time winner of this year.
And it was all because of one crash.
The incident, which took place on the last lap of stage two, collected JGR drivers Denny Hamlin and Ty Gibbs in the process. Hamlin, who was Truex’s regular season championship rival, failed to collect any points at the end of the stage as a result. It allowed Truex to clinch the title early.
Gibbs, however, was the only driver that could have challenged Wallace for the final playoff spot on points. His race’s end meant that Wallace only had to hope for a repeat winner in order for his playoff hopes to stay alive.
While there were still plenty of drivers that could have stolen the final playoff spot, RFK Racing’s duo working in tandem in the final restart saw to his easy playoff berth.
However you look at it, there’s little doubt that this year’s race didn’t have many storylines when it came to the playoff and championship picture.
Instead, there was one much bigger story that overshadowed all others, and it had nothing to do with the playoffs.
Who Stood Out?
There are a few names that will be in the headlines in the coming week, but only one will likely be joining Buescher on television screens across news broadcast headlines.
The NBC Sports broadcasters’ silence says it all. Much like everyone else watching it live, they were stunned.
Only three and a half years after the terrifying crash that put Ryan Newman in the hospital at the conclusion of the 2020 Daytona 500, Preece found himself in a similar situation. However, to the relief of everyone, the Connecticut native climbed out of his car and was standing beside it a few minutes later.
He was rushed to a local hospital and was released on Sunday morning. As of this writing, Stewart-Haas Racing has not released any further details. However, it’s clear to Preece that he is fully determined to be back in the car.
That’s one tough racer.
While his playoff berth did come somewhat easily in the end, Wallace and 23XI deserve some mention.
While he didn’t lead any laps on Saturday night and didn’t make many appearances at the front of the pack, the 23XI driver played it safe all night. So safe, that it guaranteed him a playoff berth for the first time in his NASCAR career.
It may not seem like a big deal to some to see Wallace in the postseason, but it certainly will get an annoying monkey off of his back.
Up until Saturday night, Wallace was the only full-time driver with two Cup Series wins to have never appeared in the playoffs, and the first since David Ragan.
He’s the bottom seed going into the postseason and will certainly face difficulty in reaching the next few rounds, but with it being 23XI’s first time having both cars in the playoff field, it’s surely just nice for them to be included.
Who Fell Flat?
But as one driver enters the playoffs, that also means there are a few that will be left out.
Two of them, however, stand out above of the rest.
But they sure gave it their best shot.
While it was only Elliott in the end that led two laps and ran up front between the two, both HMS drivers were running within striking distance of the lead on the final restart.
The duo was lined up on the bottom lane behind SHR driver Kevin Harvick when the green flag waved for the last time. However, after two laps of side-by-side racing for the lead, Harvick was losing momentum to the RFK powerhouse as the Nos. 6 and 17 tandem-drafted ahead of the rest of the field and into victory.
Elliott gave a valiant effort with a push from Bowman on the final stretch upon the exit of turn 4 that put him in fourth. Alas, it was too little, too late.
It’s the first time Elliott hasn’t made the playoffs in his entire full-time Cup Series career and the first time for Bowman since he raced for Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2015.
For Elliott, at least, there is still the hunt for the Owner’s Championship on the line, which will give the driver of the No. 9 something to hunt for in the next 10 weeks.
For Bowman, it will be a postseason of reflection and self-improvement.
Better Than Last Time?
One thing Saturday night had over last year was the fact that it ended on Saturday night.
Last year’s regular season finale ended on a Sunday afternoon and saw the field red flagged in a multi-hour rain delay, not once but twice in the span of 24 hours. Not to mention, last year’s 400-miler was nothing short of a demolition derby featuring only 17 of the field’s original 37 cars still running by the end.
Scary crashes aside, Saturday night was not comparable to that. Yes, there was a hard hit for Ryan Blaney in an incident that saw five cars out of the race early along with the wild flip for Preece on the backstretch, but the rest of the race saw little attrition.
In fact, there were only three cautions the entire night, with one of them being a stage end — that’s the fewest in a Cup race at Daytona since the 2003 July race.
So, does that make the race better or worse?
Well, considering there was period of time in the first two stages where cars were three wide for the lead without crashing, it was certainly entertaining.
Paint Scheme of the Race
It was unlikely that we’d see Alex Bowman do a Fortnite dance on pit road or on the frontstretch, but we could at least hope, right?
Bowman’s new electric-themed livery is in reference to the popular Fortnite battle royale shooter video game, and Ally has a partnership with the franchise. In March, the game launched the Ally Arena, which now features the Ally 48 island referencing the Hendrick Motorsports driver.
It’s another interesting side-effect of Bowman’s partnership with Ally, and while the driver of the No. 48 wasn’t hitting the griddy or drinking the chug jug after missing the playoffs Saturday night, it’s neat to see a sponsorship like his help his name into the mainstream.
That’s enough Fortnite lingo for now, though.
The playoffs can begin.
The Cup Series returns to Darlington Raceway for the crown jewel Cook Out Southern 500. Qualifying for the 500-mile event will be live on Saturday, Sept. 2, at 1:20 p.m. ET with the race being televised live on Sunday, Sept. 3, at 6 p.m. ET on USA Network.
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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