BRISTOL, Tenn. — Chris Buescher closed out a bizarre first round of NASCAR’s playoffs in which none of the title contenders won a race by becoming the 19th winner this season with his victory Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The second win of Buescher’s career marked the first time in this format of NASCAR’s postseason that a playoff driver failed to win a race during a round. Erik Jones won the opener and Bubba Wallace won last week.
Buescher won for RFK Racing, the longtime Jack Roush-owned team that took on Brad Keselowski in the ownership group this season, to give the organization its first win in a points-paying Cup race in over five years. Buescher and Keselowski both won a pair of exhibition races for RFK at Daytona in February.
“This is so special, this team does such a good job,” said Buescher, who won with a late call for two tires on the final pit stop. “It’s special to get RFK into victory lane for the first time.”
The showdown on the Bristol short track was the first elimination race of NASCAR’s playoffs and it was a nail-biter to the very end as at least a dozen of the title contenders had some sort of problem. There was a rash of flat tires for Ford drivers, mechanical problems for Toyota, an engine failure for Kyle Busch and Richard Childress Racing’s two drivers were both involved in a crash.
“This place is tough on the drivers. It’s tough on the cars,” Reddick said. “You never know how it’s going to go.”
Harvick, Busch and Dillon were all below the cutline headed into the race, but Harvick had a shot at the win until a wheel fell off his Ford during the final pit stop. He’d inherited a near-clear path to the victory — and an automatic berth into the next round — when Keselowski got a flat tire and hit the wall while leading.
“Just went from having a chance to lead the parade to being a part of the parade,” said Harvick, who noted he was ahead of Buescher at the final pit stop.
Austin Cindric barely advanced because he was one of the early Ford drivers to run into trouble with a flat tire. There was a rash of tire problems for Ford drivers, and it would have eliminated many of them if so many playoff drivers didn’t have problems.
Among those who had no problems were Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and William Byron, who finished second and third in Chevrolets. Christopher Bell finished fourth in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and was followed by Kyle Larson and Ross Chastain of Trackhouse Racing.
The 19 winners in a season has been done a record four other times in NASCAR history and Elliott, who cycled back to the points lead for the start of the second round of the playoffs, noted the first three races showed what a crapshoot the process is this year.
“I don’t think anybody is safe,” Elliott said. “Nobody is safe in these rounds. And we want to do better, too.”
BIZARRE END FOR BUSCH
Kyle Busch won’t race for a third championship in his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Busch closed a wild week in which he announced he was leaving JGR to drive for Richard Childress Racing, then went to Bristol desperately trying to stay in title contention. But his engine seemed to fail just past the halfway mark and Busch bounced off the wall, then drove his Toyota to the garage and walked back to his truck. He never removed his helmet.
“I don’t even know what to say. I’m flabbergasted,” Busch said. “I just feel so bad for my guys. They don’t deserve to be in this spot, we’re too good of a group to be this low down on the bottom and fighting for our lives just to make it through. But two engine failures in three weeks, that will do it to you.
“This is not our normal.”
It seemed certain Busch had been eliminated from the playoffs until the next restart and Daniel Suarez triggered a crash that also caused damage to contenders Dillon and Reddick. Like Busch, Dillon went to Bristol below the cutline and in danger of elimination.
The crash gave new hope to Busch, but he said he wasn’t sticking around to find out if he advanced. He said once released of his NASCAR obligations, he was headed back to North Carolina.
“I’ve got kids at home,” said Busch, who wound up 34th.
The opening race of the second round of the playoffs is Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Blaney won the All-Star race there in May, and Larson won the playoff race there last season when Texas opened the third round and Larson’s victory earned him an automatic berth in the championship finale.
Sources: Ex-Buffs QB Shrout picks Arkansas St.
Shrout visited Arkansas State over the weekend and his commitment looms as a significant win for Butch Jones, who is entering his third season as Arkansas State’s head coach.
Shrout will graduate from Colorado this spring and plans to enroll at Arkansas State in May, according to sources. He has one year of eligibility remaining and potentially a second if he gets a medical redshirt after missing the entire 2021 season with a torn ACL.
Shrout most recently played at Colorado in 2022, where he threw for 1,220 yards, seven touchdowns and eight interceptions and delivered the game-winning touchdown pass against Cal in overtime in Colorado’s lone victory of the season. He started seven games at Colorado and had one start during his three seasons at Tennessee (2018-2020).
Shrout is one of three Buffaloes quarterbacks who have entered the NCAA transfer portal since the school hired Deion Sanders as head coach. Sanders has made it clear that his son, Shedeur, will be the starter next season. He introduced him at his opening news conference by saying, “This is your quarterback.”
According to sources, Shrout was attracted to the potential opportunity at Arkansas State, including playing in offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf’s West Coast-style offense. Shrout also had some teammates at Tennessee who played for Jones, and sources said the former teammates endorsed Jones both as a person and a coach.
Arkansas State (3-9) ranked No. 118 in total offense last season and No. 85 in scoring offense. The Red Wolves open the 2023 season at Oklahoma on Sept. 2.
Georgia’s Bennett arrested for public intoxication
Former Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, who led the Bulldogs to their second straight CFP National Championship earlier this month, was arrested on a misdemeanor public intoxication charge in Dallas on Sunday morning.
In a statement to ESPN, a Dallas Police Department spokesperson said officers responded to a report of a man banging on doors in the 1600 block of Tribeca Way at 7:10 a.m. ET on Sunday.
“The preliminary investigation found when officers arrived, they located the man, Stetson Bennett, 25, and determined he was intoxicated,” the police statement read. “Bennett was taken into custody, transported to the City Detention Center and charged with public intoxication.”
Bennett left the detention center Sunday morning, but he could not be reached for comment.
Bennett, who started his college career as a walk-on, was a Heisman Trophy finalist this past season, after leading the Bulldogs to a 15-0 record and SEC championship. He passed for 4,127 yards with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while rushing for another 10 scores.
Bennett was named the offensive MVP in both of Georgia’s victories in the CFP, a 42-41 comeback win against Ohio State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and a 65-7 rout of TCU in the CFP National Championship presented by AT&T.
Bennett, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, is considered a potential selection in April’s NFL draft. He recently won the Manning Award, which is given to the top quarterback in the FBS by the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Sources: Harbaugh, Broncos meet but no deal
Broncos owner Greg Penner and University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh met last week in Ann Arbor to discuss Denver’s head-coaching position without any deal materializing, league sources told ESPN.
Although Harbaugh two weeks ago announced he was staying at Michigan, Penner did his due diligence and still traveled to Ann Arbor to meet with the coach in person, like he’s done with seven other candidates during the Broncos’ head-coaching search.
The follow-up conversations were part of the process for both Denver — led by Penner with general manager George Paton — and Harbaugh. The face-to-face meeting came after Harbaugh’s initial video interview with Denver, after which he pulled his name out of contention and reaffirmed his commitment to Michigan.
“I love the relationships that I have at Michigan — coaches, staff, families, administration, president Santa Ono and especially the players and their families,” Harbaugh said in his statement Jan. 16. “My heart is at the University of Michigan. I once heard a wise man say, ‘Don’t try to out-happy, happy.’ Go Blue!”
The Broncos moved on as well, continuing their discussions with several other candidates. Denver has interviewed former Saints coach Sean Payton, former Colts and Lions coach Jim Caldwell, former Stanford coach David Shaw, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and their own defensive coordinator, Ejiro Evero.
Harbaugh now has met with the Vikings and Broncos in back-to-back years. While one source wondered how many more chances Harbaugh would get, another league source said “The league is likely to be interested in Jim as long as he is successfully coaching. He’s proven at every level including the NFL. That’s a hard resume to match.”
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