Bristol could chew up a champion in Playoff elimination race at the coliseum

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 17: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Ford BlueOval City Ford, and Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 Magical Vacation Planner Ford, lead the field on a pace lap prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on September 17, 2022 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Bristol Motor Speedway is known as the Last Great Coliseum. With ringside seats all around the half-mile track, it will put on a spectacle for the fans as Playoff drivers battle to advance to the next round in Saturday night’s Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

And it will be a battle, since only two of the sixteen postseason drivers have clinched their spot in the Round of 12 with a win. The opening two rounds proved that no one, not even former champions, are safe in the Playoffs.

Kyle Larson, who won at Darlington, and Tyler Reddick, who won at Kansas, only stand to gain Playoff points from stage wins or the race win.

Likewise, some other drivers have a pretty clear path. Denny Hamlin, for instance, only needs to pick up seven points at any time in the race, or twelve if there’s a new winner, and he’s in. Hamlin can be fully in the next round of the Playoffs by Stage 2 if he runs far enough up front.

And on the other end of the table, the situation is equally clear. Michael McDowell is 40 points out, far enough that he needs to focus on just getting the win.

Odds via BetMGM
+550 – Kyle Larson
+800 – Brad Keselowski
+825 – Denny Hamlin
+900 – William Byron
+900 – Christopher Bell
+1000 – Kevin Harvick
+1100 – Chris Buescher
+1100 – Chase Elliott
+1200 – Kyle Busch
+1600 – Martin Truex, Jr.

But between those two extremes, every other driver needs to run up front and tame the track to give themselves the best shot at keeping their championship hopes alive.

That’s especially true for the drivers below the cutline, which after Kansas includes Martin Truex, Jr. The former champion suffered a tire failure on just the fifth lap and was forced to retire, losing out on all the points for the race. It puts him seven points behind Kevin Harvick to the cutline.

Truex knows full well that making up that deficit will be a challenge against tight Playoff-caliber competition.

“Ever since we went to the NextGen car, everything has been closer, and you can see that in the standings, as well – it’s pretty tight,” he pointed out. “It is harder to find an advantage, it’s harder to run at the front every week consistently. Everything is tighter, closer together, less room for error, and you really have to be on top of things.”

“The points situation is the same as every other race,” Truex added. “This weekend, we just need to qualify the best we can, run up front and hope for good things to happen, but we really just have to control what we can control.”

Both Truex and Harvick, former champions, are left to fight to advance at just the first Playoff cut. Two-time champion Joey Logano comes in with just five extra points over Harvick, too.

For Harvick, though he has extra motivation to get the win in last race at Bristol Motor Speedway in his retirement season, that doesn’t mean any extra pressure.

“The expectation is really no different,” he said. “I think the biggest difference this particular year is you’ve got a lot of things going on outside the car with it being the last year, and to be able to celebrate all the things that we’ve done in the past and making sure that we’re still competitive.”

Harvick knows that the race is certainly special. And, with the spring Bristol race being on dirt, the famous night race only pavement Bristol race of the season.

“Bristol, the night race, especially, is a place that just has a special feel,” he explained. “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. 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,” he concluded.

Harvick should take some consolation, also, that his Stewart-Haas team has been consistently fast at Bristol and at short tracks overall with the Next Gen car, despite struggles on other track types. His teammate Aric Almirola won the pole for last year’s night race and led the opening portion.

“We always come to Bristol with the expectation to run well,” Almirola said. “We weren’t in the playoffs then, either, and had likely the fastest car in the field. We took off in the opening laps until a steering issue ruined the day.”

“Another non-playoff driver went on to win that race I believe, too, so I think the sky is the limit this weekend at Bristol again,” he added of his own expectations. “We know we can bring fast cars so I don’t see why we can’t put ourselves in position for another win.”

Unlike last season, a driver outside the Playoffs hasn’t played spoiler and won in the first two rounds of the postseason. That certainly is possible, though. The strongest candidate might be a driver who is still sort of competing for the Playoffs: Chase Elliott, whose No. 9 team is still in the Owner Championship Playoffs.

Back to the Playoff question, though, according to Denny Hamlin every driver from Ryan Blaney down is in danger at Bristol. That means Hamlin considers William Byron and Brad Keselowski safe with their 41- and 33-point margins to the cutline, but it’s not what the No. 12 team wants to hear.

“We’re 25 points to the good,” Blaney pointed out. “Twenty-five points can go away just like that if you have an issue early in the race. I feel like you can never really be too safe.”

Still, “I wouldn’t consider myself in the danger zone,” he said.

“I would say you can have problems and you’re going to be in a little bit of a situation. I think what he meant by that was you don’t have any cushion if you make a mistake early in the race and have a mechanical issue or a wreck or something like that early,” Blaney explained. “You’ve just got to go try to run a good race and run the whole race and see where you end up.”

Drivers will be keeping an eye on the points tally all day at Bristol to make sure they’re in position to make the next round, meaning the finish at the already-intense Bristol Night Race should heat up.

Xfinity Series Playoffs kick off at Bristol

John Hunter Nemechek may not have earned the regular season championship, but he’s on top of the Playoff standings and intends to keep it that way one last time.

Friday evening’s Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) could be Nemechek’s last Xfinity Series race at the track since he returned to the series after an unsuccessful stint in the Cup Series with Front Row Motorsports. Nemechek has since signed with Legacy Motor Club to drive the No. 42 next season.

He has a ten-point advantage over Austin Hill, who did win the regular season championship. Nemechek’s six wins in the regular season paid dividends, at least in terms of Playoff points.

Nemechek’s goal is solidly to be champion, though, and he’s not particularly concerned about standings or anything like that, he explained.

“To be honest, I think it’s just noise to us,” Nemechek said. “We’re not really focused on being the favorite or not being the favorite. ”

“We’re focused on just running every race like we know how to do and to go out and race every single racetrack, every single week and put some emphasis on trying to win, but also having good weeks and not letting bad weeks affect your Playoff run,” he added.

Besides Hill, though, there are ten other drivers who want a guaranteed spot in the Round of 8 in the Playoffs. That includes Cole Custer, who also spent time in the Cup Series, like Nemechek. He picked up two wins in the regular season and enters the Playoffs in fourth, with a 17-point advantage to the cutline.

“I think you have to take it race by race,” Custer said. “One bad race can put you in a difficult situation, which is why those stage points were so crucial. You just try to focus on what’s ahead of you.”

“Anything can happen, but I’m pretty confident with the tracks in this round. We just have to do our job and bring fast cars to the racetrack. It would be cool to kick the playoffs off on a strong note and lock ourselves into the Round of 8 with a win this weekend at Bristol,” he added.

It took until the final race of the regular season for misfortune to befall Riley Herbst, Custer’s teammate, and take completely out of the 12th and final transfer spot that he occupied most of the season. Herbst still intends on being a spoiler and getting that first-ever Xfinity Series win that he’s chased all season.

“We’ve brought speed to short tracks this year, so I’m hoping we can do that and show it again. We don’t have the pressure of the playoffs on us now, so we can just focus on winning,” he pointed out.

As for Bristol, Herbst said he’s always excited to see it on the calendar.

“I think it’s just short-track racing, in general,” he said of what he likes about the place. “Most of the guys in the garage will say this, but these types of tracks take us back to our roots.

“Bristol is obviously unique with its layout, but I think it still has the same elements as other short tracks. That track is hectic. It’s so crazy. It’s so fast. It’s a little half-mile, and it’s high-banked. It’s so much fun to go and battle there and rub some fenders.”

Craftsman Truck Series takes on Bristol with a ticket to Phoenix on the line

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series drivers are already fighting for a chance to race for a championship.

Thursday night’s UNOH 200 Presented by Ohio Logistics at Bristol Motor Speedway (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the first race of the Round of 8 for the Truck Series, and the winner will get a guaranteed spot in the Championship 4 at Phoenix.

Coming into Bristol, Corey Heim is in the best spot, but it’s tight. Heim has an eight-point advantage, which isn’t much, but is massive compared to the two points shared by Christian Eckes and Grant Enfinger.

The cutline itself is between Carson Hocevar and Zane Smith with no points separating the two. On the other side, Ty Majeski, Ben Rhodes, and Nick Sanchez will have to gain six, nine, and 16 points respectively, a slightly larger margin.

Regardless, the competition is undeniably tight. And it should stay that way: only Majeski has ever won at Bristol before of the Round of 8 drivers, and most have only made a handful of starts.

Grant Enfinger has made six, though, second-most to Ben Rhodes’ eight. Despite a larger sample size, he’s maintained a strong average finish of 5.2 and has run well enough for a best finish of second in the past.

“Our GMS team puts a lot into every race, but we’ve put everything we have into Bristol,” Enfinger said. “It’ll be important to have speed, but it’s just as important to have a truck that you can drive hard every lap.”

“Everything happens so fast at Bristol, so you have to be on your game all race long. GMS Racing has had a lot of success at Bristol in the past, and we’re hoping to add to that on Thursday,” he added.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – SEPTEMBER 17: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Pennzoil Ford, drives with sparks after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on September 17, 2022 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Bass Pro Shops Night Race
The Place: Bristol Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, September 16
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,805,799
TV: USA, 7 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 15
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,675,370
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)

Next Race: UNOH 200 presented by Ohio Logistics
The Place: Bristol Motor Speedway
The Date: Thursday, September 14
The Time: 9 p.m. ET
The Purse: $692,239
TV: FS1, 8 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