BRISTOL, Tenn. — Kevin Harvick walked away from his ill-handling car, Bubba Wallace sat against his vehicle, and Martin Truex Jr. stood on pit road and smiled.
Emotions varied on pit road as four drivers — including two former Cup champions — were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
When Harvick enters the NASCAR Hall of Fame in a few years, he’ll go in as a one-time champion after his quest for a second title ended with a car that finished five laps behind winner Denny Hamlin.
“I’ve had some good days and bad days, but that’s definitely the worst one I’ve had with fenders on it,” Harvick told NBC Sports’ Dave Burns after finishing 29th.
Harvick and Joey Logano — the first reigning Cup champion to be eliminated in the first round — fell four points shy of Wallace, who claimed the final transfer spot to the Round of 12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell also were eliminated.
It’s easy to wonder what might have been for Harvick had Darlington gone differently. He was running second and was set to pit a lap before leader Tyler Reddick, which likely would have given Harvick the lead with less than 60 laps left.
Instead, Reddick was called to pit road but couldn’t make it and Ryan Newman spun trying to avoid Reddick’s car. The caution came out just before Harvick entered pit road. In the confusion, Harvick’s team serviced his car, leading to penalty that ended any hope of a victory.
He’s not the only driver who can look back and wonder how things could have been different.
Truex entered Saturday’s race seven points behind Harvick for the final transfer spot after a punctured tire sent Truex into the wall four laps into last weekend’s race at Kansas.
“It’s a terrible spot to be in and none of us wanted to be there,” Truex said after his 19th-place finish at Bristol allowed him to advance to the next round. “At the end of the day, you can’t worry that much about it.”
Truex Jr. avoids playoff elimination at Bristol
Martin Truex Jr. reviews his effort following a “fighting night” at Bristol after a 19th-place finish, good enough to advance to the Round of 12 in the Cup Series playoffs on points.
After struggling through the first round and advancing by five points, Truex relishes the reset before the next round. With his bonus points, Truex enters the next round tied with William Byron for first.
Truex will start the next round 25 points ahead of Ross Chastain and Brad Keselowski, the first two drivers outside a transfer spot to the third round.
“Ain’t nobody sleeping on them,” Hamlin said of Truex.
Wallace invokes Gauff after advancing to Rd. of 12
A “mentally exhausted” Bubba Wallace says the boos just add “fuel to the fire” after advancing to the Round of 12 in the Cup Series playoffs during a “career year,” and thanks the fans that still believe.
Wallace entered Bristol 19 points out of the final transfer spot. He scored eight points in the first stage. Those points — along with his 14th-place finish — helped him pass Harvick and Logano to earn a spot in the Round of 12.
Wallace said he was mentally exhausted after Saturday night’s race.
“I said to myself out loud, not on the radio, ‘Proud of you kid,” and we all know that I rarely do that,” he said. “(I) tried to give it away a couple of times. Got frustrated with myself, frustrated with others, but it all worked out. What you need to do is execute. This is a special day. Got to cherish it but can’t get complacent.”