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Kyle Busch throttles by Chase Elliott, into playoffs' second round

DOVER, Del. -- Kyle Busch didn't appear to have any business winning Sunday at Dover. But he did.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. didn't appear to have any business advancing into the quarterfinal round of 12 in the playoffs. But he did.

In a did-that-really-just-happen weekend, Busch and Stenhouse left as the big winners.

Chase Elliott ended up as possibly the most disappointed even though his championship hopes continued after Sunday. Elliott had led 137 laps of a 154-lap green-flag run until Busch passed him with less than two laps remaining in the race.

Busch had rallied from a deficit of at least four seconds, ruining what would have been Elliott's first win in 70 career starts.

"Golly, I couldn't have had it any easier," Elliott said. "It ran green from the stage break all the way to the end. And I gave it away.

"I appreciate my team and their efforts today. The pit stops were great and they kept us in the ballgame. I didn't."

Where did Busch come from? He deftly maneuvered through the lapped traffic, using the typically slower high lane to make up time on Elliott.

"If I had a clean track, I could have run as fast as he did," Elliott said. "But I didn't, and I should have done something different. So that's just on me, and he did a better job than I did.

"At the end of the day, that's what it comes down to."

Elliott could look at excuses. He could look at the fact that Busch had led 1,621 laps this season coming into the race compared with Elliott's 226 and take the view that Busch just has had much more experience this year and knows the tendencies of the lapped cars much better.

But that would be an excuse. Elliott has never liked them and will just look in the mirror. And while experience was a factor, Busch indicated that his leading all those laps this year probably didn't make a huge difference.

"When you are Chase and you have been leading for that long and you've lost that amount of distance to the car behind you, you've got to move around," Busch said. "You know, you can't give up four seconds of the lead and not do something else.

"I feel like that's kind of where they lost it today. I don't know if he was getting communication from his spotter or his crew chief or somebody just saying, 'Stick to the bottom, stick with what has got you to this point.'"

Busch might have been talking in generalities, and it didn't appear on the surface to be a dig at his former crew chief (Alan Gustafson) and spotter (Eddie D'Hondt), who now work with Elliott. What makes Busch so good is that he takes what the track gives him.

That can be easier to do when a driver has had one of the most dominant cars all season. Busch has won back-to-back races and four of the past nine after a frustrating 20-race winless streak to open the year.

His victory ended a day of didn't-see-that-coming that featured Stenhouse taking a mediocre car into the next round of the playoffs.

Stenhouse had gone a lap down and had nothing to lose by not pitting until he absolutely needed to pit in the opening stage. Jeffrey Earnhardt then spun coming into pit road, hit the sand barrels, and caused the caution to come out with just five drivers on the lead lap with 32 laps left in the opening stage.

With little threat from those a lap down who had to stay out and take the wave-around, Stenhouse earned seven points in the opening stage while the rest of the bubble drivers earned squat.

Stenhouse ended up advancing by just two points over Ryan Newman and four over Austin Dillon.

"We got really, really lucky on that caution," Stenhouse said. "We were getting ready to pit. ... You can count on something happening [in the pits]. I've seen Cup champions hit those barrels.

"It played out for us. Jeffrey definitely helped us out there."

Newman (finished 13th) and Dillon (16th) finished ahead of Stenhouse (19th) on the track, but those stage points made the difference.

"It's pretty disappointing," Dillon said. "I put it back on me [in the playoff opener] at Chicago. I had a speeding penalty that took us out of it. I would have had stage points in both the first stages at Chicago and probably a top-six run."

As they say, sometimes a driver needs some good fortune. And Stenhouse played the strategy his car gave him.

Busch did much the same thing, as he knew that he needed to make unconventional moves to track down Elliott. The 2015 Cup champion also got the benefit of Newman, who, needing to fight for every second in hopes of making up those two points on Stenhouse, didn't give Elliott any sort of break when he tried to get by.

"I was sore," Kyle Busch said. "My tongue was hanging out, the car's tongue was hanging out."

At least Elliott has more to race for this year as far as the championship goes. Newman, Dillon, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch saw their playoff seasons end.

Kyle Busch earned five pivotal playoff points, and enters the quarterfinal round of 12 with a 33-point edge on ninth (and an 18-point deficit behind series points leader Martin Truex Jr.).

Is that enough to make him a favorite?

Busch knows better. And he didn't need to see what happened at Dover to know.

"It's all about getting the stars to align and doing your job and having everything go your way," Busch said.