In a season of 9,483 laps at 36 races in 20 states, some laps matter more than others. Here’s a look at five such rounds in the Cup this year.
1st lap 250 at Bristol Dirt in April
Kyle Busch won after Chase Briscoe hit Tyler Reddick, spinning both Briscoe and Reddick on the final lap of the race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Busch, who was by far in third place, drove past. It was the only lap he led in that race.
The win would be Busch’s only win in his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing. At the time, no one could have known what would happen to Busch.
Had Reddick won that race, those five playoff points would have been enough for him to advance to the second round of the playoffs. Without the Bristol win, he lost two points from progressing. That’s important because Reddick won in Texas, the opening race of round two. That would have put him in the third round.
Had Reddick won – or even if Briscoe had pulled off the maneuver – Busch would not have made the playoffs.
The season would get worse for Busch. A sponsor pulled out to take charge of the #18 car, with Mars, Inc. departing after the season. Joe Gibbs Racing and Busch could not agree to keep the two-time cup champion in the team. Busch’s 15-year run with JGR would come to an end.
His playoff run didn’t last long after two engine failures on the first lap made the two-time Cup Champion one of the top four eliminated from the title fight.
When the 2023 season begins, Busch will be in the #8 car at Richard Childress Racing, taking over from Reddick, who is moving to 23XI Racing.
2. Lap 124 at Dover in May
Denny Hamlin led 67 of the first 123 laps and felt he had the best car that day and would have won the race.
He didn’t because his race started to unravel after winning stage one.
Hamlin entered pit lane in the lead and was the first off pit lane, but his front left wheel came off – a four-week suspension for his crew chief and two pit crew members.
He had to return to the pits to get a new tire, which put him in 29th place. It took him about 100 laps to get back in the top five.
Then trouble struck again. Fourth on lap 242, Hamlin couldn’t avoid Cody Ware’s spinning car.
Hamlin was penalized on lap 326 for speeding on the pit lane. Instead of having a chance to win, he finished 21st.
While one can talk about the five playoff points Hamlin lost for his disqualification at Pocono, it’s the five playoff points he could have scored at Dover that gave him a seven-point lead in Martinsville in the final round on Ross Chastain could have gotten the playoffs. Hamlin would have advanced to the championship race with those five playoff points from Dover.
3rd round 293 in Nashville in June
Chase Elliott was leading when eight laps from the end of the race he was cautioned for Josh Bilicki’s engine failure.
When the pit lane opened, Elliott fell by the wayside. Kyle Busch, who finished second, pitted. Denny Hamlin, who finished third, pitted. Martin Truex Jr., who finished fourth, pitted.
Errors caused Hamlin and Truex to pit.
Hamlin’s team boss, Chris Gabehart, served the final race in his four-race suspension for the wheel that came off the No. 11 car at Dover and was absent from Nashville. Engineer Sam McAuley served as crew chief.
Gabehart and two members of the pit crew were initially suspended for four races, including the non-points All-Star race. He would have returned in Nashville, but Joe Gibbs Racing appealed the penalty. The Appellate Body changed the penalty and placed the four points race ban. That meant Gabehart had to miss Nashville.
The plan for Hamlin was to stay out if he could get a front row seat to restart. But before Hamlin approached pit lane, McAuley incorrectly said to only stay out if he could take the lead. With Elliott staying out that wasn’t possible so Hamlin came into the pits.
Crew chief James Small told Truex to stay out if he could get a front row seat to restart. With Busch and Hamlin, that would have put Truex in the front row with Elliott. But Truex went into the box.
All Truex could do was apologize.
Busch was the first car out of the pit lane and only changed two tires. He restarted in 12th.
“It’s going to be bad,” Busch said over the radio.
Hamlin and Truex took four tires each and started further back. Hamlin was sixth while Busch was 21st and Truex 22nd.
Truex, who could have started on the front row for the last restart, never got the win he needed for the playoffs.
4. Round 138 at Daytona in August
Austin Dillon, who needed to win to reach the playoffs, was 16th as the field approached Turn 1 on lap 138 at Daytona under threatening skies.
Suddenly, cars began to slide and collided, losing traction on the wet track.
Dillon, running in the bottom lane, slowed and followed Bubba Wallace onto the apron. Harrison Burton and Ty Dillon fell in front of Wallace.
Ty Dillon and Burton’s cars moved off the apron while Wallace slid onto the grass. This provided Austin Dillon with a lane to slip through and take the lead (as seen in the video clip from his car).
Martin Truex Jr., trying to make the playoffs, was picked up and had damage to his car.
After a rain delay of 3 hours, 19 minutes and 57 seconds, the race resumed. With 16 laps to go, the green beckoned and Austin Cindric took the lead. He held it until three laps from the end when Austin Dillon crashed into the back of his car at Turn 1 and took the lead.
Dillon’s teammate Tyler Reddick moved up to second place. Austin Dillon won unchallenged, bringing both Richard Childress Racing cars into the playoffs. His win prevented Truex from making the playoffs.
One of the biggest impacts of this was that NASCAR officials issued a warning more quickly, even in light rain. It happened the following week in the playoff opener in Darlington and the second round race in Texas.
5. Round 500 at Martinsville in October
What’s to say about NASCAR’s craziest lap run this season?
Ross Chastain had to pass two cars on the final lap to advance to the championship race and shifted his car into fifth gear on the backstretch, slammed his Chevrolet against the wall, took his hands off the wheel and let the wall guide his vehicle around the last quarter mile, while going full throttle.
And it worked.
He overtook five cars to make the championship race.
But the biggest impact of this round was on social media. The video of Chastain’s move had more than 11 million views on NASCAR’s Twitter account on NBC. The video of it on the NASCAR on NBC TikTok account had more than 12 million views. Aside from the Olympics, the only other video to get more views on NBC Sports’ TikTok account this year was Rich Strike’s historic win in the Kentucky Derby.
Even an hour after his remarkable step, Chastain was still trying to comprehend what he had done.
“It sinks in that we’ve done something nobody’s ever done,” Chastain said.
While NASCAR hasn’t created a rule to prevent such a move, series officials are expected to look into it ahead of next season.