CupScene Playoff Performance Ratings after Bristol

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 16: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Reser's Fine Foods Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Direct 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 16, 2023 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Bristol Motor Speedway was not afraid to dash the hopes of champions. As the setting for an elimination race, the Tennessee night proved a challenge for Playoff contenders, and four drivers were completely removed from the postseason.

Each driver’s performance at Bristol is scored on a 1-to-10 scale, with a score of 1 reserved for a terrible performance with no redeeming qualities and 10 reserved for a perfect and dominating performance. Performance over the entire weekend is factored in, since qualifying results make race days easier or more difficult.

Bristol was the final race of the Round of 16. The Playoff field was filtered down from sixteen to twelve drivers to start the Round of 12 at Texas Motor Speedway. Strong runs proved essential to moving on, even at this early stage of the postseason. This rating gives an indication of each driver’s relative performance throughout the Playoffs.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – SEPTEMBER 16: A general view of cars parked on the track during a weather prior to NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on September 16, 2023 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

9.5 – Denny Hamlin (1st)

Denny Hamlin certainly looked dominant at the end at Bristol, putting all but ten cars a lap down en route to winning. It wasn’t the cleanest night for Hamlin, though. He started second but fell out of the top-thirty after a speeding penalty in Stage 1 and had to claw his way through the field. It didn’t take long, though, and he was fourth by the end of Stage 2 and to the lead right after that.

Hamlin has never won a championship, so he and his No. 11 team need to limit the mistakes, especially for a driver who’s garnered more than his share of speeding penalties in the past, if they want to break down the barrier and get that first one.

9.5 – Christopher Bell (3rd)

Christopher Bell might not have won, but he came the closest he’s come this round. After sweeping pole positions for all three races this round, Bell now finished 23rd, eighth, and a refreshing third. He kept up the pole-winning speed all race, too, sweeping both of the stages and staying in touch with the leaders at the end.

If Bell continues his finishing pattern, he should be converting his qualifying speed to race results next round. Regardless, he picked up two Playoff points in the stages that he can carry into the next round.

8.5 – Kyle Larson (2nd)

Kyle Larson made his weekend tougher than it needed to be at the very start. Both of his qualifying laps were slowed by a massive save coming off the first lap and onto the second, which sent him back in the field. He was sent there again midway through the first stage with a penalty for running over equipment on pit road. Larson didn’t stay there for long though, rebounding to eighth by Stage 1 and third in Stage 2. He ended up moving up one spot further to second, finishing there by 2.4 seconds behind Hamlin.

And besides, it didn’t matter much for Larson, who came into Bristol already locked into the next round by virtue of his win at Darlington. Still, he starts the next round without a win to carry him forward. Pushing hard in qualifying is absolutely necessary to be competitive in the race for a championship, but pushing too hard can make the rest of the weekend a struggle.

8 – Chris Buescher (4th)

Chris Buescher just had a solid day to continue his breakout season with Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing. An underwhelming qualifying effort put him 20th at the start, but he rebounded throughout the race, up seventh by Stage 2 and fourth by the end. Plus, the Playoff points from his three wins put him in good position in the points standings too, up to fifth with a healthy gap to the Round of 12 cutline leaving Bristol.

“Yeah, it was a great day for us,” Buescher said. “We’re not disappointed in the car at all. Obviously, we want to win and coming off the win last time being close and seeing it was good, but we had a really good race car. We needed a touch more to go fight for that win, but I’m really proud of this group. We’re on to the next round of playoffs. We’ve got some more really great tracks coming for us. We’ve got the first Ford out here tonight, so it was definitely a strong night for us. We just want a little bit more.”

8 – Michael McDowell (6th)

If Michael McDowell was in any other position in the Playoffs, his run at Bristol would’ve been great. He qualified third, finished sixth, and picked up points in Stage 2. That’s especially strong for Front Row Motorsports, and the result ties for McDowell’s third-best finish of the year. As it was, though, poor performances in the first two races of the round put him in a must-win situation, and he just couldn’t get up to the lead to do that.

“It’s disappointing not to advance, for sure, but we dug ourselves such a big hole those first two races that we were in a must-win situation,” McDowell said after the race. “We weren’t good enough to do that tonight, but I’m still really proud of the speed that we brought and the effort that we brought. We still needed a little bit more to contend for that win, but we gave ourselves a fighting chance.”

7.5 – Brad Keselowski (8th)

Brad Keselowski had a solid and unremarkable race. He started sixth, finished Stage 1 in seventh, and moved back one more spot to eighth by the end of the race. Solid and unremarkable is perfectly fine at the early stages of the Playoffs when drivers are being eliminated for poor performances and issues, but Keselowski will need more as the competition tightens up. His points position reflects that: Keselowski sits in tenth leaving Bristol, below the Round of 12 cutline.

“It’s good to move into the next round,” he said. “We certainly are going to have our work cut out for us, but that’s what this thing is all about. It was a good day for us for both cars. It was a good Round of 16 for us and let the Round of 12 begin.”

7 – William Byron (9th)

William Byron had a solid top-ten race at Bristol. He started third, finished fourth in Stage 1, eighth in Stage 2, and went on to finish ninth overall. Byron might not have had the best opening round of the Playoffs, but having the most wins of the regular season gives him a big advantage throughout the Playoffs, and he enters the Round of 12 tied for the lead of the Playoff standings.

“We’re really happy with 500 good laps here,” Byron said. “A top-10 finish is good, but definitely wanted more. After practice, I felt like we could have a little bit more today, but I’m happy with it.”

6.5 – Bubba Wallace (14th)

Bubba Wallace didn’t have a stellar night, but what he did have was just enough to advance. Wallace started ninth and finished one lap down in fourteenth but managed to pad his point total with a bit of strategy. Crew chief Bootie Barker chose to stay out in the first round of pit stops, which put Wallace in position for third in Stage 1.

He couldn’t hold onto that position throughout the race, but he did just enough to advance as other Playoff contenders struggled and faced problems, and Wallace will advance into the next round.

6 – Ricky Stenhouse (10th)

Like Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse entered Bristol with a points deficit. However, unlike McDowell, Stenhouse was in position to very plausibly point his way into the next round. Despite a reasonably strong run, and his best finish of the opening round of the Playoffs, Stenhouse scored no stage points and finished in tenth after starting 25th and has been eliminated from the Playoffs.

“We executed in the race really well, but just didn’t execute on Saturday good enough to put us starting up front and get some stage points early. That’s kind of where we’ve been lacking, I would say most of the year,” Stenhouse acknowledged. “We went as far forward as we could, but it just wasn’t enough. We’ll keep learning and trying to come back better next year.”

5 – Tyler Reddick (15th)

Tyler Reddick had his win at Kansas to automatically move him to the next round, and that proved comforting as the driver just didn’t have the speed to compete at Bristol. He started twelfth but chose to stay out in the first round of pit stops to end up fifth in Stage 1 but couldn’t score points in Stage 2 and ended up 15th.

Playoff points mean Reddick is provisionally above the cutline before the start of the Round of 12 at Texas Motor Speedway, but he’s in the eighth and final position. Reddick will have his work cut out for him in the next round, but another win would solve all problems again.

4 – Martin Truex Jr (19th)

Martin Truex Jr. had a tough day, but it was just enough to advance to the next round of the Playoffs after a tire failure early at Kansas put him below the cutline heading into Bristol. Truex finished ninth in Stage 1 after starting fifth and just went backwards from there. He suffered a brake shake issue in Stage 2 as he fell back, going a lap down.

Truex hit the wall hard enough in Stage 3 to bring out a debris caution. Though he was able to keep going, he didn’t get the free pass since he was the reason for the caution. He ended up two laps down and was just able to advance. But it would not have been if his competitors had not struggled worse and suffered issues. Still, with all his Playoff points as regular season champion, he’s back tied for the points lead to start the Round of 12.

3.5 – Ryan Blaney (22nd)

Ryan Blaney suffered the same problem as his Team Penske teammates: a noticeable lack of speed. Blaney started eleventh before dropping down to the 22nd position by the end of the race. Still, unlike his Penske teammates, Blaney is still in the Playoffs after the Bristol race. He enters the Round of 12 below the provisional cutline, though, so he’ll need better runs in the next round.

That’s what we did. It was not a pretty night by any means, but we ran all the laps and did what we needed to do. You’d like to have a little bit more speed and just be competitive and we weren’t tonight, but we get to go on to the next round and reset and start off at Texas to see what we’ve got

3 – Ross Chastain (23rd)

Ross Chastain started 23rd and finished 23rd in what turned out to be a poor run. Crew chief Phil Surgen chose to stay out in the first round of pit stops to earn stage points for sixth in Stage 1, but the position didn’t hold. Chastain was lapped in Stage 2 and finished two laps down – and closely avoided losing a third lap at the end. It was enough to advance, though, despite the poor run.

“We were just too tight for our No. 1 Worldwide Express Chevy,” Chastain explained. “Aside from the very first run, we were just too tight all night. We were catching up to it running the bottom, and then when we moved to the top, we were just too tight again. Just not quite enough speed for our Chevy.”

2.5 – Kyle Busch (20th)

Kyle Busch started 15th and never moved up. He failed to score any stage points and ended up two laps down in 20th. However, it was still a good enough position for Busch to advance. He leaves Bristol sixth in points, with a small gap to the provisional Round of 12 cutline.

“I’m glad we advanced to the Round of 12 in the NASCAR Playoffs, but it just wasn’t a strong showing for the No. 8 Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen/Alsco Uniforms Chevrolet team tonight,” Busch admitted. “We didn’t have any front grip in the beginning of the run, or any rear grip in the later run. It was a struggle to go anywhere, and to make passes. I just felt mired in traffic and dirty air. Even when we had clean air, we weren’t passing anybody because lap times were just so stagnant.”

1.5 – Kevin Harvick (29th)

Coming in just above the cutline, Kevin Harvick needed a strong run to maintain position. But starting 24th made that difficult, and Harvick just wasn’t able to move forward. He ended up getting lapped in Stage 2 and finished five laps behind the leaders in 29th, scoring no stage points. That meant the former champion has been eliminated in his retirement season, dashing any hopes of becoming a two-time NASCAR champion for Harvick.

“We’ve been like that all year. We’ve been hit or miss and tonight we just missed by a mile,” Harvick said. “I didn’t really have many expectations with how up and down the year has been. It is what it is and that’s probably about what we deserved.”

1 – Joey Logano (34th)

Joey Logano’s Playoffs hopes ended in carnage when he was caught up in a wreck in Stage 3, but they were on thin ice before that. Logano had nowhere to go to avoid a wreck between drivers battling deep in the field, but he didn’t have the speed to run up higher and avoid that position. Logano finished 24th in the first stage after starting 28th and was lapped by Stage 2 after starting 28th. His Team Penske crew just didn’t bring a fast enough Ford Mustang all weekend, and those wrecks are a product of running in the back.

“I haven’t really felt like we’ve made any big gains that we need to and unfortunately it seems like it’s at every track,” Logano said of his struggles all year. “Typically you may say, ‘Oh, we’re off on a mile-and-a-half, but our short tracks are OK or your road courses are OK.’ It just seems like we’re off everywhere right now, so we’ll see what happens here the rest of the race and if we get knocked out it gives us a few races to swing big and try to figure it out for next year.”

Owen Johnson