FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Chase Elliott was leading at Texas when a right rear tire issue led to hard contact with the wall and a fiery finish to his day, knocking him from the top of the playoff standings.
After the caution lights came on when another front-running car had tire problems, Denny Hamlin went spinning into the infield grass after a retaliatory bump from behind by fellow playoff contender William Byron that NASCAR didn't initially see — or penalize yet.
Even Christopher Bell, who like his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin was so good in the first round of the playoffs, failed to finish at his home track after his crew ran out of time to finish repairs on his damaged car after a second tire issue sent him into the wall.
For all the concern that contending teams had already expressed about Talladega Superspeedway and the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway in this three-race segment of the playoffs, the 334 laps at the 1 1/2-mile Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday provided quite a tumultuous start to the round of 12.
“Just a crazy race for everybody,” said race runner-up Joey Logano, who took over the points lead. “You just cross your fingers, say a few prayers, hope it's not your turn when the tire blows out.”
All of the tire issues contributed to a track-record 16 cautions (for 91 laps) — 12 of those for single-car incidents, plus the standard yellows at the end of each of the two in-race stages. There was also a 56-minute red flag for lightning, and a record 36 lead changes among 19 drivers.
Logano was concerned about the vibration in the right rear of his car throughout the closing laps. He finished 1.19 seconds behind Tyler Reddick, whose win for Richard Childress Racing came a week after he was eliminated from title contention when the playoff field was cut from 16 to 12 drivers.
None of the four playoff races so far have been won by a driver still eligible for the title.
“It's still nice,” Reddick said. “I'd love to be racing for a championship, I really would, but we can't.”
Even Reddick split his thoughts over the closing laps concerned about potential tire issues, including three different leaders having them: “Probably about 50% of my brain was thinking about that,” he said.
Soon after the caution came out for Martin Truex’s spinout from the lead on lap 268, Hamlin was sliding through the infield after Byron's hard contact from behind. When pressed after the race, Byron admitted he intentionally did it, upset about being pushed up against the wall by Hamlin during green-flag laps when they were running just behind the leader.
“He ran me out of room. ... We're lucky we finished,” Byron said. "I went to go show my displeasure. I didn't mean to hit him and spin him out.'
Hamlin stayed alongside with Byron during the caution period, livid because of the position he was losing on the track. Since he couldn’t keep pace after going into the grass, Hamlin restarted about 10 rows deep instead of near the front.
“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution. I tried to wreck him back,” Hamlin said. “Yeah, I don’t think we touched. I got to look. I don’t think we touched. Obviously, he sent us into the infield under caution.”
Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior VP for competition, said officials didn’t see the incident in real time while focused on what caused the caution. He acknowledged that Hamlin could have potentially kept his spot and Byron have been sent to the back of the field. Penalties are still possible when the incident is reviewed.
“By the time we got to a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.
Hamlin almost immediately posted a salty tweet to express his dismay about that.
Elliott was leading just past the halfway mark when he hit the wall, and flames were quickly visible from under the right side of the No. 9 Chevrolet as he got on the frontstretch. He eventually came to a stop in the middle of the infield, where he climbed out uninjured as the car was being engulfed by flames. He finished 32nd.
“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” Elliott said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”
Goodyear and NASCAR officials said there were several teams that didn’t have tire issues. Miller said those teams indicated being conservative on air pressure and “closer to the suggested minimums” recommended by the tire manufacturer.
“Goodyear builds a great tire. This was a great tire that Goodyear built for us,” Childress said. “There's a fine line to push that limit. It wasn't the tire as much as it is trying to be as competitive as you can.”
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