For Hendrick Motorsports’ three competitors contending in the Playoffs, it was a night of mixed results for Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron at Richmond Raceway on Saturday, September 12. When the checkered flag flew, Elliott capped off a consistent, quiet run towards the front in the top five and Bowman capped off a strong night in the top 10 as both are in position to transfer to the second round of the postseason. Byron, on the other hand, finished outside the top 20 following a long night mired with tight-handling issues and is scored outside of the cutline approaching next weekend’s first round of eliminations at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Elliott and the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE led by crew chief Alan Gustafson rolled off the grid in 12th place. Following the first five laps of the race, however, Elliott was mired outside the top 10 along with a number of Playoff contenders. After the competition caution period on Lap 30 and a pit stop, he was able to work his way inside the top 10.
Nearly the Lap 40 mark, Elliott was scored in ninth place and he was one of 13 Playoff contenders running inside the top 15. Twenty laps later, on Lap 60, Elliott was still back in ninth place. While engaged in a series of on-track battles with Playoff contenders that included Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Cole Custer and Aric Almirola, Elliott was able to keep his No. 9 Chevrolet in the hunt and well inside the top 10. By the time first stage concluded on Lap 80, Elliott was able to finish in eighth place as he collected a handful of stage points.
Starting in seventh place for the start of the second stage, Elliott continued to run inside the top 10, but he was hungry for more. By Lap 110, Elliott was scored in fifth place after passing teammate Alex Bowman for position. Running as high as fourth place past the Lap 140 mark, he dropped back when he made a scheduled green flag pit stop. Nonetheless, he returned to the track and was able to work his way back into the top 10. At the halfway mark, Lap 200, the Georgia native was scored in seventh place. When the second stage concluded on Lap 235, however, Elliott was able to march his way back into fifth place and collect more stage points.
Restarting in fourth place for the final stage, Elliott kept himself well inside the top 10. Following a pit stop with less than 60 laps remaining under green, he was back in ninth place. He was able to carve his way through the field and cross the finish line in fifth place, the highest-finishing Hendrick Motorsports competitor on the track.
The fifth-place result marked Elliott’s 11th top-five result of the season and a strong rebound from a late incident last weekend at Darlington Raceway with Martin Truex Jr. that cost him a shot at winning the race. With his top-five result, Elliott is in seventh place in the Playoff standings and is 28 points above the top-12 cutline approaching next weekend’s Cup Playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the bottom four contenders in the standings will be eliminated.
“First off, we were way better than we’ve been here, probably ever, so I thought that was a big improvement for us,” Elliott said on NBCSN. “We really needed it here. This has been a really, really tough track for us. I thought we got our NAPA Camaro good, especially through the middle portion. Just got a little behind, I think, as the race went on to roll the center as good as we needed to late in a run. But dang, we were way, way better than we’ve ever been here I feel like before. And consistently all night, too. I thought that was a pretty big step for us at a track that we’ve really struggled at. Just trying to pick apart those fine details. I think we hit on a few of them, certainly not the best but way better than we’ve been here before. I think that’s a big deal for us.”
For Bowman, his night started in fourth place. At the drop of the green flag, Bowman stabilized himself in sixth place. He retained the spot in his No. 88 ChevyGoods.com/Truck Hero Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE when the competition caution flew on Lap 30. Restarting inside the top five, Bowman settled in sixth place and was the highest-running Hendrick Motorsports competitor on the track. When the first stage concluded on Lap 80, Bowman was scored in sixth place as he collected a handful of stage points.
Restarting in fourth place for the start of the second stage, Bowman had a great start as he utilized the outside lane to thunder past Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. for third place. Shortly after, he was overtaken by Truex. As the laps progressed, he was overtaken by a handful of competitors, including teammate Chase Elliott, and fell out of the top five. Pitting under green while running in the top 10 on Lap 158, Bowman was mired back in the top 15. Though he attempted to race his way back into the top 10, he concluded the second stage in 12th place.
Restarting back in the top 10 for the start of the final stage, he dropped back inside the top 15. Though he continued to run inside the top 15 following two pit stops under green, Bowman carved his way back inside the top 10 with 50 laps remaining. For the remainder of the race, he gained one additional spot on the track and crossed the finish line in ninth place.
With his 10th top-10 result of this season, first at Richmond and second in a row in the Playoffs, Bowman and the No. 88 team led by crew chief Greg Ives are in eighth place in the standings, with the Arizona native being 27 points above the top-12 cutline.
“How about that? We ended up top 10 at Richmond,” Bowman said. “That is like a miracle. We had a really good car and definitely better than a ninth-place car. I made my fair share of mistakes and we had some issues getting on and off pit road. We lost some time there. I am pumped for Truck Hero and CHEVYGOODS.com. It is really weird to be this pumped about running ninth, especially when we had a much better car than ninth. Last time we were here we ran, I think, 24th. This is good momentum for us going into the cutoff race next week in Bristol.”
For Byron, the race started off with high expectations as the Charlotte native was set to make his 100th Cup career start while his crew chief, Chad Knaus, was set to call his 700th Cup race. He was also coming off a strong start to this year’s Playoffs at Darlington Raceway, where he finished in fifth place and claimed his third consecutive top-five result in the previous three races, which included his first Cup career win at Daytona International Speedway in August.
Starting in fifth place, Byron settled in seventh place through the first 30 laps of the race and when the competition caution flew. Restarting in seventh place, Byron appeared to have a car capable of recording a strong result until he started to fade. By Lap 70, he was mired back in 14th place. Not long after, he fell back to 16th place as he was dealing with tight conditions to his No. 24 Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. Unable to regain the ground and the positions he lost, Byron settled in 16th place when the first stage concluded on Lap 80.
Restarting at the bottom half of the top 20 for the second stage, Byron slowly worked his way up to the top 15 past the Lap 100 mark. Nearly 20 laps later, however, he was mired back in 21st place and he continued to endure difficulties with the tight handling of his car. Though a number of competitors pitted under green as the green flag run progressed, he too pitted and dropped out of the top 20. When the second stage concluded on Lap 235, Byron could only work his way up to 23rd place in the running order. By then, he was also a lap behind the leaders.
Scored just outside the top 20 for the start of the final stage, Byron worked his way up as high as 18th place. He could not, however, overcome the difficulties with the handling of his No. 24 car. By the time the checkered flag flew, Byron was scored back in 21st place in the final order and was two laps behind the leaders. Byron’s 21st-place result marked his worst finish since finishing 28th in the first of two Cup Dover International Speedway races in August.
With his result, Byron, who came into Richmond with a nine-point cushion, is three points below the top-12 cutline with the final transfer spot being occupied by Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer, who finished in 10th place. In addition, Byron, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney are left on the outside entering next weekend’s Round of 16 finale at Bristol.
“We knew pretty early on in the race that we were in trouble,” Byron said in a post-race video conference. “I think we lost 10 spots in 10 laps, it felt like. When you’re in that position, you just try to change it up as a driver, try to do different things, move your brake levers, stuff like that. I think going to Bristol, it’s a track that we can have a good setup at and I think we’ve ran decent there in the past. We can, hopefully, look at that.”
Bowman, Byron and Elliott, along with their fellow Playoff contenders, will return for the next scheduled NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, September 19, which will air at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.