DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Chris Buescher has become a NASCAR title contender in less than a month.
Buescher won the Cup Series regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night, eliminating fan favorite Chase Elliott from playoff contention and sending Bubba Wallace into the postseason.
Buescher and teammate Brad Keselowski finished 1-2 for RFK Racing, the first for the team since 2014. It was Buescher's third victory since late July, making him a championship favorite no one could have expected five weeks ago.
“We certainly got momentum on our side right now,” Buescher said.
Because Buescher had previously won this season, Wallace landed the 16th and final playoff spot on points.
“That was the most stress but also the most locked in I’ve ever been,” Wallace said. “Proud to be locked into the playoffs. We’ve gone through a lot of trials and tribulations. So proud of the effort we put in.”
Drivers had to regroup in the waning laps after Ryan Preece flipped about a dozen times and came to a halt in his mangled No. 41 Ford. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver was able to get out with help before emergency personnel put him on a gurney and into an ambulance for a quick trip to the infield care center. He was later transported to a hospital for further evaluation.
NASCAR provided no immediate update, but Preece tweeted about two hours afterward “If you want to be a race car driver, you better be tough. ... I’m coming back."
Preece made contact with SHR teammate Chase Briscoe, and his car started flipping when he slid across the infield grass. The crash sent the race into overtime. Buescher was out front for the restart with two laps to go, and Keselowski stayed in line to keep them 1-2 at the checkered flag.
“Second is the first loser,” Keselowski quipped. “But you could have ended up in a ball of flames in (turns) three and four, too, and that would have been pretty dumb. ... It would have been really difficult to pull a move off without probably wrecking both of us.”
Aric Almirola finished third in another Ford, followed by Elliott and defending series champion Joey Logano.
Seventeen drivers, most notably Wallace and Elliott, started the night with hopes of securing the final playoff spot.
Elliott had been facing an uphill battle for months. He missed six races after breaking his left leg in a snowboarding accident in early March and was suspended for another for intentionally wrecking Denny Hamlin in May. Those absences left NASCAR's most popular driver him trying to dig out of a hole all summer.
Elliott needed a victory that never came. He knew Daytona was a wild card, but he still managed to get to the front and lead two laps early. He was in the mix late but had little Chevrolet help around him.
“Yeah, it's a bummer for sure," said Elliott, who missed the playoffs for the first time in eight Cup seasons. “I appreciate everybody’s support through this season. Hasn’t been what I would want by any means. Certainly going to be some lessons taken from it, and I think we’ll be better for it on the other end.”
Martin Truex Jr. took the regular-season championship over Denny Hamlin, giving Truex an extra 15 playoff points. Truex and Hamlin were the only drivers vying for the regular-season title at Daytona.
The more notable race was for the final postseason spot. Seven of the drivers vying for the berth were eliminated in a 12-car melee a little past the midway point.
Ty Gibbs was one of those knocked out of contention. Christopher Bell was pushing Gibbs near the front of the field but got him sideways in Turn 4. Gibbs slammed into race leader Ryan Blaney, turning Blaney's No. 12 Ford into the outside wall. Blaney hit so hard that at least two tires lifted off the ground.
“I feel like I got pushed in a bad spot," Gibbs said.
At least nine others were collected in the crash, including Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Austin Cindric. NASCAR red-flagged the race for nearly 10 minutes to clean up the carnage.
“It stinks. A lot of cars got tore up. Not fun," Blaney said.
KURT BUSCH RETIRES
Kurt Busch held back tears as he announced his Cup Series retirement Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. The 2004 series champion and 2017 Daytona 500 winner called it quits mostly because he’s been unable to shake lingering effects of a significant concussion that rocked stock car racing a year ago.
“My body is just having a battle with Father Time,” the 45-year-old Busch said.
The Cup Series playoffs begin at Darlington Raceway next Sunday. William Byron won in May at the track, and Erik Jones won the postseason race there in 2022.
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