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AUTO RACING COMMENTARY

KERRY THARP: Second round of Cup playoffs begin with plenty of unknowns

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As the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs get underway this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, one thing is certain:

The unpredictability of the 2022 Cup Series season continues to provide plenty of drama and compelling storylines.

Chris Buescher became the 19th different race winner and third straight non-playoff winner last Saturday night when he took the checkered flag at Bristol Motor Speedway. Buescher’s win is his first since a weather-shortened victory at Pocono Raceway in 2016 and the outcome resulted in a troublesome evening for drivers below the cutline that needed to win to advance.

The 19 unique winners ties the single season record previously set in 2001. Buescher’s unlikely victory continues the trend that started in the playoff opener earlier this month in Darlington Raceway when Erik Jones captured the victory in the 73rd running of the Cook Out Southern 500.

Bubba Wallace followed it up the next week by winning at Kansas Speedway. The fact that no playoff driver has won through the opening round is unheard of and has never happened since this current playoff format was adopted prior to the 2014 season.

Four drivers were eliminated from championship contention following last Saturday’s event at Bristol. Former two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch suffered two engine failures in the opening round and did not advance to the Round of 12. Former Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick, who appeared to have some momentum heading into the playoffs following a pair of late season victories, also failed to move on. Richard Childress Racing teammates Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick were the other two drivers that wound up below the cut line.

The field for the Round of 12 has now been set and includes: Christopher Bell and Denny Hamlin from Joe Gibbs Racing; William Byron, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman from Hendrick Motorsports; Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Trackhouse Racing; Chase Briscoe from Stewart-Haas Racing and Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, and rookie Austin Cindric from Team Penske.

Speaking of Richard Childress Racing, that organization made a big splash Sept. 13 when it announced the signing of Kyle Busch to a multi-year contract. Busch, who has spent the last 15 years driving a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, will be driving the No. 8 car in 2023 for RCR’s Chevrolet-branded team.

“This is probably one of the biggest decisions of my life; my career,” Busch said upon the announcement. “I’m thankful to Joe (Gibbs) for allowing me to be a kid and grow into a man. Most days. Most of the time … Coach you had my back when I needed it the most and I thank you for that.”

“The addition of Kyle Busch to the Richard Childress Racing lineup is significant, not only for our organization, but for the sport as a whole,” said Childress. “Kyle is a proven contender at the highest levels of our sport, and I believe his experience and dedication will elevate our race program across the board. I’ve always admired Kyle’s driving style and his ability to win and race for championships ever since he entered the sport. Who wouldn’t want a proven NASCAR Cup Series champion driving their car?”

With Busch’s move to RCR, that leaves some unknowns out there for the 2023 season. Reddick, who announced earlier this year that he would be moving on to the 23XI team in 2024, will either be driving for RCR during the final year of his contract, or he could possibly move on to his new team a year early if Kurt Busch decides to step away from the sport due to lingering symptoms he has had following a concussion. Stay tuned, as this part of the NASCAR season usually provides us with plenty to ponder and talk about.

This Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway marks the first in the Round of 12. The always exhilarating Talladega Superspeedway looms next on the schedule, while the Charlotte Roval will be the cut off race leading into the Round of 8.

Darlington Raceway received some great news last week when the 2023 NASCAR schedule was announced. For the third consecutive year, Darlington will host two major NASCAR events. The highly popular Official Throwback Weekend of NASCAR will be celebrated May 12-14 with all three national series competing at the track Too Tough to Tame.

The 74th running of the Cook Out Southern 500 highlights the Labor Day weekend, Sept. 1-3, with both the Cup Series and Xfinity Series on the schedule.

Fans can secure their tickets and camping for both events by visiting www.darlingtonraceway.com or calling 866-459-7223. 2023 marks the 75th Anniversary of NASCAR so fans won’t want to miss all the action and excitement that will take place at the Lady in Black.

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