Nothing is assured—in motorsports, it never is—but most of the favorites projected to advance deep into NASCAR’s 10-race Playoff Series are holding serve after two of the three Round 1 races.
The upcoming 500-lapper at the bullring in Bristol, Tennessee, on Saturday night will trim the original field of 16 title hopefuls to 12.
Based on points, regular-season champion and five-time winner Kyle Larson is assured of advancing to Round 2 and its races at Las Vegas, Talladega, and Charlotte. Former champion Martin Truex Jr. also is in based on Saturday night’s victory at Richmond, and one-time winner Denny Hamlin will advance based on his Labor Day weekend victory at Darlington.
It seems safe—or is it?—to suggest that 4th- through 10th-ranked Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, and Kyle Busch are likely to advance via points.
Less secure are 11th-ranked Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch, and Alex Bowman, tied for 12th, the final transfer point.
The bottom three in the standings and below the cutoff line—14th-ranked Tyler Reddick, 15th William Byron, and 16th Michael McDowell—are in serious jeopardy of not making it through. It’s possible, of course, but only if they run well while drivers ahead of them struggle, finish poorly, and tumble down the standings.
The Busch brothers have 14 combined victories at Bristol: Kyle has eight and Kurt six, so it’s reasonable to assume they’ll run well enough to improve or maintain their points position and advance. Even during an uncharacteristically poor season, Harvick’s three career Bristol victories give him reason to believe. Keselowski has three Bristol victories and Logano two.
No other Playoff drivers have won at the half-mile, high-banked track with a “free-for-all” reputation that goes back decades. Elliott has five top-10 finishes, Almirola and Blaney each has four, Truex Jr. has three, Bowman two, and Bell, Byron, McDowell, and Reddick one each.
After Richmond, several Playoff drivers took a stoic approach to what’s next on the schedule.
“Being in a decent spot going into Bristol is what it’s all about right now,” said Logano, a former champion who sits 40 points above the cut line. “It’s about being solid and getting every point, so we’re getting them. We’re doing what we’ve got to do. We’re grinding them out.”
Bell is optimistic about Bristol, although he’s well aware of what can happen there. “I feel good about it because Bristol is a really good race track for our company (Joe Gibbs Racing) and me,” he said. “It’s just you can get caught up in stuff so easily. It’s nice to have a (points) buffer and hopefully we can go to Bristol and have an uneventful event.”
Blaney is comfortable enough on points (28 above the line) to approach Bristol somewhat relaxed. “I think we should just have a normal race, just go out and run a normal race like we did tonight and work on our car all night,” he said. “That’s how we have to approach it. I think we can do that.”
Reddick was fourth last fall at Bristol, and he’s hanging onto that result as a reason to hope. “I feel good about Bristol because it’s a shining moment of hope,” he said. (He’s five points below the advance line). “There’s not going to be room for error from the drop of the green to lap 500. We’re going to have to have it together; we’re going to have to be right from the start.”
For Almirola, things could be better, but … “I think we’re competitive; we’re in the hunt,” he said. “But in this situation, we can’t really give up any points. It would have been a lot nicer to go to Bristol plus 12 instead of plus three or four, but it is what it is. We’ve got to go racing and score as many points as we can.”
Keselowski, another former champion, can only hope to perform at Bristol as he often has. “Thirteen over the cutline isn’t great, but it’s better than being behind,” he said after Richmond. “It could be worse but obviously could be better.”
For Byron, 18 points below the line, the game plan for Bristol is simple: “Just try to race hard and see if we can win it,” he said. “That’s pretty much what we probably have to do. We have to go there and race as hard as we can.”
And hope for the best.
NASCAR PLAYOFF STANDINGS
Note: The bottom four drivers in the standings will be cut from the 16-driver field following the Night Race at Bristol on September 18. A win at Bristol would also advance a driver into the second round.
* – Clinched spot into second round.
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