Chris Buescher wins regular-season finale at Daytona; Wallace makes playoffs

Chris Buescher wins regular-season finale at Daytona; Wallace makes playoffs

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When owner-driver Brad Keselowski pushed RFK Racing teammate Chris Buescher to victory in NASCAR Overtime on Sunday night, it was ecstasy for Bubba Wallace and the epitome of frustration for Chase Elliott.

Buescher picked up his third victory of the season in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway, the regular-season finale for the NASCAR Cup Series, but not until Ryan Preece‘s barrel-roll wreck on the backstretch forced three extra laps.

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With Buescher‘s repeat win, Wallace clinched the 16th and final spot in the NASCAR Playoffs on points. Hemmed in by an armada of Fords after the overtime restart on Lap 162, Elliott — whose only path to the playoffs was victory on Sunday — couldn‘t move forward.

Kevin Harvick blocked Elliott in the bottom lane, and Aric Almirola and Joey Logano on the outside prevented Elliott from making a move to the top. Elliott came home fourth behind Buescher, Keselowski and Almirola, but NASCAR‘s most popular driver and 2020 series champion will miss the playoffs for the first time in his Cup career.

Buescher restarted second and Keselowski third on Lap 162. Keselowski quickly locked onto Buescher‘s bumper and pushed him to the lead. A lap later, Buescher secured his fifth career victory and first at Daytona by 0.098 seconds over his teammate.

“That’s as much Brad’s win as ours right there,” Buescher said. “That was the right help, aggressive, sticking with us. I was waiting for him to do something there coming to the finish. I figured we’d be side by side. Looked like it stalled out a little behind there.

“Just so thankful for Brad for all those pushes at the right time. Found each other here and there throughout the race, lost each other, and got back on it when it counted.”

The 1-2 finish was the first for RFK Racing since Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. claimed the top two spots for owner Jack Roush at Bristol in 2014.

Wallace claimed his playoff spot with a 12th-place finish, because — thankfully from his point of view — no winless driver below him in the standings was able to knock him out of the top 16 by winning.

“That was the most stressed, but also the most locked in I’ve ever been,” said Wallace, who entered the race with a 32-point edge over Ty Gibbs for the final playoff berth. “Knowing that this place is mostly out of your control, I just tried to focus on doing the things that I could do. Missing that wreck (a pileup in Turn 4 on Lap 95) was massive.

“Proud to be locked into the playoffs. 23XI Racing, third year in, getting both cars in the playoffs. We’ve gone through a lot of trials and tribulations. So proud of the effort we put in.”

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Elliott, who missed seven races during the regular season — six with injury and one on suspension — took his failure to make the postseason with grace.

“Yeah, I really liked where we were before the caution (for Preece‘s accident),” he said. “Honestly, after the restart there, we had the bottom lane that we wanted. I knew the 6 (Keselowski) was going to go with the 17 (Buescher). I thought the 4 (Harvick) was going to take the bottom, and they did. We really had all the help we could ask for behind.

“I couldn’t stay locked onto Kevin like I needed to to surge the bottom lane forward. Brad and Chris were there. Just had a good enough hold on that top lane, and they could kind of control each of them. Yeah, it’s a bummer, for sure. Hate the season has worked out like it has. The good news is the car got in in the owners‘ points. That’s a big deal.”

The wreck that forced the overtime was breathtaking in its magnitude. As the pack of cars cleared Turn 2 on Lap 156, Preece‘s Ford turned sideways on the backstretch and slammed into Stewart-Haas Racing teammate and pole winner Chase Briscoe‘s Mustang in the bottom lane.

The contact launched Preece‘s car high into the air, and it barrel-rolled more than a half-dozen times before it landed on its roof and bounced upright. Preece got out of his car and stood talking to medical personnel before being placed on a stretcher and taken to a local medical facility for further evaluation.

If Preece‘s accident was a lasting image from the race, so was the action that preceded it.

Despite rapid-fire exchanges of the lead throughout the second stage, the race ran caution-free except for the Stage 1 break — until the final corner of the final lap of Stage 2.

That‘s when the No. 54 Toyota of Ty Gibbs, fighting for the stage win, broke loose after a bump from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell as the cars raced through Turn 4, turned down into the No. 12 Ford of Ryan Blaney and ignited a wreck that involved 16 of the 39 cars that started the race.

Blaney and Gibbs shot side-by-side into the outside wall, and the cars behind them were helpless to avoid the melee. Gibbs‘ Camry was eliminated, ruining any outside chance he had of overtaking Bubba Wallace for a playoff spot.

Gibbs took the disappointment philosophically.

“I felt like I was getting a great push,” Gibbs said. “I feel like all of our teammates were working really well together tonight. I may have got a push in a bad spot, but we were going for the stage win. I want to thank Christopher for all of the pushes he gave me — I really do.”

Other casualties of the wreck included AJ Allmendinger, defending race winner Austin Dillon, Austin Cindric and Harrison Burton, all of whom were trying to force their way into the playoffs with a victory.

Elliott, on the other hand, was masterful in weaving his way through the chaos unscathed, finishing the stage seventh behind winner Keselowski. Elliott, however, couldn‘t parlay that adroit driving into the victory he needed.

Joey Logano finished fifth, followed by Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch, William Byron, Harvick and Corey LaJoie.

Martin Truex Jr. clinched his second Regular Season Championship at the conclusion of Stage 2, moments after the ‘Big One’ struck at Lap 95.