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NASCAR Cup Series

Ganassi Duo, Stewart Among Those Eliminated

An IndyCar Series Champion Owner saw his dreams dashed as his drivers were eliminated, along with the pair of Chase Cinderella stories.

Following the first three races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the first round is complete and four drivers saw their championship hopes end – Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Chris Buescher.

Before the season began, Chip Ganassi promised both his drivers – Larson and McMurray – would be part of the Chase for 2016. His drivers were able to live up to the promise as Larson scored his first career victory to qualify, while McMurray pointed his way into contention. However, mechanical gremlins resulted in both drivers not being able to make it past round one.

Larson came up 12 points shy of qualifying following a 25th place finish at Dover International Speedway. Larson looked to have speed during the first run, though his No. 42 Chevrolet shut off on pit road at Lap 33 under his first pit stop of the race. It took time for the team to get the car to re-fire, resulting in Larson falling off the lead lap. He then went two more laps down when he had to serve a pass-thru penalty under green for having “too many men over the wall” during the pit stop. The final nail in the coffin came on Lap 183 when he hit the wall due to a cut right front tire.

“There wasn’t much we could do,” Larson said. “I cut the right front tire down and got in the wall and still had good speed in the race car after that but it just didn’t work out. Our team has come a long way this season from where we started the year. We were pretty awful at the start of the season but then got a win at Michigan to lock ourselves in the Chase. That was good. I know we have the speed to have made it past a couple of rounds, but it’s my typical luck I guess, where it just doesn’t work out.”

Larson said he doesn’t now know what he could have done differently during the Chase, except have better luck.

“I don’t know what I’ve got to do,” he said. “But we’ll stay positive. We’ll come back next year and go for a championship. Our team came a long way this year from where we started the season, so hats off to everybody in the shop and the road crew and Target and all the sponsors for all their hard work and effort. We just didn’t have good luck again this year.”

His teammate McMurray also ran in the top-10 through the early stages of the event, set to challenge Austin Dillon for the 12th and final spot. However, at Lap 65, he reported a drive train related vibration and began losing power at Lap 167. His day came to an end at Lap 193 when the motor blew, resulting in a 40th place finish. As a result, he missed the Chase by 32 points.

“It vibrated earlier in the race, and it went away. And it’s weird because engine issues usually don’t go away,” McMurray said. “It felt like it had power and then I don’t know about 40 laps before it finally blew up, it just started vibrating real bad. They (the team) said what broke, but I couldn’t hear them over all the cars on the track. I’m not sure. Very unfortunate. It is just the way it goes.”

Meanwhile, Chris Buescher and Tony Stewart entered the Chase as the “Cinderella Stories” as many didn’t think either driver would make it based on how the first half of the season went. But a well-played strategy by Buescher handed him a win at Pocono, and Stewart managed to fight off Denny Hamlin for the win at Sonoma Raceway. It seemed at times both drivers would have a shot to contend for the championship with some top-10 performances, but neither found traction through the past three races and now find themselves on the outside.

This past weekend, Stewart finished 13th while Buescher finished 23rd.

“It wasn’t a bad day for our CSX Ford,” Buescher said. “We made some good adjustments but had one run that just wasn’t quite there and almost felt like it was a bad set of tires. The way the race played out with long green runs, we didn’t really have a chance to recover from that one.”

Buescher says now he look towards using the rest of the season to try and get better while taking chances in strategy to possibly snag another win or top-five finish.

“To even be in the Chase was a really big deal for Front Row Motorsports and this 34 team,” he said. “My hat’s off to everybody who has worked so hard this season. It’s unfortunate this is the end of our Chase, but it was a pretty good deal to make it in our first season.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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By Ashley McCubbin

Currently the Executive Editor for Popular Speed, Ashley McCubbin also runs Short Track Musings, while handling media relations for OSCAAR. Currently living in Bradford, Ontario, she spends her weekend at the local short tracks in the area taking photos.