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Tough season continues as Kurt Busch eliminated from playoffs

DOVER, Del. -- Kurt Busch celebrated after the first race of the season, but since the ultimate high of winning the Daytona 500 in February, his season hasn't reached close to that point.

Busch's season hit a low Sunday as a 20th-place finish at Dover International Speedway officially eliminated him from the NASCAR playoffs after just one round.

Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon and Kasey Kahne also failed to advance as the playoff field was cut from 16 to 12.

Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Cup champion, finished the opening round last among the 16 playoff drivers, 25 points behind the cutoff. Since the elimination system started in 2014, no driver who won the year's Daytona 500 has been among the four championship contenders at Homestead.

"Winning the Daytona 500, you always see the jinx that happens afterwards," Busch said. "We experienced it. There's a lot that goes on with it.

"My car never, ever had the handle in it this year -- where I was always loose in [the corner], tight on exit. Loose in, tight on exit. I don't know why we had that so bad this year."

An accident last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway put Busch in a hole heading into Dover, as he needed to gain 17 points on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Dillon to have any chance of advancing.

Busch rattled off three consecutive top-5s in the three races leading into the playoffs, but he finished 19th, 37th and 20th in the playoffs.

"I'm just disappointed in the way that I drove all through this playoff run," Busch said. "I was driving at 101 percent trying to make sure I got every ounce of speed out of it. It just never had a flow for three races.

"We might have finished 10th here today, and the wreck last week really put us in a hole. We needed a perfect day today."

Stenhouse was the last driver to make the cut on points, finishing two points ahead of Newman, four points ahead of Dillon, 23 points ahead of Kahne and 25 ahead of Busch.

Stenhouse benefitted when he was one of five drivers who had not pitted in the opening stage before Jeffrey Earnhardt wrecked coming to pit road near the end of the stage. That allowed Stenhouse, who was struggling, to earn seven points, putting distance between him and Dillon and Newman as they didn't earn any points in the opening stage.

"We just really never did well in Stage 1, and I thought that might be our Achilles' heel," Busch said. "If we add up the numbers, that's probably what it was. I can't fault anybody. We ran hard. We ran everything we had. It just wasn't enough."