NASCAR's first playoff elimination race was briefly paused by rain Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The stoppage of nearly 15 minutes came at the start of the second stage in the the third and final race of the first round of NASCAR's playoffs. Four drivers will be eliminated from the 16-driver championship field when the checkered flag falls.
Martin Truex Jr., the regular-season champion, was below the cutline and in danger of elimination along with Bubba Wallace, Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell.
Wallace had 23XI Racing co-owner Michael Jordan watching from his pit stand at the start of the second stage, when NASCAR hit the brakes and called the cars to pit road because of a steady drizzle. The race started one hour earlier than originally planned because of the poor forecast; NASCAR only has to get to halfway — 250 laps — for the race to be official.
The rain stoppage came with 138 laps down and pole-sitter Christopher Bell leading. Kyle Larson, who along with Tyler Reddick have already earned automatic berths into the second round, was running second at the time of the stoppage.
It was an amazing recovery for Larson, who was penalized for running over equipment on pit lane that earned him a penalty that dropped him to 33rd.
Denny Hamlin had his own decent comeback from 30th to 11th when he was flagged for speeding on the same stop that Larson was penalized. Hamlin had run the bulk of the first stage comfortable on Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bell's bumper, but was once again caught speeding on the first round of stops.
Speeding on pit road has been an ongoing issue for Hamlin over the years. But, he started the race ranked third in the standings with a very strong shot at advancing into the next round.
SMITH TO SPIRE
Two new Cup drivers were announced at Bristol this weekend, with Kaulig Racing first promoting Daniel Hemric into one of its two seats next year. Trackhouse Racing then said it has signed Truck Series champion Zane Smith to a multi-year contract and will loan him to Spire Motorsports in 2024.
Trackhouse eventually plans to run three full-time cars, but isn't ready to do so next season; Spire will put Smith in a third car and bought the charter needed to do so from Live Fast Motorsports.
Smith is trying to win a second consecutive Truck Series title before his move to NASCAR's top series. He'll be teammates at Spire with Corey LaJoie, who this summer signed an extension with Spire, but the rest of the lineup and Smith's number is still to be determined. Spire fields two cars right now with LaJoie and Ty Dillon.
NASCAR opens the second round of the playoffs next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, which has only one Cup race this year for the first time since 2004. Tyler Reddick won the race a year ago driving for Richard Childress Racing.
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