Kyle Busch won the Ticket Galaxy 200 XFINITY Series Chase elimination race at Phoenix International Raceway, but that wasn’t the main storyline of the Saturday night tussle under the lights.
Busch’s domination was so complete – and such a repeat of previous XFINITY races this season – that his victory took a backseat to the drama produced by the drivers battling to keep their 2016 series championship hopes alive.
Eight XFINITY Chase drivers entered the night hopeful of accomplishing that. Only four survived: Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez. Sadler had to hold his breath afterward as NASCAR officials took a close look at how many lug nuts were attached to one of the wheels on his No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.
NASCAR eventually ruled that while Sadler would advance to the Championship 4 at Homestead and be permitted to race for a championship, two lug nuts were determined to be loose and that means Sadler’s crew chief, Kevin Meendering, will be suspended for the title race.
"Two lug nuts off is a large fine and a crew-chief suspension for one race," said Scott Miller, NASCAR’s vice president of competition.
Sadler said Meendering would be missed at Homestead, but that he was happy to be moving on. He said he wasn’t sure who would replace Meendering but suspected it would be Ryan Pemberton, a former crew chief who is now director of competition at JR Motorsports.
"Sometimes when you get in a tough situation and your backs are against the wall, that’s when you rise up and persevere," Sadler said.
Earlier in the night, two Chasers fell out of the championship race within a handful of laps of each other.
First Brendan Gaughan had a tire go down and slammed into the outside wall, ending his night and his Chase.
“That one hurt,” Gaughan told his team over the radio shortly after he hit the wall. He eventually was scored with a 35th-place finish.
Shortly thereafter with 52 laps to go, Chaser Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. made a big move in his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford on a restart, passing several cars and moving up in the field – until fellow Chase Blake Koch, driver of the No. 11, inadvertently turned down on Wallace, wrecking him and several cars behind them both.
“Tell the 11 thanks,” Wallace said sarcastically over his team radio.
Koch admitted it was his fault, telling his own team: “I was behind the 22 (of Brad Keselowski) and didn’t know the 6 was there.”
An emotional Wallace had his late grandmother’s name over his driver’s side door and said he had dedicated the race to her.
"My grandmother was giving me the ride of my life," said Wallace, who finished 32nd. "That was the most fun I have had all year. Just circumstances took us out. It is just hard. Thanks granny, I love you. We will go on to Homestead and let her ride again.”
Of course, he will now go to Homestead without a chance to win the championship. His departure from Saturday night’s race left six Chase drivers battling for the Championship 4 berths, where they will battle each other for the season’s title next Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Blake Koch and Ryan Reed eventually joined Wallace and Gaughan in the group of Round of 8 Chasers who were eliminated when all was said and done, although Koch held onto some hope afterward that he might sneak in if Sadler were to get penalized severely for the lug-nut issue.
"I’ll take getting to Homestead any way I can," said Koch, who finished eighth.
Reed was eliminated despite finishing sixth.
Busch, meanwhile, led 190 of 200 laps and earned his 10th series victory of the season in the series where the Sprint Cup regular runs only part-time. Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Allgaier and Suarez rounded out the top five.
"It means a lot," Busch said of the victory, his 10th in the series in his career at the Phoenix track. "That’s what we set out to do tonight and we’ve been really fast here at Phoenix. We’ve had some great race cars and (crew chief) Chris Gayle and all these guys do such a great job each and every week preparing these things and it’s fun to win here."