While the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, September 19, was a good race for some, it was a disappointing night for others, particularly those vying for a transfer spot to the Round of 12 in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and came into Bristol on the outside of the top-12 cutline in the standings. When the checkered flag flew, the championship runs for Ryan Blaney, Cole Custer and Matt DiBenedetto came to an end as they joined William Byron in failing to transfer to the Round of 12 in the Playoffs.
For Custer, he was coming off 12th- and 14th-place results during the first two Playoff races of this season. Despite the top-15 results, he was eight points below the top-12 cutline to advance to the Round of 12 in the Playoffs.
Starting back in 12th place while battling with early loose landing conditions to his No. 41 HaasTooling.com/Autodesk Ford Mustang, the Ladera Ranch, California, native was in 14th place by Lap 30 under the competition caution. On the ensuing restart, Custer jumped to 11th place and he continued to run in that position through Lap 50. Twenty-five laps later, he was back in 21st place. By Lap 100, Custer had fallen back to 24th place. By the time first stage concluded on Lap 125, he settled in 24th place.
Throughout the second stage, Custer continued to struggle with the handling of his No. 41 Ford as he was mired outside the top 20 on the track. Falling a lap behind the leaders, he could only move up to 21st place when the second stage concluded on Lap 250, the halfway point of the race.
Battling tight conditions to his car and still pinned a lap behind the leaders while also struggling to keep pace with his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates, Custer was on the verge of being eliminated while running below the top 20. With 100 laps remaining, he fought his way up to 16th place. Though he was scored in 13th place under the final 100 laps of the race, he made multiple pit stops to have the front nose of his car repaired as a result of making contact prior to a restart. The loss of track positions and the laps behind the leaders ended his run towards the front as he crossed the finish line in 23rd place, three laps behind the leaders.
With his result, Custer was eliminated from title contention, having missed the cutline by 28 points, while teammates Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer advanced to the Round of 12. Being eliminated from title contention was a disappointing outcome for the Californian in a season where he achieved his first Cup career win at Kentucky Speedway in July and wrapped up the 2020 Cup Rookie-of-the-Year title in being the lone rookie candidate to make this year’s Playoffs.
“We just struggled here,” Custer said. “I don’t know why. I’ve always liked Bristol, it just hasn’t come together this year here. We’ve just really struggled. I just can’t thank everybody enough at SHR, everybody at HaasTooling.com, Autodesk. I just wish we had a better night. We were just a little bit off. I think we can hang our heads high on what we’ve done this year, but we still have a lot of races to win the rest of this year, so we just have to keep building.”
If there was an underdog that was a part of this year’s Playoffs, it was DiBenedetto in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford Mustang. For DiBenedetto, he was coming off 21st- and 17th-place results during the first two races of the Playoffs. With his pair of results, the Grass Valley, California, native was 25 points below the top-12 cutline and needed a strong run at Bristol Motor Speedway to keep his title hopes alive.
Starting in 16th place in the No. 21 Menards/Dutch Boy Ford Mustang, DiBenedetto had a decent opening run on Saturday night as he settled inside the top 15 on the track. Nearing the Lap 30 mark and when the first caution flag of the race flew, DiBenedetto and the No. 21 crew made an early gamble and came out of pit road with the lead following a two-tire pit stop. Restarting in first place on Lap 40, he led a total of seven laps, including under caution, before he was overtaken by Brad Keselowski on Lap 43. Despite only have two fresh tires compared to the majority of the field, DiBenedetto continued to run in second place. For nearly the next 50 laps, he continued to run in second place until he was overtaken by Chase Elliott. From there, DiBenedetto continued to slide backwards throughout the long run under green as he dropped out of the top five. When the first stage concluded on Lap 125, he was out of the top 10 and was scored in 12th place as he failed to record a stage point.
In the early laps of the second stage, DiBenedetto was in 15th place. By then, he was scored outside of the top-12 cutline in the Playoff standings. As the race progressed, he dropped back to the top 20. Near the Lap 190 mark, things started to fall apart for DiBenedetto when he was forced to pit under green due to a loose right-rear wheel as a result of running over debris on the track. By the time he returned to the track, he was three laps behind the leaders and was unable to regain the lost laps for the remainder of the second stage.
For the final half of the 500-lap race, DiBenedetto was en route to regain the lost laps from the second stage. Running in 11th place at one point in the race, he, ultimately, crossed the finish line in 19th place, three laps behind the leaders. As a result, he fell 41 points shy of transferring to the second round in the Playoffs.
The end result served as a disappointing outcome for DiBenedetto, who started this season as the newest driver of the iconic No. 21 Ford Mustang for Wood Brothers Racing and achieved two top-five results and seven top-10 results throughout the 26-race regular-season stretch, including a 12th-place run in the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway in August, to make this year’s Playoffs.
“If we didn’t have bad luck, we wouldn’t have any luck at all,” DiBenedetto said on NBCSN. “I don’t know. It’s just frustrating. I wanted to get Menards, Dutch Boy, this team a good run like they deserve because we’ve had a rough couple of weeks. Had a loose wheel, overcome it, drive through the entire field and a lot of green flag [run]. We get seventh hoping for a caution, but either way, we drove in the top 10, good run. And I was screaming debris in [Turn] 1 three damn times and we found it. We ran it over multiple times and that cuts the right rear [tire], and it just ruins our day.”
Though he was disappointed in being eliminated from title contention, DiBenedetto remained positive and was pleased with the opportunity in making his first Playoff appearance as a title contender and experiencing the competitiveness with the Wood Brothers Racing team this entire season. Though he does not have his racing plans for next season set, he sets his primary focus towards the final seven races of this season in earning as many strong results before the season concludes.
“I can’t possibly explain to people the emotional roller coaster of doing this for a living,” DiBenedetto added. “I am very appreciative to do it, love it and I hope I’m driving for this team next year and hope to keep on doing it. We have a lot to build off of. We’re just barely getting started. It is tough. I’m glad we made the Playoffs, I’m proud of my team. Tonight shows the fight we have as a team, rebounding like that. I just hate we missed the next round and had some not good races, bad luck, you name it. We got a lot of season left. We still have a lot of position in position to fight for. We have fast race cars like you see tonight. So, we still have a lot of stuff left and hopefully, lot of good things to come.”
A few days prior to the Bristol Night Race, Blaney issued a stern warning to his fellow competitors and the competition that he would do whatever it took, especially with a fast race car, to move others out of his path to win by any means and keep his title hopes alive. After coming off finishes of 19th and 13th in the first two races of this year’s Playoffs, Blaney was 27 points below the top-12 cutline in the Playoff standings and in jeopardy of not transferring to the second round in the postseason.
Starting in 14th place, Blaney wasted no time making his way to the front in the No. 12 Advance Auto Parts Ford Mustang. By Lap 60 and after methodically fighting his way towards the front, he was scored in fifth place while his two Penske teammates, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, were also running at the front. Initially primed for a strong result in the first stage, things slowly backfired as the race went into a long run under green. During the run, he dropped out of the top five and out of the top 10 as he continued to lose more spots while battling tight conditions. By the time the first stage concluded on Lap 125, Blaney was mired back in 23rd place.
Throughout the second stage, Blaney was mired back in and out of the top 20 on the track and was struggling to fight his way back to the front. During an eight-lap dash to the conclusion of the stage, however, he was able to march his way back inside the top 15 and conclude the stage in 11th place, missing an opportunity claim a stage point by one position.
Needing to win and give it his all in the final stage, Blaney started the final stage on a strong note as he made his way back into the top 10 and not long after, in the top five. Less than 150 laps remaining, however, Blaney pitted under green due to a right front issue on his No. 12 Ford. Falling back, Blaney managed to work his way back to 13th place, two laps down, when the checkered flag flew and he finished.
The top-15 result, however, was not enough for Blaney to keep his championship hopes alive as he missed the top-12 cutline by 37 points. The end result at Bristol served as a disappointing outcome for Blaney and his No. 12 Ford team following an up-and-down 26-race regular-season stretch, where he won at Talladega Superspeedway in June, achieved eight top-five results, 11 top-10 results and started the season with veteran crew chief Todd Gordon. Blaney’s team was also hit with a 10-point penalty prior to the Playoff opener at Darlington Raceway early in September due to an improperly mounted ballast that was discovered on his car, a penalty that had Todd Gordon suspended for one race.
“We started off tight and then that second run, we got really tight after the competition caution,” Blaney said on NBCSN. “[We] Lost a lot of track position. After that, we kind of was able to drive up through there. I think we got to fifth or sixth at one time. We got super tight again and it went really long. That just kind of made it worse. We just got behind there. The track just swung really tight. I was tight all night, but it swung really tight on us. That was just the wrong direction that the track needed to be at. That stinks. I thought we got our car pretty close there in the second half of the race, second stage and then, we were on the cycle of pitting and getting laps down and was on old stuff. Unfortunate end for this No. 12 group, but I’m really proud of the effort this year. We’re not done, for sure. We can still go try to win races and try to get fifth in points. Thanks to Advance Auto Parts, Menards and Ford for what they do. We got seven more races.”
Blaney, Custer and DiBenedetto, along with their fellow competitors, will return for the next scheduled NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, September 27, at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.