By Matt Courson, Staff Writer
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Four drivers were eliminated from Playoff competition following Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney, Cole Custer, and William Byron’s title hopes went up in smoke.
Matt DiBenedetto entered Saturday night’s race 25 points below the cutline and was essentially in a must-win situation. DiBenedetto fought his way into the top-10 in the closing laps of the race, but he ran over a piece of debris in the waning laps. This forced DiBenedetto to pit under green and relegated him to a finish of 19th.
With other finishes of 21st and 17th at Darlington and Richmond, the California-native will not continue on to the Round of 12. I’m glad we made the playoffs. “I’m proud of my team,” said DiBenedetto. “Tonight shows the fight that we have as a team, rebounding like that.
“I just hate that we miss the next round and had some not-so-good races, bad luck tonight, you name it, but we’ve got a lot of season left. We still have a lot of positions in points to fight for and we have fast race cars like you see tonight, so we still have a lot of stuff left and hopefully a lot of good things to come.”
William Byron missed out on the Round of 12 after suffering significant damage in an accident at The Last Great Colosseum. Joey Gase slowed on the track, causing Christopher Bell and Byron to check up. Byron made apparent hard contact with Bell while trying to avoid the incident, and Byron took the car behind the wall.
Although he scored a fifth place finish in the first Playoff race at Darlington, Byron was unable to excel at the short tracks of Richmond and Bristol with finishes of 21st and 38th. “I think the No. 51 car (Joey Gase) checked up in the middle of the straightaway,” Byron said. “As fast as we were running the top, I was right behind the No. 95 (Christopher Bell) and I had literally nowhere to go.
“[Joey Gase] can’t stop in the middle of the straightaway when everybody is so committed to the top like that. Just ridiculous that that’s what takes us out.”
Ryan Blaney’s Round of 16 started bad before the green flag even flew at Darlington. Blaney and team were assessed a ten point penalty due to issues with pre-race inspection. Blaney went one to finish 24th at Darlington and 29th at Richmond. Blaney was unable to advance into the Round of 12 after a finish of 13th at Bristol.
“I’m really proud of the effort this year and we’re not done,” Blaney said after the race. “We can still go and try to win races and try to get fifth in points, so thanks to Advance Auto Parts and Menards and Ford for what they do. We’ve got seven more races. We’ll do our best.”
Rookie-of-the-Year recipient Cole Custer locked himself into the Playoffs with a surprise victory at Kentucky Speedway. Custer finished 12th and 14th in the opening two races, but a 23rd place finish at Bristol resulted in him failing to advance.
“We’ve just struggled here at Bristol,” said Custer. “I think we can hold our heads high on what we’ve done this year. From where we started this year and where I was at, we’ve come a long way and these guys have really helped me grow. It’s about the people at SHR and sponsor support from HaasTooling.com and Autodesk, I can’t thank them enough.”
The Round of 12 can be considered the most intense rounds in the Playoffs, as the three tracks that make up the round are a mile-and-a-half track, a road course, and a Superspeedway. The round begins next Sunday (Sept. 27) at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Photo Credit: Jared C Tilton / Getty Images