NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN)

Why Aren’t Short Track Races In Playoffs As Exciting As We Thought They’d Be?

Heading into the the least two seasons, 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 now for two years straight.

Richmond last year only saw three cautions for 21 laps. The only three were for stage breaks and the competition caution.

Bristol a year ago 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 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 2020 –

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%)

Round 1 cautions 2021 –

Southern 500 – 11 for 52 laps

Richmond – 5 for 30 laps

Bristol…

So far, that’s 16 for 82 laps.

767 laps run with 685 of them under green so far (89%).

Wild stat for an entire round when 2 races were short tracks. So, what will we see on Saturday night? Richmond was tame again last weekend, so even though the points are closer on the bubble than at this point last year, I expect another tamer than normal race.

Last year’s spring race at Bristol race looked like the Bristol of old. The All-Star race in July and the playoff race in September looked like a parade.

The All-Star race last year may have been under the lights but the traction compound caused the concrete racing surface to feel like they were racing on ice. You just couldn’t get close to anyone. This weekend, the drivers note that you have a Truck, Xfinity and ARCA race before the Cup race even goes off on Saturday and that usually that helps the grip levels. Plus, with 500 laps, the track will come in as the races goes on too, meaning the old Bristol should be back for this race.

The thing is, with what’s at stake, the track may provide racing like the old Bristol but the drivers may not want to take it again.

With needing points and also points racing may make this race tamer early because it’s not like you can push someone out of the way without potentially damaging your car too. You have to be calculated with your risks and moves on Saturday night. Does points racing make this race tamer which he wondered if it does, will this race move back to August?

Or, it can do the opposite and make this race more intense and prove this track belongs where it’s at on the schedule. Saturday night will prove a lot.



Is Hendrick Motorsports In Trouble?

Entering the playoffs, we questioned on if Hendrick Motorsports could lock out the final round. After two races, I wonder if they’ll see two drivers eliminated in the first round now.

Alex Bowman is tied for the 12th and final spot to advance on. William Byron is 15th out of 16, 18 points out. Bristol hasn’t been a great track for either driver, which makes me question on if either can advance.

Bowman, has just one top five finish in his last 11 starts on the season. He has just two stage points all playoffs. In Bristol, he was 23rd and 15th in 2019 and 37th and 16th in 2020. That’s not going to cut it.

Byron, hasn’t scored a stage point yet this postseason and has been 23rd or worse in five of his last eight starts on the year. He was 34th and 19th respectively in the playoffs and 18th or worse in five of his six Bristol starts on the concrete.

When they’re chasing Kurt Busch who’s won six times on this track and has four top 10’s in his last five there including three top six finishes in his last five starts on the season, watch out. Aric Almirola was fifth in this race last year and is one spot ahead of Busch in the standings. Kyle Busch has three wins in his last six Bristol tries including four straight top twos there. Brad Keselowski has a pair of top threes in his last four tries on the Last Great Coliseum.

Translation then?

They’re in trouble.



Has Stage Racing Has Altered Bristol Setups?

Getting off to a good start matters this weekend in the sense that all 16 playoff drivers start in the top 8 Rows and if you do the math, at the very least, six of them can’t score stage points. With advancing to the second round of not coming down to likely a mere few points, you need to position yourself up front by the end of the first stage.

Kurt Busch notes that for this reason, stage racing has altered your Bristol setups. In the past, you used to set your car up for the second half of the race. You’d go into it with a car that you knew would be good from Lap 250 on. You can’t do that anymore. You have to set it up for Lap 1 because of how crucial stage points are. You can’t give them up.

The playoff bubble is tight and stage points can be the reason you move onto the Round of 12 or are eliminated instead.

Without practice and without a race here this spring, you better hope that from Lap 1 on, you have the right communication to work on the car as the race goes on and stay ahead of it. If not, you could score stage points in the first stage but falter as the race goes on. You need to be setup from the get go but tinker with the car as the race goes on to remain relevant.

This postseason has proved just how beneficial stage points are. The bottom four in the standings that are in danger of being eliminated in the opening round have the four lowest stage points accumulated through two playoff races.


Will Toyota Sweep The 1st Round

Toyota was vocal entering this postseason that there’s a very real chance that they could sweep the first round. Well, they’re 2-for-2 so far with an eye on a clean sweep. Will it happen?

Denny Hamlin has a top two finish in both playoff races to go along with lead 45% (343-for-767) of all laps this postseason. He won this race in 2019.

Kyle Busch has three wins in his last six Bristol starts including four straight top fours. Three of those four are top twos.

Christopher Bell was runner-up in Loudon and third in Richmond last week. he has five top eight’s in his last nine starts on the season and was very good on this track in the Xfinity Series.

I’d say the chances are high then.

For Martin Truex Jr. he finally has room to breathe this week. He just won and is automatically into the Round of 12. That’s a good thing because Bristol isn’t one of Truex’s best tracks. In fact, it’s one of his worst.

Truex, finished 24th last year. 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.

Luckily for him, he’s not needing a solid result to move on because if he did, this could be his kryptonite. His teammates though could pick up the slack and sweep all three races in Round 1.


Who Advances To The Round of 12?

For the second straight year, Bristol is the Round of 16 cut race. This is the fifth different track in series history to host the third race of the Playoffs; joining Talladega Superspeedway (2004-2005), Kansas Speedway (2006–2010), Dover International Speedway (2011-2017) and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course (2018-2019).

A total of 13 different drivers have won the third race of the Playoffs, led by Jimmie Johnson (2008, 2013), Greg Biffle (2007, 2010), and Tony Stewart (2006, 2009) with two each. Three times the third race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs has been won by a non-Playoff driver. In 2005, NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett was 14th in points when he won the Talladega Superspeedway Playoff race. Then in 2006, NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart was ranked 11th in points when he won the Kansas Speedway Playoff race. And finally, Greg Biffle was ranked 14th in points when he won the 2007 Kansas Playoff race.

Third Race of the Playoffs – Race Winners
Track Playoff Race Winners Date
Bristol Charlotte RC Chase Elliott Sunday, September 29, 2019
Charlotte RC Ryan Blaney Sunday, September 30, 2018
Dover Kyle Busch Sunday, October 1, 2017
Dover Martin Truex Jr Sunday, October 2, 2016
Dover Kevin Harvick Sunday, October 4, 2015
Dover Jeff Gordon Sunday, September 28, 2014
Dover Jimmie Johnson Sunday, September 29, 2013
Dover Brad Keselowski Sunday, September 30, 2012
Dover Kurt Busch Sunday, October 2, 2011
Kansas Greg Biffle Sunday, October 3, 2010
Kansas Tony Stewart Sunday, October 4, 2009
Kansas Jimmie Johnson Sunday, September 28, 2008
Kansas Greg Biffle Sunday, September 30, 2007
Kansas Tony Stewart Sunday, October 1, 2006
Talladega Dale Jarrett Sunday, October 2, 2005
Talladega Dale Earnhardt Jr Sunday, October 3, 2004

Since the inception of the Playoffs in 2004, three times the winner of the third race of the postseason has gone on to win the title that same year.  In 2008, Jimmie Johnson won the third race of the Playoffs at Kansas Speedway and went on to win his third consecutive title. It was his first of three Playoff wins that season (Kansas, Martinsville-2, Phoenix-2). In 2012, Brad Keselowski won the third race of the Playoffs at Dover International Speedway and went on to win his first series title. It was Keselowski’s lone win during the 2012 Playoffs. Then in 2013, Jimmie Johnson won the third race of the Playoffs at Dover International Speedway and went on to win his sixth series title. It was his first of two Playoff wins that season (Dover-2, Texas-2) for the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

The worst finish by a driver in the third NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race that went on to win the series title that same season was:

  • At the Charlotte Road Course (2018-2019): In 2019, Kyle Busch finished 37th at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course – the third race of the Playoffs – and went on to win the title later that season.
  • At Dover (2011-2017): In 2011, Tony Stewart finished 25th at Dover International Speedway – the third race of the Playoffs – and went on to win the title later that season.
  • At Kansas (2006-2010): In 2006, Jimmie Johnson finished 14th at Kansas Speedway – the third race of the Playoffs – and went on to win the title later that season.
  • At Talladega (2004-2005): In 2004, Kurt Busch finished fifth at Talladega Superspeedway – the third race of the Playoffs – and went on to win the title later that season.

In total Bristol Motor Speedway has hosted 121 NASCAR Cup Series races dating back to the inaugural event on July 30, 1961 – the race was won by Jack Smith (with relief from Johnny Allen) driving a Pontiac. The 121 NASCAR Cup Series races at Bristol have produced 51 different pole winners and 42 different race winners. NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip leads the series in wins at Bristol Motor Speedway with 12 victories; including eight straight (1978, 1979, 1981 sweep, 1982 sweep, 1983 sweep, 1984, 1986, 1989, 1992).  Eight former Cup Bristol winners are entered this weekend, led by Kyle Busch with eight victories (Spring 2007, 2009 sweep, Fall 2010, Spring 2011, Fall 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019), followed by Kurt Busch (six wins), Matt Kenseth (four), Brad Keselowski (three), Joey Logano (three), Kevin Harvick (three), Jimmie Johnson (two) and Denny Hamlin (two).

Can’t Eliminate This: Previous drivers that have raced their way into the Round of 12

Since the introduction of the ‘elimination style’ format of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2014, several drivers have raced their way into the Round of 12 in the third and final cutoff race of the Round of 16.

2014: Heading to the Dover (third race of the Playoffs) in 2014, Denny Hamlin was ranked 13th in the Playoff standings and six points back from the Round of 12 cutoff. Hamlin finished 12th at Dover and advanced on points, knocking AJ Allmendinger (23rd-place finish at Dover) out of the Playoffs.

2015: Heading to the Dover (third race of the Playoffs) in 2015, Kevin Harvick was ranked 15th in the Playoff standings, 23 points back from the Round of 12 cutoff and Kyle Busch was ranked 13th in the Playoff standings just one point behind the Round of 12 cutoff. Kevin Harvick won the race at Dover and automatically advanced to the next round. Kyle Busch finished second at Dover and advanced on points to the Round of 12 knocking Jamie McMurray (fourth-place finish at Dover) and Jimmie Johnson (41st-place finish due to mechanical issues at Dover) out of the Playoffs.

2016: Heading to the Dover (third race of the Playoffs) in 2016, Austin Dillon was ranked 13th in the Playoff standings just five points back from the Round of 12 cutoff. Dillon finished eighth at Dover and advanced on points knocking Kyle Larson (25th-place finish at Dover) out of the Playoffs.

2017: The four drivers below the Round of 12 cutline heading into the third race of the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs at Dover International Speedway – Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch – all failed to advance to the Round of 12 and were eliminated from the Playoffs following the Dover race.

2018: Heading to the Charlotte ROVAL (third race of the Playoffs) in 2018, Clint Bowyer was ranked 13th in the Playoff standings and four points back from the Round of 12 cutoff. Bowyer finished third at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course and advanced on points knocking Austin Dillon (39th-place finish at the Charlotte ROVAL due to an incident) out of the Playoffs.

2019: Heading to the Charlotte ROVAL (third race of the Playoffs) in 2019, Clint Bowyer was ranked 14th in the Playoff standings, four points back from the Round of 12 cutoff and Alex Bowman was ranked 13th in the Playoff standings just two points behind the Round of 12 cutoff. Bowyer finished fourth and Alex Bowman finished second at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course. Both drivers advanced on points to the Round of 12 knocking Kyle Larson (13th-place finish at Charlotte) and Aric Almirola (14th-place finish at Charlotte) out of the Playoffs.

2020: Like 2017, all four drivers below the cutline failed to advance.

I feel like Saturday night will be like 2017 and 2020 and this being the third time in five years that no one new bumped their ways back in.

See, Brad Keselowski (+13), Kyle Busch (+8), Aric Almirola (+3) and Kurt Busch (+0) hold onto the final four spots on the good side of the cut line. The thing is, they’ve combined to win 5 of the last 7 at Bristol on the concrete including Keselowski having 2 top 3’s in his last 3 there, Busch 3 top 2’s in his last 4 including 4 straight in the top 4, KuBusch having 4 top 10’s in his last 5 and Almirola being fifth a year ago.

Good luck surpassing them especially when you need stage points too. The bottom four in the standings have combined for six stage points through the first two playoff races. Keselowski is the only one among the guys on the good side to have less (4).

Still, Alex Bowman (-0) has just one top five in his last 11 starts on the season and four straight finishes of 15th or worse at Bristol. Tyler Reddick (-5) was fourth in this race last year but he’s only had two top fives all season. His last four finishes on the year were 21st, 29th, 18th and 15th.

William Byron (-18) has no stage points at all this playoffs, five of his last eight finishes being 23rd or worse and 5 of his 6 Bristol starts seeing him finish 16th or worse.

That leaves Michael McDowell (-38) who was 10th in this race last year, but also has no stage points this postseason and has seen his last 14 races result in a finish of 16th or worse.

According to this, I’ll say no one new bumps their ways back in.

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