Friday 5: Five laps that impacted NASCAR Cup season
In a season that ran 9,483 laps across 36 races in 20 states, some laps have more meaning than others. Here’s a look at five such laps in Cup this year.
1. Lap 250 at Bristol Dirt in April
Kyle Busch won after Chase Briscoe hit Tyler Reddick, spinning both Briscoe and Reddick on the last lap of the race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Busch, running a distant third, drove by. It was the only lap he led that race.
The win would be Busch’s only victory in his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing. At the time, no one could have known what would happen to Busch.
Had Reddick won this race, those five playoff points would have been enough for him to move into the second round of the playoffs. Without the Bristol win, he fell two points shy of advancing. That’s significant because Reddick won at Texas, the opening race of the second round. That would have put him into third round.
Also, had Reddick won — or even if Briscoe pulled off the maneuver — then Busch would not have made the playoffs.
The season would get worse for Busch. A sponsor pulled out to take over the No. 18 car with Mars, Inc. leaving after the season. Joe Gibbs Racing and Busch were unable to come to an agreement to keep the two-time Cup champion with the team. Busch’s 15-year run with JGR would come to an end.
His playoff run didn’t last long after two blown engines in the first round made the two-time Cup champion one of the first four eliminated from title contention.
When the 2023 season begins, Busch will be in the No. 8 car at Richard Childress Racing, taking over for Reddick, who moves on to 23XI Racing.
2. Lap 124 at Dover in May
Denny Hamlin led 67 of the first 123 laps and felt that he had the best car that day and would have won the race.
He didn’t because his race began to unravel after winning the first stage.
Hamlin entered pit road in the lead and was the first off pit road, but his left front wheel came off — a four-week suspension for his crew chief and two pit crew members.
He had to return to the pits to get a new tire, putting him 29th. It took him about 100 laps to get back into the top five.
Then trouble struck again. Running fourth on Lap 242, Hamlin couldn’t avoid Cody Ware’s spinning car.
Hamlin was penalized for speeding on pit road on Lap 326. Instead of having a chance to win, he finished 21st.
While one can talk about the five playoff points Hamlin lost for his disqualification at Pocono, it is the five playoff points he could have scored at Dover that could have given him a seven-point cushion on Ross Chastain going into the final lap at Martinsville in the playoffs. Hamlin would have advanced to the championship race with those five playoff points from Dover.
3. Lap 293 at Nashville in June
Chase Elliott led when the caution came out eight laps from the end of the race for Josh Bilicki’s blown engine.
When pit road was opened, Elliott stayed out for track position. Kyle Busch, who was second, pitted. Denny Hamlin, who was third, pitted. Martin Truex Jr., who was fourth, pitted.
Mistakes led to Hamlin and Truex pitting.
Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, was serving the last race in his four-race suspension for the wheel coming off the No. 11 car at Dover and wasn’t at Nashville. Engineer Sam McAuley was serving as crew chief.
Gabehart and two pit crew members were originally suspended four races, which would have included the non-points All-Star Race. He would have returned at Nashville, but Joe Gibbs Racing appealed the penalty. The appeals panel amended the penalty, making the suspension four points races. That meant that Gabehart had to miss Nashville.
The plan for Hamlin was to stay out if he could get a spot on the front row to restart. But before Hamlin approached pit road, McAuley mistakingly said to stay out only if he could get the lead. With Elliott staying out, that was not possible, so Hamlin pitted.
Crew chief James Small told Truex to stay out if he could get a spot on the front row to restart. With Busch and Hamlin pitting, that would have put Truex on the front row with Elliott. But Truex pitted.
All Truex could do was apologize.
Busch was the first car off pit road, changing only two tires. He restarted 12th.
“It’s going to be bad,” Busch said on his radio.
Hamlin and Truex each took four tires and started further back. Hamlin finished sixth, while Busch was 21st and Truex was 22nd.
Truex, who could have started on the front row for the final restart, never got the win he needed to make the playoffs.
4. Lap 138 at Daytona in August
Austin Dillon, needing to win to make the playoffs, was 16th when the field approached Turn 1 on Lap 138 at Daytona under threatening skies.
Suddenly, cars started sliding and crashing, losing traction on the wet track.
Dillon, running on the bottom lane, slowed and followed Bubba Wallace on to the apron. In front of Wallace, Harrison Burton and Ty Dillon were crashing.
The cars of Ty Dillon and Burton moved up off the apron, while Wallace slid on to the grass. That provided a lane for Austin Dillon to slip through and take the lead (as seen in the video clip from his car).
Martin Truex Jr., trying to make the playoffs, was collected and had damage to his car.
After a rain delay of 3 hours, 19 minutes and 57 seconds, the race resumed. The green waved with 16 laps left and Austin Cindric took the lead. He held it until three laps to go when Austin Dillon ran into the back of his car in Turn 1 and took the lead.
Dillon’s teammate, Tyler Reddick moved to second. Austin Dillon went unchallenged to win and put both Richard Childress Racing cars in the playoffs. His victory prevented Truex from making the playoffs.
One of the biggest impacts from this was that NASCAR officials were quicker to call a caution for even light rain. It happened the following week in the playoff opener at Darlington and in the second round race at Texas.
5. Lap 500 at Martinsville in October
What is there to say about the craziest lap run this season in NASCAR?
Needing to pass two cars on the final lap to advance to the championship race, Ross Chastain put his car into fifth gear on the backstretch, planted his Chevrolet against the wall, took his hands off the wheel and let the wall guide his vehicle around the final quarter mile while he floored the throttle.
And it worked.
He passed five cars to make the championship race.
But this lap’s biggest impact was on social media. The video of Chastain’s move had more than 11 million views on the NASCAR on NBC Twitter account. The video of it on the NASCAR on NBC TikTok account had more than 12 million views. Excluding the Olympics, the only other video that has had more views on the NBC Sports TikTok account this year was Rich Strike’s historic Kentucky Derby win.
Even an hour after his remarkable move, Chastain was still trying to comprehend what he had done.
“It’s sinking in the we did something that no one else has ever done,” Chastain said.
While NASCAR has not created a rule to prevent such a move, it is something that series officials are expected to examine before next season.