CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Kyle Busch, leading a race he had to win, not once believed he was driving toward a season-saving victory. He doesn’t even think he can get to victory lane this year.
“Do we even have a shot to win? I don’t think we have a shot," Busch said after he was eliminated from the playoffs Sunday.
NASCAR will crown a new champion this year and the worst season of Busch’s career extended to mark the earliest the reigning Cup champion has been eliminated since the format debuted in 2014.
Chase Elliott won on the hybrid road course-oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Busch and three others were trimmed from title contention. It was Elliott's fourth straight road course victory dating to last season.
Elliott is in the round of eight for the fourth consecutive year and still seeking his first appearance in the championship final four.
“We've been fortunate to get to the round of eight the last couple years, that's kind of been the stopping point,” Elliott said. “We're just eyes ahead trying to assert ourselves amongst the next group.”
Busch, meanwhile, won't be in the title-deciding finale for the first time in six years. He needed his first win of the season to advance, a tall ask in this bumpy year. He seemed good as done when a flat tire at the end of the second stage should have ended his chances.
He seemed resigned when he keyed his mic and said, “Good job this year, guys,” to his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing crew. He still somehow recovered and was third when he gambled on not pitting to take over the lead.
His fate was in his hands but Busch knew he didn't have a chance.
“We were trying something, anything,” Busch said. “I didn’t have anything for nobody.”
Busch led just one lap after the restart before both teammate Erik Jones and Elliott passed him and then his Toyota began to fade. Busch finished 30th. There are only four races remaining for him to extend his streak to 16 consecutive seasons with at least one victory.
He acknowledged the mental toll of this disappointing year and didn't rule out personnel changes for his team.
“There have certainly been times this year were I’ve thought, ‘Man, there was something wrong with me. I’m not doing it right, I don't know what I'm doing,'" Busch said. “I don’t know what to think, but certainly it would be nice to score a win. To have a win for this year, that would be the consolation prize for the way this year has gone."
Austin Dillon in a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, and Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola in Fords also were eliminated. Bowyer, who this week said he's retiring at the end of the season and will move to the television booth, was treated for exhaustion after driving the second half of the race without power steering.
Elliott, meanwhile, won for the second consecutive year at “The Roval” and third time this season. It's his second win this season at Charlotte — he won on the oval in May when NASCAR resumed racing during the pandemic.
Elliott will try to take that momentum into the round of eight, which he advanced to for the fourth-straight year. Elliott has never made it to the championship finale.
“Best way to get into the next round is to win,” Elliott said. “Looking forward to the opportunity and looking to make some noise.”
Elliott advanced along with Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch, who won the first two races of the second round, along with Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Alex Bowman.
Bowman battled anxiety through the race as he worried Kyle Busch would win and bump him from the playoffs. When Busch didn't pit, Bowman nervously asked his Hendrick Motorsports team if he was about to be eliminated.
“You come to the Roval, stressful. It’s a cutoff week, stressful. You’re surrounded in points by champions of the sport, extra stressful,” Bowman said. "You’re trying to beat Kyle Busch, and it’s going to rain. It’s like how many stressful elements can you add to one thing?
It didn't matter as Elliott took control of the race to win in his Hendrick Chevrolet and proved to be the best active road course racer in NASCAR with a 42% winning percentage.
“I feel like road courses have been fortunate to us the last few trips, but I feel like we just try to get a little better every time and tweak on the small things," Elliott said.
Logano finished second in a Ford and was followed by Erik Jones, who is not in the playoffs, in a Toyota. Kurt Busch was fourth in a Chevrolet.
The playoff race at hometown Charlotte was the first time this season the speedway could allow spectators and the allotted 7,000 seats were sold out for two rain-soaked days. The Xfinity Series race on Saturday was run in a deluge and there was considerable angst about a repeat of that slippery show on Sunday.
Drivers stressed over the potential conditions, particularly as heavy rains soaked the speedway in the hours leading into the race. Conditions that certainly would have qualified as dangerous ultimately lifted, the rain stopped and held off until after Elliott's victory celebration, when a tornado warning was called for the next county over.
NASCAR did insist all teams start the race on rain tires, the first time they were used in official Cup competition in at least 60 years. Although the track was puddled in some places, damp in others, the conditions didn't come close to Saturday's blinding storm.
Charlotte brought it additional lights because it was too dark through the infield during the Xfinity race but they were not needed despite all the consternation.