Bristol combines short track tempers and Playoff elimination pressure

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 18: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops/ Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Toyota, lead the field on a pace lap prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on September 18, 2021 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

NASCAR’s best have one last chance to secure their spot in the next round and inch closer to the Championship. And no one is safe: only one driver has clinched his spot in the Round of 12 heading into Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Despite two non-Playoff drivers winning the first two races, Christopher Bell has a guaranteed spot in the next round after his consistent finishes of fifth and third at Darlington and Kansas respectively.

Every other Cup Series driver still has to worry about elimination, focusing on maximizing points throughout the day. But for Kevin Harvick, a win is all that will cut it. He’s 35 points to the outside of the cutline after failing to finish at both of the previous races this round.

Harvick says he’s got a chance to win because of “experience,” explaining: “I think experience goes a long way as you go down this road. Obviously, it’s different than the regular season because there’s so much on the line, but our guys have been through that battle.”

“Plus,” he added, “we don’t have anything to lose.”

Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Chase Briscoe is below the cutline too, but only by nine points. All he’s concerned about is “a clean race.”

“Bristol is chaotic and unpredictable,” Briscoe said. “We have to go in and have a good race with some stage points and no mistakes. We know we can do it, we’ve just got to avoid the chaos and I feel like we can go there and get some stage points and be in good shape.”

Even drivers who are currently to the good need to maximize points if they want to look to the future, something Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez has been doing.

“I think the fun part is about to begin,” he said. “The winning was a lot of fun. I proved to myself that I can do it. I knew I could do it, but now everybody knows as well. They do know that I can do it and my team can do it, and we have everything that it takes to get it done. Now we have to do it on a consistent basis. In the last two months, we’ve been extremely consistent.”

But the track itself is its own challenge. Bristol is intense, and this is the first race for the Next Gen on the concrete surface following the Spring dirt race. And veteran Kevin Harvick knows the challenge well.

“Bristol, the night race, especially, is a place that just has a special feel,” he said. “Being in the Playoffs now and being a part of that event for a long time just gets you jacked up as a driver. It’s just a very intense place to race.”

“It’s an intense place to just make laps, honestly,” he added. “As you get into that race and understand the magnitude of the situation, especially with Bristol being in the playoffs, it’s something that I just think is very challenging and exciting to be a part of.”

Xfinity Series still has Playoff berths open in regular season finale

The Xfinity Series hasn’t started its Playoffs yet, but Bristol is still an elimination race to set the twelve-driver postseason field. Ten drivers have clinched their spot ahead of the Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), but leaves two berths open and available for the taking.

Ty Gibbs, Noah Gragson, AJ Allmendinger, Justin Allgaier, Josh Berry, Austin Hill, Brandon Jones, Jeremy Clements, Sam Mayer, and Riley Herbst have all clinched a spot.

Battling for the last two on points is defending series champion Daniel Hemric and Landon Cassill, who enter the race to the good by 37 and 19 points respectively, alongside Ryan Seig and Sheldon Creed. Still, any new winner can shake up that picture.

And the Regular Season Championship will be decided at Bristol as well. Although Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson both have more wins, AJ Allmendinger is the points leader and only needs to score 23 points or more in the race to clinch it, or a 14th-place finish without stage points. But he’s not getting ahead of himself yet.

“With Bristol, you just never know,” he said. “It’s all situational. You could easily get caught up in someone else’s mess early in the race, and you are out of it. Or it could come down to another finish like we had last year where we are all battling in the final laps.”

“My team knows that, if we’re in that situation racing for a win at Bristol and a Regular Season Championship, I’m going to do whatever it takes and put it all on the line to get the job done,” Allmendinger added.

Truck Series begins a new round

It’s not an elimination race for the Camping World Truck Series on Thursday night, but rather the first race of the Round of 8 at the UNOH 200 Presented by Ohio Logistics (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Zane Smith, Chandler Smith, John Hunter Nemechek, Ben Rhodes, Stewart Friesen, Ty Majeski, Grant Enfinger, and Christian Eckes remain in the title fight.

But it has to be Chandler Smith who’s the favorite heading into Bristol. Not only did his win in the last round of the Playoffs come at Richmond Raceway, another short track, but he’s never finished outside the top five in his three career starts at Bristol. And that includes a win last fall.

“It definitely helps having a good notebook and knowing what works good there,” Smith said. “Not only did I win last year, but in 2019 I nearly won. So, it’s a track I’m really comfortable with and looking forward to hopefully starting off the first race in the Round of 8 on a strong note.”

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – SEPTEMBER 15: John Hunter Nemechek, driver of the #4 Pye-Barker Fire & Safety Toyota, Parker Kligerman, driver of the #75 Luck’s Beans/Food Country USA Toyota, and Grant Enfinger, driver of the #23 Champion Power Equipment Chevrolet, drive during practice for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series UNOH 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway on September 15, 2022 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Bass Pro Shops Night Race
The Place: Bristol Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, September 17
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,338,394
TV: USA, 6:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 266.5 miles (500 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 125),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 250), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 500)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Food City 300
The Place: Bristol Motor Speedway
The Date: Friday, September 16
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,567,510
TV: USA, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 159.9 miles (300 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 85),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 170), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 300)

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Next Race: UNOH 200 presented by Ohio Logistics
The Place: Bristol Motor Speedway
The Date: Thursday, September 15
The Time: 9 p.m. ET
The Purse: $703,945
TV: FS1, 8:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 106.6 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 55),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 110), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)

Owen Johnson