BRISTOL, Tenn. – For four drivers, their dreams of hoisting the NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy at Phoenix Raceway in November ended almost before they even began.

William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto and Cole Custer all watched their NASCAR Cup Series championship dreams end Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Each entered the Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race below the playoff cutline and despite their best efforts, none of them were able to improve enough to garner a place in the second round that begins this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Of the four, Byron appeared to be in the best position to advance Saturday night. He was running inside the top-10 near the halfway point of the race when a car in front of him suddenly slowed down. Byron slammed into the rear of the car in front of him, terminally damaging his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

William Byron (right) talks with crew chief Chad Knaus after Byron crashed out of Saturday's NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images Photo)
William Byron (right) talks with crew chief Chad Knaus after Byron crashed out of Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images Photo)

His race, and his playoff run, were over at that point.

“Our car was really good, just needed a little bit of track position I feel like,” Byron said after the incident. “The No. 51 (Joey Gase), I think it was a green and black car, was coming off the corner and the No. 95 (Christopher Bell) and I were both running the top. The No. 51 just checked up in the middle of the straightaway and had nowhere to go. And the No. 95 slammed on the brakes to try to not hit him and I slammed into him because I was on his bumper.

“Just a terrible situation, but not really sure why that happened or what really transpired for him to stop like that.”

Despite the early exit from the playoffs, it’s been a career year for Byron. The 22-year-old native of Charlotte, N.C., earned his first NASCAR Cup Series victory a few weeks ago at Daytona Int’l Speedway to earn his way into the playoffs.

His focus now turns to 2021 and continuing the momentum he’s built this year.

“I think it’s been a great season. I think that we’ve performed well. I think we would have liked to perform better, based on how we ended last year,” Byron admitted. “But we got a win and I feel like really the last five or six weeks, we’ve had all top-10 runs, besides Richmond, which is our worst track.”

Perhaps the most surprising driver to exit in the first round of the playoffs was Blaney, the third driver for the powerhouse Team Penske program. Blaney entered the playoffs as a potential final round contender, but bad luck and penalties left him struggling to gain his footing during the first three playoff races.

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