Tyler Reddick's win at Kansas Speedway on Sunday locked 23XI Racing into the next round of the NASCAR playoffs. On the other end of pit road, teammate Bubba Wallace found himself locked into desperation mode after a flat right rear tire left him 19 points below the cutline.
That's how the postseason has gone for a Toyota group packed with championship favorites.
First, the good. Reddick did pull off a miracle during Kansas' frantic final restart. A four-tire stop following Chris Buescher's flat that forced overtime left the No. 45 starting fifth in the pack.
But Erik Jones and Joey Logano, who took just two tires, failed to clear each other on the restart. That opened the door for a wild three-wide move by Reddick in the tri-oval to win the race.
"I don't even remember the restart," Reddick explained. "It just kind of happened. A lap went by and I was in the lead … everything happened so fast, and I just kind of went for it, and it worked."
No one was prouder than 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin, who was forced to settle for runner-up after leading 62 of the last 75 laps leading into the overtime caution. During that stint, he popped on the radio to tell Reddick to keep his cool, conserving equipment while running second behind him. Preservation paid off with the boss watching his student grow into championship material in real time.
"I knew his weakness [when hiring him] was race management," Hamlin said after the race. "It was getting to the finish, with the finishes you deserve."
Reddick's career stats back that up. 10 times, he's led 33 laps or more but only won three of those events. In four of them, he's finished outside the top 15, including a crash after winning the pole and dominating the early stages of Kansas last fall.
"I love racing at 105%," Reddick said. "But I don't know if this is the right time to do it right in this first round. You get an overtime restart, go for it, right. But try and minimize the risk just a little bit."
Now, Reddick is on the other side of that coin as the third 23XI driver in the No. 45 to win Kansas the past two years (add Wallace and Kurt Busch). He's now risk-free heading into Bristol next week along with Hamlin, whose 49-point edge on 13th place virtually guarantees he'll advance into the Round of 12.
As for the rest of the Toyota quintet inside the playoffs? They find themselves teetering on the edge. Reddick's teammate Wallace got the worst of it, slamming the wall with a flat while running second. He's now 19 points below the cutline, joined by an unexpected guest: regular season champion Martin Truex Jr., who finished dead last at Kansas after his tire blew within the first five laps of the race.
"I can't imagine," Truex said, "about being this unlucky."
Truex missing the next round would be an upset of epic proportions, and it's realistic three of the five Toyotas could miss with Christopher Bell sitting just 13 points above the cutline. Can the excellence of Hamlin and Reddick -- leading 342 laps in the first two playoff races -- filter down to their Toyota teammates in need?
"We're going to definitely show them support," said Reddick's crew chief, Billy Scott. "We're going to be standing behind them. We're going to be pumping them up and reminding them that they can do this. Absolutely, they can go there and win or get enough points to transfer because you never know what happens [at Bristol]."
Green: Erik Jones. Too little, too late for this year, but Jones has back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time since the 2022 playoffs. His third-place result at Kansas was the first top five for Legacy Motor Club's two teams since Jimmie Johnson bought into the program last offseason.
Yellow: Joey Logano. Quick thinking by crew chief Paul Wolfe led to a two-tire stop by Logano, propelling him to a fifth-place finish after spending the race struggling to grab a top 15. It might be enough for the reigning champ to advance into the Round of 12 although more speed is needed as he's led just 43 laps over the last 16 Cup events.
Red: Michael McDowell. Suffering damage after contact with Austin Cindric, McDowell limped home to 26th and sits dead last in the 16-driver playoff field, 40 points below the cutline. His career first round postseason stats are truly something to behold: five starts, zero top-20 finishes and a position differential of -84.
Speeding Ticket: Christopher Bell's pit crew. Bell's crew underperformed so much during the regular season they were swapped out with rookie Ty Gibbs' (who missed the playoffs) to increase his chances. Maybe he should have stuck with the old crew? Listening to Bell's radio is the equivalent of a self-help tape as the driver is told to stay calm while miscues drop him down the running order.
I believe this is the third pit stop today where Christopher Bell's team has had an issue of some kind.— Jordan Bianchi (@Jordan_Bianchi) September 10, 2023
Slow stops have contributed to a wild position differential of -30, ruining the two pole positions Bell earned during the first playoff events. Last year's Championship 4 participant is now in real danger of missing out in 2023.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott nearly took themselves out of contention during the day's final pit stop. Fighting for position on pit road, contact on a three-wide exit led to Elliott swerving into Larson and then seemingly confronting his teammate after the race.
Elliott denied a message was sent after the race, but the actions of NASCAR's Most Popular Driver seemed to indicate otherwise. Larson also admitted there was bad blood in his own post-race interview.
"I understand why he's mad, or was mad in the moment," Larson said. "I hope when he sees the replay, he understands I didn't have any space. Or not much… just inches."
Elliott remains winless through 28 events as the worst year of his eight-season Cup career continues.