CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — AJ Allmendinger isn’t racing for a NASCAR championship and knew very well that Kyle Busch’s entire season rested on the outcome of Sunday’s playoff elimination race.
Busch could only stave off elimination by winning on The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Allmendinger figured he knows Busch well enough that Busch would understand if Allmendinger raced for the win.
Allmendinger spoiled NASCAR’s playoffs by refusing to cede track position even though he’s not part of the championship field. Back in the Cup Series full-time for the first time since 2018, Allmendinger led 46 laps for Kaulig Racing to win for the first time in NASCAR’s top series since Indianapolis in 2021.
“I knew Kyle had to win. I kept looking up at the board to see where he was points-wise,” Allmendinger said. “Kyle has been fantastic to me my whole career. I knew he was going to race hard. I knew what he was racing for.”
Allmendinger, who became a father within the past month, was sobbing when he collected the checkered flag.
“Because you don’t know when you are going to do it again,” cried Allmendinger, who turns 42 in December. He said he normally gives the checkered flag away to a fan but was keeping Sunday’s flag for his newborn son.
“That was probably the drive of my life,” he said later.
Allmendinger then went into the stands to pose for selfies with the fans chanting his name. It was the third Cup Series win for Allmendinger, who has raced across 16 Cup seasons but took a mental health break from NASCAR’s top series in 2019 and 2020.
Kaulig slowly lured him back with five Cup races in 2021, all the way to this year’s full season in Kaulig’s second year fielding cars at the elite level.
“I hate crying right now, but it’s a freaking Cup race, man. You don’t know when it’s ever going to happen again,” Allmendinger said. “This is why you do it. This is the only reason you do it. You fight. All the blood, sweat, tears. It’s our second year in the Cup Series.”
Allmendinger won four consecutive Xfinity Series races on the hybrid road course/oval but wasn’t entered Saturday for Kaulig because he’s already exhausted his allotted five starts in the second-tier series. Allmendinger won twice this year in the Xfinity Series, and it’s unclear if he’ll be in the Cup Series or return to Xfinity next year.
Either way, his win was pivotal in the playoff elimination of Busch, the two-time series champion who had to win Sunday to advance to the round of eight. Busch gave it a few tries but couldn’t get into second place — William Byron finished second — and Busch settled for third.
Busch was uncharacteristically optimistic after elimination and said he’ll try to win each of the final four races.
“I would love to be the spoiler. That would be fun,” Busch said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we’ll keep building.”
Also eliminated was Ross Chastain, last year’s title runner-up, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski and Bubba Wallace, whose first playoff appearance ended in the round of 12 on his 30th birthday with 23XI Racing co-owner Michael Jordan watching from Wallace’s pit stand.
“We weren’t supposed to be here, according to a lot of people, but we proved them wrong and then proved a lot of people in the garage wrong that you can’t really count on the 23 at a road course race,” said Wallace, who finished 16th. “Got to continue to work. I don’t think we’re a winning car yet, but we’re light-years from where we were a few races ago.”
It was a brutal day for Chevrolet, which lost both popular Chastain of Trackhouse Racing and a resurgent Busch, who won three times in his first season driving for Richard Childress Racing. He’s been a boost to the organization, which won its last championship in 1994 with the late Dale Earnhardt.
“First year at RCR, means a lot to me for Richard having me and for the Chevy guys having me, everybody, to get this far,” Busch said. “Rides on me to get to the next round, so I’ve just got to do a better job.”
Keselowski knocked a Ford team out, while Toyota lost a championship chance with Wallace.
The remaining eight drivers in the championship race are led by Byron and Ryan Blaney, who both won in the three-race round of 12 to earn automatic berths into the next three races.
Denny Hamlin advanced in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, as did Tyler Reddick, who drives for Hamlin and Jordan at 23XI Racing. Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr., the regular season champion, advanced with Hamlin for Gibbs to get three cars through.
Kyle Larson drove a backup car to a 13th-place finish to join Byron, who has a series-best six wins this season, representing Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet in the next round. Larson crashed in Saturday practice and Hendrick Motorsports, which is located about a mile from the speedway, had to work into the night to get a car through Sunday morning inspection.
Ford has Blaney of Team Penske and Chris Buescher of RFK Racing, which didn’t advance Keselowski through but still has one driver racing for the championship.
Hamlin had already locked himself into the round of eight earlier in the race via stage points, so his last-place finish Sunday was irrelevant.
“We’ve already shifted our focus to Vegas and we’ll see what we can do there,” Hamlin said. “Really optimistic for the next three weeks.”
The round of eight of NASCAR’s playoffs opens Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Joey Logano is the defending race winner and Byron scored his first win of the season at Las Vegas in March.