Bristol Bubble Breakdown
By Bob Pockrass
NASCAR had a plan last year to turn the annual night race at Bristol Motor Speedway into something that didn’t just make people sweat because it was late summer on a rough-and-tumble short track.
It wanted to make people sweat with playoff implications, so it moved the iconic event into the playoffs as the elimination race of the opening round.
The 500-lap race Saturday night will determine the nine drivers who will advance into what’s called the "Round of 12" – or quarterfinal round for a more vernacular description.
Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are already locked into that round because of wins and Denny Hamlin has locked himself in on points. Thirteen drivers have a chance for those final nine spots.
"What the playoffs are ... is always about trying to find a little bit more, and what you did during the regular season will never be enough in the playoffs," said Team Penske driver Joey Logano.
"‘And as each round and as each race goes, the intensity will pick up and you need to figure that out for yourself."
The four drivers lowest in points who have not won a race in the playoff round will be eliminated.
Here's how those remaining stack up:
Get Stage Points and Finish: Joey Logano (+51 on the cutoff), Martin Truex Jr. (+38), Austin Dillon (+36)
These three drivers should feel pretty good about their chances.
Logano needs just seven points – 30th if he earns no points in the stages – to guarantee himself a spot no matter what anyone else does. He’s won twice at Bristol and has finished 30th or better in all but one of his last 21 starts. He’s in.
Truex needs 20 points (17th with no stage points) and he is the type of driver who rarely gets in trouble, except maybe at Bristol. He has just one top-10 in his last 16 starts at the track. His average finish at Bristol is 20.62.
"I don't really worry about it too much," Truex said. "We're just going to go there and race and see what happens.
"There’s no sense in making yourself crazy all week when it has no bearing on the outcome."
Dillon needs 21 points (16th with no stage points). The way he’s been running – a second and a fourth to open the playoffs – that’s certainly possible. But he can’t make mistakes. He has just three top-10s in 13 career Bristol starts and has finished 16th or better in five of his last six starts at the track.
"Our confidence level for Bristol is pretty high," Dillon said.
Former Bristol Winners with Confidence: Chase Elliott (+38), Kyle Busch (+18), Kurt Busch (+7)
These three drivers have had enough success at Bristol to feel like if they run what they’re capable of running, they advance. But they certainly can’t get caught up in anything, and all three have seen that happen in recent years at Bristol.
Elliott could lock himself in with a seventh-place finish. So that means if he’s in a similar position as he was in May, maybe he races slightly more conservative. Now, you will see that the stat sheet says Elliott doesn’t have a Cup points race win at Bristol, but he did capture the NASCAR All-Star Race there in July. And more than that, he has led 271 laps in the last four Bristol points races.
Kyle Busch won’t be able to know how he can lock himself in until after the stages. He needs to get to the end of both stages and get some stage points to feel comfortable. He has eight career wins and 18 top-10s in 30 career Bristol starts. He has finished top-4 in five of his last six Bristol starts.
Kurt Busch has had the speed this year to advance to the next round. He has won at Bristol six times and has 21 top-10s in 39 starts at the track – including four top-10s in his last four Bristol starts.
On Brink, Little Momentum: Alex Bowman (+27), Aric Almirola (+7), Clint Bowyer (+3)
Bowman was happy with a ninth-place finish at Richmond, which isn’t one of his best tracks, so maybe he has some unexpected momentum. But he hasn’t had it at Bristol. Since joining Hendrick, his finishes at Bristol have included two top-10s but no finish better than 15th in his last three starts. If he finishes sixth or better, he’s in no matter what.
Almirola doesn’t want to look at his career Bristol stats. Like Bowman, he has never led a lap in a Cup race at Bristol. And his average finish is 25th with just one top-20 finish in his last seven Bristol starts. He’s going to have to put some of that past behind him to advance.
Bowyer? He should feel confident. He has eight top-10s in his last 10 Bristol starts, including a second-place finish in May.
"Just do the best you can and don’t make mistakes," Bowyer said about his plan. "We’ve cleaned a lot of those mistakes up that I spoke of going into the playoffs and we’re still in this thing, but, for me, it’s nerve-wracking or whatever, but it’s also fun.
"It’s fun to feel that way. It keeps you alive. That’s what racing is all about."
Comebacks, Anyone?: William Byron (-3), Cole Custer (-8), Matt DiBenedetto (-25), Ryan Blaney (-27)
All four of these drivers face uphill battles, and it is hard to point to any of them and say with confidence that the driver will race his way to avoid elimination.
Byron proved that he can perform when the pressure is on, as he finished the regular season with back-to-back top-5s, including his first Cup win at Daytona. His Bristol history is not great although he finished eighth there in May.
"It’s a track that we can have a good setup at," Byron said. "We’ve ran decent there in the past, so we can hopefully look at that."
Custer has just one Bristol start, a 35th. He had some top-10s in trucks and Xfinity but he has not run well enough to make people think a comeback is likely.
"I’m sure when we get to Bristol and we’re about to take the green I’m going to be pretty nervous because that’s going to be a really hectic race that a lot can happen," Custer said.
"But at the same time, I think I’ve learned in these playoff situations that being nervous and stressful is not going to help you."
DiBenedetto might have had the biggest moment of his career when he led 93 laps and finished second at Bristol a year ago. If his team lands on the right setup, he could be a factor.
"Going to Bristol is obviously an exciting race and one that we feel good about and have a lot to build on and I think we can go there and perform," DiBenedetto said.
Blaney’s issue isn’t that he’s 27 points out as much as if he does rally, he’s going to have to pass a lot of people in points ahead of him. He needs to hope others have trouble. The one thing Blaney knows is he led 60 laps at Bristol in May until a wreck relegated him to 40th. He has led 439 laps in the last five Bristol events.
"We probably need to go out there and win Bristol," Blaney said. "That is our mindset. That is our goal. It is our goal every week to win the race but now it is our season on the line.
"We will see if we can get it done. We have been pretty close at Bristol before, it is just a matter of trying to put a whole race together there."
On The Air
Gander RV Trucks UNOH 200 (Bristol), 7:30 p.m., FS1
Xfinity Food City 300 (Bristol), 7 p.m., NBCSN
Cup Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (Bristol), 7:30 p.m., NBCSN
Stat of Note
Each of the last 12 races at Bristol had at least six speeding penalties, including 21 penalties at the race in May.
They Said It
"I’d rather be plus-three than negative-three." – Clint Bowyer on being three points ahead of the current playoff cutoff