Heading into Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson sat squarely on the bubble in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings.
Johnson was in the last transfer spot into the next round of the playoffs, just seven points ahead of Busch for eighth, with Matt Kenseth stalking in tenth just eight points behind.
The bubble was shifted early, when Kyle Larson’s engine issues eventually blew up in smoke on lap 78, pushing him outside of the cut line.
With nine out of the ten drivers earning stage points, Kenseth missed out on an early opportunity to gain points, only earning two points for his ninth place finish in stage one.
With Busch running at the front of the field and appearing to be set up for a good day, the bubble drama was focused on Johnson and Kenseth, as both began stage two fighting for the last playoff spot.
Things suddenly took a turn for the worst for Johnson.
On lap 188, his No. 48 Chevrolet broke loose coming off of turn four and slid through the infield grass. Fortunately for Johnson, major damage was avoided, and the soggy Kansas infield did not destroy his race car like other drivers had previously experienced.
However, the pressure was still on his team to fix the car, return to the track and meet minimum speed while on a five-minute clock to remain in the race under NASCAR’s new damaged vehicle rule.
On the ensuing restart Johnson spun again in turn three, but avoided damage. Johnson’s team went back to work at repairing the car, while the five-minute clock rolled on.
“We fought the balance all day,” Johnson said to NBC after the race. “The car would swing so hard from start of the run until the end.”
Then on the next restart Johnson caught a break. He navigated through an 11-car crash on the back straightaway, one that involved playoff contenders Kenseth and Jamie McMurray.
Kenseth then fell victim to the NASCAR’s damaged vehicle policy, when seven crew members went over the wall to repair the car while on the repair clock, instead of the allowed six.
“Honestly, I’ve never heard of disqualifying somebody from the race if you’ve got one too many people over the wall,” Kenseth said. “It’s a pretty disappointing way to end.”
The infraction disqualified Kenseth from the rest of the race and effectively ended his hopes of advancing.
But Kenseth’s mistake was Johnson’s break.
“Things really changed for us down the back straightway with that wreck,” Johnson said. “Somehow I went through there at a high rate of speed and missed everybody. I don’t know how.”
With Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also involved in an earlier accident, all four of the drivers below the cut line were no longer on the track with just 67 laps remaining.
This resulted in a fairly drama-free final stretch, as the remaining playoff contenders basically only needed to finish the race to advance to the next round.
“Fortunately, our situation today was that we had to race guys that ended up crashing out,” said Busch after the race. “I would have liked to race it heads up and that might have been a different situation.”
Johnson needed a finish of 19th or better to make the next round, and his crew managed to repair the car enough to earn an eleventh-place finish.
“It wasn’t a pretty day, but we got it done,” Johnson said.
Busch appeared to be in position to challenge for the win until a late race caution during the final pit cycle trapped him a lap down.
“Obviously that caution came out and it bit us and got us behind,” said Busch.
Busch rebounded by taking the wave-around to get back on the lead lap and manage a tenth-place finish to advance to the next round.