Down To Twelve
By Bob Pockrass
The NASCAR Cup Series opening playoff round elimination race Saturday night didn’t produce any rallies, as the four drivers who entered the race below the cutoff were eliminated from championship contention.
William Byron, running 10th, got into the back of Joey Gase before the end of the second stage and saw his hopes for a rally disappear. Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney never were in contention for the win, and the remaining playoff drivers did their jobs.
Advancing to the second round: Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch.
Here are three takeaways from Bristol:
Harvick's career year
Harvick had two previous Bristol victories in 39 career starts, but he wasn’t looked at as a favorite Saturday night as it hasn’t been one of his best tracks of late.
So what does he do? He goes out and leads 226 laps for his career-best ninth victory of the year.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver is rattling off wins at 44 years old – the only driver who was older than 44 and had nine wins in a season was Lee Petty in 1959.
“I felt like the Gibbs cars outran us at Richmond,” Harvick said.
“We struggled at Darlington and figured out a great strategy and wound up capitalizing on a late accident there, and tonight probably had the best car. ... We're nose‑down trying to do what we do.”
Playing Playoff Game
Kyle Busch wasn’t happy with second – his fourth runner-up finish of the year.
“We had a good car,” Busch said. “[It was] one that was in contention all night long. ... This is a pretty good car and then got beat by another really good car, I guess. That's all there is to it.”
But Busch, Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman and Clint Bowyer should be pleased with their first rounds.
They didn’t enter the playoffs with a lot of playoff points but they did what they had to do, taking what their cars would give them, throughout the first round.
Busch posted finishes of seventh, sixth and second. Bowman posted finishes of sixth, ninth and 16th. Almirola was ninth, eighth and fifth. Bowyer finished with a 10th, 10th and sixth in the opening round and was able to get through despite just four playoff points this year.
Top-10s in each race, along with some stage points (Bowman earned 12 stage points Saturday and 28 in the round), should put a driver in a good position at least up until the semifinal round. The main thing they are doing is not beating themselves.
“We've got to live up to our capabilities,” Bowyer said.
“If we can do that and race to our capabilities and not make the mistakes we were making through the summer months, we can contend and move forward rounds in this playoff system, and that's what we're doing.”
Don’t Blame Bristol
Bristol as an elimination race was supposed to create drama. But the early Byron wreck and then Blaney and DiBenedetto having early issues before getting caught laps down on a green-flag pit cycle when the caution came out created a scenario where they never had a chance to make a run for the win to earn a bid to the next round.
“Even when I thought we were our best, when we were like fifth or sixth, the 4 [of Harvick] and the 18 [of Busch] just looked absolutely incredible, pretty much untouchable,” Blaney said.
Bristol is still a good place for a cutoff race and more often than not, the opening round should end with a smaller gap than 28 points between the last driver in and the first driver out as what occurred in this first round. The potential for a dramatic spectacle remains.