The first heat race of the NASCAR playoffs was briefly interrupted by rain Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The nearly 15-minute stoppage occurred at the start of the second stage of the third and final race in the first round of the NASCAR playoffs. Four drivers will be eliminated from the 16-driver championship field when the checkered flag falls.
Martin Truex Jr., the regular season champion, was below the cut line and in danger of elimination along with Bubba Wallace, Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell.
Wallace had Michael Jordan, co-owner of 23XI Racing, watching from his pit stall at the start of the second stage, when NASCAR hit the brakes and called the cars to the pits due to a steady drizzle. The race started an hour earlier than initially planned due to poor forecasts; NASCAR only has to complete half the course – 250 laps – for the race to be official.
The rain stop came with a 138-lap lead and pole sitter Christopher Bell in the lead. Kyle Larson, who along with Tyler Reddick already earned an automatic second-round berth, was second at the time of the stop.
It was an incredible comeback for Larson, who was penalized for driving over equipment in the pit lane, earning him a penalty that dropped him to 33rd.
Denny Hamlin had his own decent comeback from 30th to 11th when he was flagged for speeding at the same stop Larson was penalized. Hamlin had traveled most of the first stage comfortable on the bumper of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bell, but was again caught speeding during the first set of stops .
Excessive speeding on pit road has been a constant problem for Hamlin over the years. But he started the race third in the standings with a very good chance of advancing to the next round.
SMITH IN SPIRE
Two new Cup drivers were announced at Bristol this weekend, with Kaulig Racing first promoting Daniel Hemric to one of its two seats next year. Trackhouse Racing then announced that it had signed Truck Series champion Zane Smith to a multi-year contract and would loan him to Spire Motorsports in 2024.
Trackhouse plans to eventually run three cars full-time, but is not ready to do so next season; Spire will put Smith in a third car and has purchased the necessary charter to do so from Live Fast Motorsports.
Smith is trying to win a second straight Truck Series title before moving on to NASCAR’s top series. He will be teammates in Spire with Corey LaJoie, who signed an extension with Spire this summer, but the rest of the roster and Smith’s number are still to be determined. Spire is currently fielding two cars with LaJoie and Ty Dillon.
NASCAR opens the second round of the playoffs next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, which has just one Cup race this year for the first time since 2004. Tyler Reddick won the race a year ago driving for Richard Childress Racing.
AP Auto Racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing