There was quality racing with battles for the lead, contact in close quarters, and a last-gasp video game move. There was a breakthrough win by Denny Hamlin and a fine for teammate Kyle Busch, who showed no mercy for orange safety cones.
There were mistakes upon mistakes by championship teams, and crashes that led to early point deficits. A rogue left-rear tire took down Kurt Busch. Interviews with expletives was punched twice on the bingo card.
There were bent fenders and hurt feelings. A “temper tantrum” by the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, Kevin Harvick went as far as to say. Harvick even provided a Hulk-like helmet smash.
Four drivers were eliminated from the playoffs in what somehow seemed a secondary storyline to everything else that happened over the last three weeks. A track described as a Tennessee bullring was a fitting place for a wild Saturday night showdown to end to a wild Round of 16.
It may have been the most entertaining first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs under the elimination-style format. Instead of being an easy warm-up round for the top contenders like Kyle Busch thought it would be, the stress levels seemed at an all-time high. It was fun to watch, and made for a tight battle to advance that came down to the wire.
Three different drivers won the first three races. Hamlin finally got the win that eluded him through the first 26 races, although it was somewhat overshadowed by Kyle Larson going full send in the final two corners. Martin Truex Jr. won at Richmond in Week 2, and for a driver who didn’t win on a short track for the first time until 2019, six of his last 12 wins have come on tracks less than one mile.
With Joe Gibbs Racing starting two-for-two, it felt like the tides were turning in the championship fight, but back came Larson at Bristol. It marks Larson’s sixth win of the year as he continues toward setting career-highs in every statistical category. Granted, that win came with an assist from teammate Chase Elliott, but a win is a win, and Larson is quickly adding to his list of Cup Series accomplishments.
Speaking of Bristol, it put on three compelling races. It looked like the Bristol of old with action from corner to corner, showcasing why it is one of the best short tracks on the schedule.
Each race brought multiple storylines, and no playoff driver had a clean three weeks. It cost Kurt Busch and Michael McDowell, two of the drivers eliminated. On the other hand, Tyler Reddick and Aric Almirola simply didn’t perform at the level needed to advance.
Hendrick Motorsports entered the postseason as the organization to watch with 11 wins from its four drivers. Its dominance was the headline of the regular season, and considering no team owner has seen all four of their drivers qualify for the championship race, the chatter quickly shifted to whether Rick Hendrick could do so this year. Nearly losing two drivers in the first round was never a thought.
There was always something going on in the first round. In a sport with such a long season and track-specific aero packages, that doesn’t always happen. Neither does having three consecutive races without much complaining about something afterward.
All this happening in the first round is rarer still. The Round of 16 is often a formality, the start of weeding out the drivers and teams that were championship longshots anyway. Usually, it takes a few weeks before the drama starts.
The playoffs still have a long way to go and a lot more to throw at teams; it just started early this year. Never has the first round been as tense and enjoyable as it was this time around.