Once again, the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season was sidetracked with an off-track news story before cars even fired their engines this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Kurt Busch, injured during a qualifying run at Pocono Raceway back in July, held a press conference to announce his retirement, at 44 years old, from full-time competition prior to Sunday’s South Point 400.
“My long-term health is priority number one,” Busch said in an emotional opening statement. “I don’t feel committing at this point to compete for a championship next year is in my best interest, or the best interest of the team.”
Just like that, safety was front and center yet again in NASCAR conversation. A future Hall of Famer went from a dark horse championship contender earlier this summer to stepping back from the driver’s seat sooner than originally planned. To fill Busch’s spot, Tyler Reddick’s contract was bought out at Richard Childress Racing and he’ll be driving for 23XI Racing’s No. 45 Toyota a year early.
NASCAR had yet another closed-door meeting with drivers about the issue at LVMS, ongoing conversations they expect to continue long into the offseason. But it’s clear they badly need a safe, competitive event at this 1.5-mile oval Sunday to put everyone’s minds back on the actual racing.
Can the Round of 8 deliver when it comes to on-track drama? Other than perhaps Chase Elliott, the remaining title contenders are pretty evenly matched. Let’s take a closer look at who’s left.
Hendrick Motorsports (Chase Elliott, William Byron): Elliott remains the odds-on favorite, starting this round with a 31-point edge on the cut line due to a season-high five wins. Elliott’s strong track record at Martinsville, where he won the pole this spring, will make him hard to TKO before the Phoenix Raceway finale.
As for Byron? He won the last Martinsville race, along with the last event held at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2021. It puts him in solid position to win in this round, an unlikely Championship 4 candidate after a NASCAR appeals panel wiped out a 25-point penalty for intentionally spinning Denny Hamlin that would have kept him from advancing.
Joe Gibbs Racing (Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell): Hamlin starts Las Vegas behind the eight ball after qualifying a disappointing 31st. But he’s seeking a fourth straight Championship 4 appearance and the veteran, at age 41, has a proven track record of handling the pressure in this round.
Bell, meanwhile, is a bit of a wild card after a shocking victory at Charlotte put him through to the Round of 8. It’s the furthest he’s ever been in the postseason but three straight top-5 finishes earlier in these playoffs have led to hope he’ll have what it takes to advance.
Team Penske (Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney): Logano is one of two former champions left (joining Elliott) but hasn’t won since World Wide Technology Raceway back in June. Blaney hasn’t won a points-paying event this year, period. They’ll be hard-pressed to squeak through in a round where you may need a trip to victory lane in order to make it.
Trackhouse Racing Team (Ross Chastain): Chastain’s run at Vegas this weekend is crucial; he was third, the highest performing of all the championship contenders, back in March. But Trackhouse has shown its playoff inexperience, running into mechanical problems with two of its cars last weekend, and may have reached its max potential for 2022.
Stewart-Haas Racing (Chase Briscoe): Briscoe’s just happy to be here after a wild series of circumstances put him in the field over Larson. After a wild few days that included a $100,000 fine and 50-point deduction levied to teammate Cole Custer, accused of slowing down on the last lap at Charlotte to help Briscoe get in, there may be too much drama around this longshot.
That said… if Briscoe somehow gets to Phoenix, watch out! He won the last Cup race held there back in March.
Expect one of the eight contenders to emerge victorious at LVMS, a swing back toward the sport’s top tier after so many non-playoff drivers stole the spotlight. Which one will find themselves punching an automatic ticket to the Championship 4?
South Point 400
Date: Sunday, Oct. 16
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Christopher Bell
Bell can thank a billboard – yes, a billboard – for salvaging his playoff spot. A late caution for a sign falling on the track caused Bell to head down pit road for fresh tires, putting him in position to capitalize during two banzai restarts more reminiscent of "Mario Kart" than an actual race.
As driver after driver banged into each other ahead of him, Bell took advantage, surging through traffic to take the victory after restarting 12th.
“I keep watching all these races where the fastest car doesn’t always win,” he said. “We were just there at the right time … we rolled the dice, gambled, it paid off for us.”
Who's at the Back: Kyle Larson
Larson’s bid for back-to-back titles derailed after making a mistake at Charlotte and hitting the wall. It was his seventh finish of 30th or worse this season, the only one that didn’t lead to a DNF; Larson had three such finishes that year en route to his first-ever championship.
“I made way too many mistakes this whole year,” he said Sunday. “You can’t win a championship like that.”
Kurt Busch's retirement took center stage Saturday… but the 2004 Cup Series champ insisted he wasn't done racing altogether. Busch claimed during his press conference he’d like to come back for NASCAR races here and there when healthy, later claiming “we’re going to have some fun with some other things all around the world, in NASCAR, all over. And again, just stay along for the journey.”
Tony Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing are livid over penalties assessed to Cole Custer. Custer’s team lost 50 owner points, Custer lost 50 driver points, and crew chief Mike Shiplett was suspended indefinitely and fined $100,000 for actions at the Charlotte ROVAL. Officials feel they have evidence to show Custer slowed intentionally in front of Austin Dillon on the backstretch, allowing Chase Briscoe’s No. 14 to pass both cars on the final lap. Briscoe wound up advancing into the next round by just two points over Larson but would have still won a tiebreaker between them.
“We can’t have teams manipulating the finishing order,” said NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller, a statement than angered most within SHR, including its co-owner.
“If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve got a couple of appearances that I have to make,” Stewart said, “I wouldn’t be in another NASCAR race the rest of the year. Wouldn’t waste my time.”
SHR is appealing this decision while dropping a separate appeal of a 100-point penalty assessed to Kevin Harvick’s team for modifying a single-source Next Gen part.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Drivers making their first playoff appearance still in contention for the 2022 Cup championship (Ross Chastain, Chase Briscoe).
Lead changes total during six Cup road course races this season. By comparison, the Talladega race alone had 57 lead changes.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Chastain’s third-place finish at Vegas in March is all you need to know. If the No. 1 team has any hope of advancing to Phoenix, they need a solid run at this 1.5-mile oval, and an 11th-place starting spot for Sunday shows they have what it takes to race near the front. Expect plenty of fastest-lap bonuses here.
One other place you can make up ground in fantasy? Position differential. That makes Denny Hamlin and his 31st-place qualifying run an attractive proposition. Hamlin had a mechanical problem here back in March, ruining a streak of three straight top-4 finishes at LVMS. A similar run would lead to a gain of over 25 starting spots, producing extra bonus points that could make or break your roster.
It’s not often I recommend sticking with the pole sitter. It’s just too hard to ignore Tyler Reddick’s recent strength in the playoffs. Leading 102 laps in the last three races alone, Reddick won the last intermediate race held at Texas Motor Speedway and could have won at least 1-2 others at this track type in 2022.
Remember Martin Truex Jr.? It’s been a nightmare of a season for a driver still yet to win this year. But the No. 19 Toyota driver still has some quality runs on this track type and Vegas has been plenty good to him (two wins, plus an eighth-place finish back in March). A 27th-place starting spot could lead to plenty of upside if Truex is able to work his way through traffic.