While Denny Hamlin’s emphatic victory in the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway has reinvigorated him with confidence amidst his playoff surge, two former NASCAR Cup Series champions have been kicked to the curb after the culmination of the Round of 16: defending champion Joey Logano (2018, 2022) and Kevin Harvick (2014).
RELATED: Joey Logano Reveals the NASCAR Legend who Played a Huge Part of his Early Career
In 11th place in the playoff standing at 12 points above the elimination prior to the start of Saturday's race, Logano had settled into the back of the pack as the final stage of the race began. Running in 12th place on Lap 262, Corey LaJoie in the No. 7 Chevrolet Camaro got loose, lost control and shot down to the apron, and then overcorrected. He careened back up the track in reverse where he smashed into Logano’s left-rear panel. After making his way down to pit road to assess the damage, it was determined the severe impact had crippled Logano’s No. 22 Ford Mustang, officially ending the Team Penske driver’s day.
Photo: Getty Images
Relegated to his 34th-place finish after being unable to collect any additional points, Logano becomes the first defending champion to be eliminated in the postseason’s opening round, according to NASCAR.
“Obviously, it’s a real bummer,” Logano said. “You get out of the race like that, and you’re behind the wall, and you’re in denial for a minute. You don’t want to believe that it happened, and you want to think that it’s fixable, but the car was tore up too bad.”
RELATED: Martin Truex Jr. on the Brink of Making the Wrong Kind of History
For fellow former champion Harvick, his shaky season not only ended with Bristol, but also his career, as the longest-tenured full-time driver in NASCAR’s top flight was always planning on retiring after the 2023 Cup Series playoffs. Unfortunately, Harvick was never able to get into playoff gear, finishing in 19th at Darlington and then 11th at Kansas before finally landing in 29th during the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol.
“I mean we’d been like that all year,” said a frustrated Harvick after being jettisoned from the playoffs by four points. “We just missed by a mile. I’ve had some good days and bad days, but that’s definitely the worst one I’ve had with fenders on it. I didn’t really have many expectations with as up and down as the year has been. It is what it is. It’s probably about what we deserve.”
Photo: Getty Images
After capturing the regular-season championship, Martin Truex Jr. has faltered ever since the Round of 16 began. He finished 18th at Darlington, plummeted to a 36th-place finish at Kansas, thanks to an accident, and barely snagged a playoff spot after skidding to a 19th-place finish at Bristol.
RELATED: Why Chase Elliott Wasn’t Too Happy With Teammate Kyle Larson at Kansas
“We started the race off, I felt okay about it, a little bit too tight,” recounted Truex Jr. after the race. “Then once we lost it, it was just forget about it. ... There just wasn’t a whole lot I could do.”
“All in all, it was just a fighting night,” he added. “We had to fight through it, do the best we could, and it wasn’t pretty, but it was enough. So, now we reset and hopefully not have two terrible weeks in a row like we did this round in the next couple, and [we’ll] be in good shape.”
Photo: Getty Images
Hamlin was greeted with a chorus of boos following his Bristol win, and his employee at Michael Jordan’s 23XI Racing, Bubba Wallace, was rewarded with a similar wave of negativity. Despite the antagonistic crowd, Wallace wears the disdain like a badge of honor.
“Like [U.S. Open tennis champion] Coco Gauff said, ‘All they’re doing is adding fuel to the fire’ — I love it,” said Wallace, who clinched the final playoff spot for the Round of 12, according to NASCAR. “I love where I’m at with this team. Wish my mom, dad, sister were here to celebrate with me.”
“I’m mentally exhausted,” continued Wallace. “I’m wore out. Gave it our all there. Battled hard and executed. That’s what you got to do. We know next week’s a reset. We just got to go out and have some fun, work our asses off. Thank you to the ones that believe in me. Keep it going. Yeah, on to next week.”
The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs cruises into the Round of 12 on Sunday, September 24 with the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400 at Texas Motor Speedway.