BRISTOL, Tenn — Kevin Harvick steamrolled his way into the second round of the playoffs by holding off Kyle Busch on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway for his series-best ninth victory of the season.
Harvick denied the reigning Cup Series champion his first win of the season when he took the lead a little more than 100 laps from the finish and held off every challenge from Busch the rest of the way. Busch furiously tried to catch him as the two weaved their way through lapped traffic, but Harvick held firm in the No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Only six cars finished on the lead lap in a tepid event at the .533-mile bullring revered for bumping and banging. Track officials sold all 30,000 tickets allowed — making Bristol one of the largest sporting events since the pandemic — and the spectators crowded the fence as Harvick celebrated his second win of the playoffs.
Harvick also won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway to open the playoffs.
“Bristol, baby!” Harvick shouted, arms raised to the crowd. “I was so jacked up when we started this race because of you guys. To beat Kyle Busch at Bristol … just kept fighting, we didn’t have anything to lose. Just trying to win a race.”
Busch, who failed inspection twice before the race and drove from the back of the field to lead in his Toyota, was disappointed to finish second.
“Just didn’t have enough there at the end,” Busch said.
Busch Unhappy With Runner-Up, Feels Next Round Will End His Playoff Hopes
Kyle Busch had himself a quietly good first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. He was seventh at Darlington, sixth at Richmond and second at Bristol. Still, hes not confident in his teams’ ability to make it to the Championship 4 for the sixth time in seven years.
“We’ll be eliminated next round,” Busch said after his runner up in the Bristol night race.
The next round isn’t good for him anyways. He has four playoff points to carry with him after his stage win on Saturday night. Half of his last six Vegas finishes he came home 15th or worse. He was 19th last year and 12th this past spring there.
Then it’s to Talladega to where he has two top fives since 2014 there. After that it’s to the ROVAL to where his two starts on that track, he’s finished 32nd and 37th respectively. He was 37th on the Daytona road course last month too.
Add that up and he’s right about seeing his playoff hopes dashed next round.
That’s why he wanted a win so badly on Saturday. It would have given him five more playoff points, which could be the difference in advancing or not.
Instead lapped cars most notable Joey Logano got in his way of making that happen. He wasn’t happy about that either.
SHR Cars Do Enough
Aric Almirola earned his first Bristol top five since 2014. It was his first top five in his last 13 starts on the season too. But, it was enough to advance him to the Round of 12 in the playoffs. He was ninth, eighth and fifth respectively in the first round of the playoffs. He now has 14 top 10 finishes over his last 18 starts on the season now.
Uneventful, but enough.
Same for his teammate Clint Bowyer. He came home sixth on Saturday night in Bristol for his fifth top 10 in his last seven starts on the season but also a pair of seventh place runs last year on this track and a runner up this past spring. He’s had nine top 10’s over his last 11 overall Bristol starts too.
He said he didn’t think about it too much when he saw Byron crashed and knew only three drivers were left to find their ways past him.
Kevin Harvick won two of the three races in the opening round and SHR now has three of the 12 playoff spots to their drivers heading to the Round of 12.
Matt DiBenedetto Makes Up 3 Laps, Doesn’t Have Enough
Matt DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers’ ultimate goal in 2020 was obviously a NASCAR Cup Series championship. The first goal though was to at least make the playoffs to give them a chance to do so. Unfortunately, their championship dreams were dashed on Saturday night.
DiBenedetto, entered in a precarious position. He was -25 in the standings and needed to almost win in order to advance to the second round. They were aggressive early in taking just two tires on his first pit stop following the first caution of the night. The track position paid off, until it didn’t.
He fell towards the end of the run and finished out of the points. Then, in Stage 2, DiBenedetto had to pit early for a loose wheel on Lap 186. That put him down in 29th, three laps down. Remarkably though, he made up all three laps by the end of the stage.
He passed leader Kyle Busch on track for one of his laps back. Then, William Byron crashed on Lap 232 which DiBenedetto took the wave around to get a second lap back. 17 laps later the caution would come out for Ryan Newman, one lap away from the stage break and DiBenedetto was in the free pass spot to get his lap back.
He found new life. It was short lived. He’d get lapped again on Lap 315 and never rebound. DiBenedetto finished 19th, but was way too far out to make the Round of 12.
He said he has a future with the Wood Brothers but it’s only if they want him. DiBenedetto has a multi year contract for 2021, 2022 and 2023 to remain in the No. 21 Ford, but they, not him, hold the year option.
The only way I think he doesn’t remain in that seat is if Team Penske wants to move Austin Cindric up. Penske isn’t likely to expand to a four car team and with all three current drivers back in 2021, Cindric has no where to go other than the Wood Brothers so long as they don’t think another year in the Xfinity Series is needed.
Cindric, won the regular season championship in that series. Does he need another year? His dad is Tim Cindric, so he’s not going to go anywhere outside of the Penske family.
Byron’s Playoff Hopes Dashed
William Byron looked like a sleeper contender to make a long playoff run. He won the regular season finale at Daytona last month and entered the postseason with two straight top five finishes and three top eight’s in his last four starts. He even began the playoffs with a top five finish in the Southern 500 as he brought his No. 24 Chevrolet home fifth for a third straight top five effort.
Then, a rough 21st place finish at Richmond ensued. Bristol’s crash on Lap 232 followed to where he came home 37th and saw his playoff run end. He made it to the Round of 12 last year.
Blaney A Surprise Driver Eliminated In Round 1
No one thought that Ryan Blaney would end his championship dreams in the first round of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Blaney, had a solid first half of the regular season. In fact, I could make a case to where his No. 12 Ford was arguably one of the fastest cars on the race track. He jumped out of the gates to what should have been three straight top two finishes.
He was runner-up in Daytona. Was second at the time of a late race caution a week later in Vegas and second again before a tire problem in the closing laps at Fontana. He crashed to end the west coast swing at Phoenix, then the pandemic happened.
Still, after a rough resumption of his season at Darlington (16th, 21st) he came back with authority. Blaney, rattled off six top four finishes in a seven race span. The only hiccup was a crash while leading at Bristol on May 31.
The silver lining was that the pace was there and following a win in mid June at Talladega, he was there as arguably a championship sleeper. Unfortunately, he’s out already.
Blaney, had a disaster Round 1 to where he finished 24th in the Southern 500, 19th at Richmond and now 13th at Bristol. He’s had no top 10 finishes in his last seven starts of the season, and just one in the last nine races.
Furthermore, over the last 16 races, Blaney has just one top five. He has five top 10’s during that span at that. Eight of his last 16 races have seen him finish 19th or worse.
Add all of that up and you get a first round elimination.
Drivers Eliminated Had No Momentum
Denny Hamlin’s first round finishes were only 13th, 12th and 21st respectively. Martin Truex Jr’s were 22nd, 2nd and 24th. They’ll still advance onto the Round of 12. That’s because the four drivers that were eliminated weren’t any better and they lacked the playoff points to do anything about it.
William Byron started the playoffs with a fifth place run at Darlington but was only 21st and 38th after as he crashed early at Bristol.
Cole Custer finished 12th in Bristol, 14th at Richmond and 23rd in Bristol.
Matt DiBenedetto was 21st, 17th and 19th respectively himself.
Ryan Blaney was 24th, 19th and 13th.
Hard to advance when those are your finishes. Plus, Custer, DiBenedetto and Blaney combined to score no stage points on Saturday night too.
Team Penske Misses Setups
Team Penske started the night great. They rolled off 1-2 and by Lap 75, they were 1-2-5. Throw in Matt DiBenedetto in their alliance car in second, and they had four of the top five cars at the time. Unfortunately, they went too aggressive on the setups and fell off as the long green flag runs went on during Saturday night’s race.
Ryan Blaney dealt with a vibration for a while this evening including pitting for a right front tire in the final stage early.
Joey Logano pit a few laps later for a similar problem.
Brad Keselowski’s power steering went out on Lap 295. Coincidentally enough, it was around that time a night prior to when Penske’s Xfinity Series car that’s driven by Austin Cindric had his power steering go out on Lap 295 while leading on Friday night.
Penske normally has great short run speed and they went aggressive on Saturday night but with the race being clean for so long, it cost him.
Truex’s Bristol Struggles Continue
Martin Truex Jr. was happy entering this week with where he stood in the playoff standings. He was +38 and had room to breath. See, with a cut off race at Bristol and Truex only entering the playoffs just +14 in the playoff standings, this could have been the spot that took him out of the postseason early.
Truex, finished just 24th on Saturday night. It was his 13th time he’s finished outside the top 20 in his last 15 overall Bristol starts. His last six finishes here have been 30th, 30th, 17th, 13th and now 24th. He’s had one top 10 over his last 17 Bristol starts with his last top five being back in 2012.
He leaves still championship eligible and that’s because he swept both stages at Darlington and finished runner-up last week in Richmond.
Truex was 22nd in Darlington at the end following a late race crash with Chase Elliott while going for the lead. He’s just lucky everyone else that was eliminated had a worse opening round.
Hamlin Lucky To Have Playoff Points
Boy does Denny Hamlin have to be happy that he scored 47 playoff points in the regular season. See, his first round finishes in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs were 13th, 12th and 21st. That wouldn’t necessarily be enough to advance you to the next round.
But, he earned an additional playoff point via a stage win last Saturday night in Richmond and easily advances by to the Round of 12.
It’s not like Hamlin didn’t have fast race cars though. He was running third heading to his final pit stop in the Southern 500 but was hit from behind by Jimmie Johnson and missed pit entry as a result too. A week later, he had a pit road speeding penalty while running up front. On Saturday night, his car failed inspection twice and had to start from the rear. He moved up to 11th by the end of the first stage but he ran into the back of Truex in the second stage and damaged the front end of his No. 11 Toyota.
Can they turn things around next round? He only has one top five in his last seven at Vegas and was only 12th and 19th in his two starts on the Charlotte ROVAL. The middle race is Talladega. He may need every bit of those playoff points next round too.
Harvick has 2 wins in 3 playoff races thus far
Harvick Taking Championship Momentum, Hamlin Has Quiet 1st Round
Combined, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin won half of the regular season races. During the pandemic, they won 12 of the 22 races during it. That’s why they were the favorites to win the championship this November at Phoenix. It wasn’t necessarily because they had 57 and 47 playoff points respectively. That was a strong case, but they were the top two drivers in the series.
Hamlin has five top two finishes over the final eight races of the regular season. He and Harvick won four of the final eight races during that span.
Now that the postseason has started, Harvick and Hamlin are going in opposite directions.
Harvick won two of the three opening round playoff races. Hamlin has no top 10’s. Harvick, has 13 top five finishes in his last 16 starts. Two of the three were at Daytona, the other was a seventh place run at Richmond.
Hamlin, has one top 10 over his last five starts. Still, it’s not like he’s had slow race cars. He was third heading to his final stop at Darlington before getting run in the back of by Jimmie Johnson while trying to come to pit road. He went from third to 13th. A week later, he won the second stage at Richmond but had a pit road speeding penalty. He’d finish 12th. On Saturday night, he ran into the back of Martin Truex Jr. early.
Now, I don’t necessarily expect much out of him in the Round of 12 either. He has one top five in his last seven Vegas starts and no top 10’s in his two ROVAL starts. The middle race is Talladega. Hamlin may enter the Round of 8 quiet, but he can turn it on instantly too.
Bristol ended some momentum for some drivers on Saturday night. Alex Bowman had four straight top 10 finishes on the season but a vibration in the final stage dropped him to 19th at the end. Joey Logano had eight top 10’s over his last nine races but he too had a vibration in the final stage and would finish 11th.
Martin Truex Jr. had nine top four finishes in his last 10 tries but was only 24th. Austin Dillon had four top 10 finishes in his last six including second in Darlington and fourth in Richmond but just 12th at Bristol.
Can they recapture the magic next weekend in Vegas?
Elliott Solid Round 1, Gives HMS Just 3rd Stage Win In Last 20 Races
Chase Elliott entered as a favorite to win Saturday night’s Bristol Night Race. He should have won the spring race here after sweeping both stages. He crashed out with Joey Logano with two to go while battling for the lead.
Then, he won the All-Star race on this same track back in July. The momentum was back with seven top 10 finishes in his last nine starts on the season including what should have been a win in the Southern 500. He crashed while battling for the lead with Martin Truex Jr.
Then came Bristol again. He won Stage 1 to give Hendrick Motorsports just their third Stage win over the last 39 stages (20 races). They had four stage wins in the first six stages, one in each of the first three races and 10 in the first nine races (19 stages). But, over the next 19 races (38 stages), they had just two stage wins.
Then, Elliott comes out with a vengeance. Unfortunately, his pace fell off and he came home seventh for his third top seven in his last three Bristol night races.
Jones Had Himself A Good Round 1…He’s Not In The Playoffs
Erik Jones missed out on the postseason this year. It was the first time since his rookie season that he didn’t race for the championship in September. The last two years, he finished 40th, 11th and 30th in Round 1 of 2018 and 36th, 38th and 40th in Round 1 of 2019. That got him eliminated in the opening round of each.
This year, he’s not championship eligible, but he finished fourth in the Southern 500 and third on Saturday night in Bristol. That would have got him by to the second round. That’s 2020, right?
Jones’ only top 10 finishes over his last 10 starts on the sesaon came in the playoffs, two for three. That’s the opposite of his last couple of years.
He says that while he’s a free agent next year, he hopes these runs lead to something new quickly
As far as a timeline, he says he’s talked to multiple teams, it’s just the old funding dilemma.
Short Track Races In Playoffs Not As Exciting As We Thought They’d Be
Heading into the 2020 season, the way the cutoff races shaped up, well it appeared to be full of fireworks. Two short tracks and a ROVAL sandwiched in between them as the three cutoff races in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
The first round would have the Southern 500, Richmond and Bristol. The second round had Talladega and the ROVAL in Charlotte to close the Round of 12.
But, we all figured two short tracks in the playoffs would have led to some hurt feelings after them. Instead, it was anything but.
Richmond only saw three cautions for 21 laps. The only three were for stage breaks and the competition caution.
Bristol saw just five cautions for 50 laps all night. That’s eight combined cautions, three for crashes but two were for single car incidents. 900 laps of racing with just 71 of them run under yellow in the playoffs on two short tracks.
No bump and runs. No crashing finishes. No excitement that we thought we’d have. Kurt Busch kind of warned that something like this could happen though.
“The anxiety will be higher, the nerves of course,” Busch said on Thursday of what to expect this weekend at Bristol. “The ambiance of excitement. Still, everybody has to protect their points and the race car and not run into somebody and get a fender rub. That’s what led to Richmond’s lack of excitement and that’s what can happen at Bristol.”
He said that if that happened, which is absolutely did, we’d have to question if we need to move these races back to the regular season.
“Then, that would be a question of ‘oh wait a minute maybe we need to move this race back to August when guys aren’t necessarily worried about points as much and let the rough edges dry,” Busch continued.” Dump somebody. Wreck some cars and not have to pay such a big points penalty.’
“That’s the difference in playoff racing in that everybody is making sure that they get every point possible. Therefore they are driving more cautiously.”
We didn’t see many guys get into one another at Bristol which is very un Bristol like. We saw so much action this past spring which is why we expected more the second time around too.
Round 1 cautions –
Southern 500: 7 for 34 laps
Richmond: 3 for 21 laps
Bristol: 5 for 50 laps
Total: 15 for 105 laps
1,267 laps run with 1,162 of them under green (92%)
Wild stat for an entire round when 2 races were short tracks