Chris Buescher wins Cup Series regular-season finale; Bubba Wallace in playoffs for first time

AP photo by Don Howard / Ryan Preece barrel rolls along the back stretch at Daytona International Speedway during the NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale Saturday night in Daytona Beach, Fla.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In less than a month, Chris Buescher has become a contender for the NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Buescher won the regular-season finale Saturday night in overtime at Daytona International Speedway, eliminating fan favorite Chase Elliott in the battle for the last remaining playoff berth and sending Bubba Wallace into the postseason for the first time.

Buescher and Brad Keselowski finished 1-2 for RFK Racing, the first such showing for the team since 2014. It was Buescher's third victory since late July, making him a championship favorite no one could have expected five weeks ago.

"We've certainly got momentum on our side right now," Buescher said after taking another checkered flag in the No. 17 Ford.

Because Buescher had previously won this season, Wallace landed the 16th and final playoff spot on points. He finished 12th in Saturday's race.

"That was the most stress but also the most locked in I've ever been," said the 29-year-old Wallace, who is in his sixth Cup Series season overall but third for 23XI Racing. "Proud to be locked into the playoffs. We've gone through a lot of trials and tribulations. So proud of the effort we put in."

Drivers had to regroup in the waning laps after Ryan Preece flipped about a dozen times and came to a halt in his mangled Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford. Preece was able to get out with help before emergency personnel put him on a gurney and into an ambulance for a quick trip to the infield care center. He was later transported to a hospital for further evaluation.

Preece made contact with SHR teammate Chase Briscoe, and the No. 41 car started flipping as it slid across the infield grass.

The crash sent the race into overtime. Buescher was out front for the restart with two laps to go, and Keselowski stayed in line to keep them 1-2 at the checkered flag.

"Second is the first loser," Keselowski quipped. "But you could have ended up in a ball of flames in (turns) three and four, too, and that would have been pretty dumb. ... It would have been really difficult to pull a move off without probably wrecking both of us."

SHR's Aric Almirola finished third as Ford drivers took the top three spots, followed by Elliott in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and reigning series champion Joey Logano in a Team Penske Ford.

Seventeen drivers, most notably Wallace and Elliott, started the night with hopes of securing the final playoff spot.

Elliott, the 2020 Cup Series champion and a playoff qualifier the past seven seasons, had been facing an uphill battle for months. He missed six races after breaking his left leg while snowboarding in early March and was suspended for another for intentionally wrecking Denny Hamlin in May. Those absences left the Cup Series' five-time reigning most popular driver trying to dig out of a hole all summer.

Elliott needed a victory that never came, and now he'll miss the postseason for the first time. He knew Daytona was a wild card, but he still managed to get to the front and lead two laps early. He was in the mix late but had little Chevrolet help around him.

"Yeah, it's a bummer for sure," Elliott said. "I appreciate everybody's support through this season. Hasn't been what I would want by any means. Certainly going to be some lessons taken from it, and I think we'll be better for it on the other end."

Martin Truex Jr. won the regular-season championship over Hamlin, one of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, giving Truex an extra 15 playoff points. Truex and Hamlin were the only drivers still in the running for the regular-season title at Daytona.

The more notable competition was for the final postseason spot. Seven of the drivers vying for the berth were eliminated in a 12-car melee a little past the midway point.

Ty Gibbs was one of those knocked out of contention. Christopher Bell was pushing Gibbs near the front of the field but got his JGR teammate sideways in the fourth turn. Gibbs slammed into race leader Ryan Blaney, turning Blaney's Penske No. 12 Ford into the outside wall. Blaney hit so hard that at least two tires lifted off the ground.

"I feel like I got pushed in a bad spot," Gibbs said.

At least nine others were collected in the crash, including Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Austin Cindric. NASCAR red-flagged the race for nearly 10 minutes to clean up the carnage.

"It stinks. A lot of cars got tore up. Not fun," Blaney said.

In addition to Buescher, Hamlin, Truex and Wallace, the playoff qualifiers are Bell, Blaney, Keselowski, Larson, Logano, William Byron, Kyle Busch, Ross Chastain, Kevin Harvick, Michael McDowell, Tyler Reddick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The first event of the 10-race postseason is a week from Sunday at Darlington Raceway, and it's one of NASCAR's crown jewels, the Southern 500. Erik Jones is the race's reigning champion, while Byron won in May during the most recent Cup Series race at Darlington.