That closing image capped a sloppy Sunday in scorching temperatures at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Chase Elliott won despite crashing head-on into a tire barrier earlier on the roval. Elliott was leading on a restart headed into the first turn when he locked his brakes and his car drove directly off the course and crashed into the makeshift wall.
“I couldn’t believe I did that. That was just so stupid,” Elliott said. “I don’t know that you could have done anything more stupid leading this race than what I did right there. Luckily our car wasn’t too bad ... fast enough to drive up through there, got the cautions at the right time, and just didn’t quit.
“If there’s ever a lesson to not quit, today was the example.”
Elliott celebrated by returning to the corner where he’d wrecked earlier and placing the nose against the barrier before smoking his tires.
“I was coming back and saw that dang thing and thought I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to redeem myself,” Elliott said of his celebration.
The winner, though, was not the spotlight in NASCAR’s first elimination race of the playoffs.
The focus was on the four drivers who would be trimmed from the 16-driver championship field, and Bowman spent the entire race fighting for a spot in the second round. He crashed his car in the final moments of Saturday practice and had to go to a backup, spun in the opening laps Sunday, deliberately spun Wallace in anger, and had to claw his way to a second-place finish.
But the 1-2 finish for Hendrick Motorsports was no guarantee Bowman would advance. Ryan Newman, further back in the field, had the points advantage on Bowman and Bowman had no control of his own fate.
Then Newman, racing Aric Almirola over the final few laps for a shot at advancing, missed a chicane with two laps remaining and the error eliminated him from the playoffs.
“I felt like I made a lot of mistakes trying too hard,” said Newman, who also stalled his Ford during a pit stop. “We did not have the race car and that’s what I had to do.”
The points difference swung to Bowman, who couldn’t celebrate because he needed immediate medical attention. While Bowman was slumped next to his car and surrounded by medical personnel, Wallace approached him, the two had a brief verbal exchange, and Bowman appeared to laugh at Wallace right before Wallace angrily splashed the bottle he was carrying in Bowman’s face.
Bowman, who was treated in the infield care center for dehydration, said he spun Wallace for flipping his middle finger at him repeatedly on track.
“I got flipped off for every single straightaway for three laps, flipped off by him for like three or four laps in a row at Richmond, so I’m just over it. He probably wouldn’t have got wrecked if he had his finger back in the car, right?” Bowman said. “Probably shouldn’t repeat what he said to me, but nothing classy, by any means. I get it. I’d be mad, too, but he put himself in that spot.”
It was a messy day on the hybrid road course/oval at Charlotte, where the title chances ended for Newman, Almirola, Kurt Busch and Erik Jones.
A late caution led NASCAR to stop the race for a cleanup and the drivers had to sit inside their cockpits, where temperatures hovered around 120 degrees. NASCAR officials went car to car handing out water bottles, and Newman was among the many who radioed their crew asking for bags of ice to be waiting for him when the race ended.
Kyle Busch decided he wasn’t going to sit in the heat and drove his car to the garage, calling it a race with seven laps remaining. He was three laps down at the time and already locked into the second round of the playoffs.
Kevin Harvick finished third, followed by Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer, who was in danger of being eliminated from the playoffs but advanced with his fourth-place finish.
Brad Keselowski was fifth ahead of polesitter William Byron, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney. Playoff drivers claimed the top eight spots.
Jones was in a must-win situation to advance in the playoffs, but he went to the garage with damage to his Toyota at the end of the first stage and finished last.
The track, typically a standard NASCAR oval, was modified for this playoff race for the second straight year into a 17-turn, 2.28-mile circuit using both the road course through the infield and the oval. The twists and turns are marked with chicanes on the backstretch and frontstretch to slow the cars and, potentially, increase passing on the oval portion of the track. An added wrinkle from last year was an overhauled backstretch chicane revamped to make it a braking and passing zone.
The opening race of the Round 2 of the playoffs, Sunday at Dover International Speedway. Elliott won last year.