BRISTOL, Tenn — The final race of the opening round is here. Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN) marks the 29th race of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season. It’s also an important one because this will set up who makes the Round of 12 or who’s championship hopes get dashed.
Here are the 5 things I’m watching for Saturday’s race at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway.
Can Busch and Harvick Put Distractions Aside And Push Their Ways Back In?
At the moment, both Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick both sit below the cutline in advancing to the Round of 12. Busch is -2 while Harvick is in more of a must win situation at -35. What’s shocking by this is the fact that the duo have combined to have taken 3 of the 8 championships during this new era (2014-present) of racing. On top of that, each are a pair of 60 race winners in the Cup Series at that.
At one point not so very long ago, Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were shoo-ins for Championship 4’s. All 3 made the final round in 2015, 2017, 2018 and again in 2019. No one has as many Championship 4 appearances as these three with each of them having 5 a piece.
When the checkered flag drops on Saturday night, there’s a realistic chance that none of the three will be in the playoffs anymore. Truex never made it while for the first time of each of their careers, both Busch and Harvick could get bounced in Round 1.
Harvick won 9 times in 2020. He went winless until this past August. Busch went winless until the 3rd to last race of the 2020 season. He won twice last year and picked up a fluke Bristol win this past April when the top 2 drivers knocked each other out in going for the win on the final lap in the final set of corners. Busch led just the straightaway all race. If that doesn’t happen, he’d not even be in the playoffs right now either.
Which is why I’m skeptical on if Busch and Harvick can prevail.
Since this race ended in 2020, Harvick and Busch have a combined 6 wins. The thing is, Bristol is the perfect spot for each to do what’s needed to get out of the first round too.
Harvick has 2 straight top 2 finishes here including a top two in both Richmond races this season at that. Busch has 8 Bristol victories himself.
Both are dealing with distractions on top of this. Busch’s future is now set which has to be a load off of his shoulders but can he put this all aside and end his tenure with JGR on a high note?
Harvick is in a battle for safety with NASCAR himself.
Both are seasoned veterans and if anyone can put this aside, it’s them. But can they do enough on Saturday night to get by?
It will likely take a Harvick win and Busch getting a top 5 with some good stage points to get both through.
Can HMS Get Back Going?
Hendrick Motorsports has done a 180 in terms of their driver performances in the postseason. Coming into the playoffs, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott were thriving. Alex Bowman and William Byron weren’t.
Now that we’re 2 races deep, it’s Bowman and Byron leading the charge with Elliott and Larson slumping.
Elliott went from 7 top 5 finishes, 5 of which in the top 2, in a 9 race span to finishes of 29th, 36th and 11th respectively since. He’s still +28 above the cutline but that’s because of all those regular season playoff points.
Larson is the defending race winner here and is +27, but his last 3 finishes on the year are 37th, 12th and 8th respectively.
Byron entered the postseason without a top 10 finish in each of his last 10 starts on the season including just 1 in his final 18 races regular season races. He’s started the postseason with 2 top 10’s in as many tries and is the top driver not locked into the 2nd round at +48. He led a handful of laps and even got a stage win in Darlington for the Southern 500 in an 8th place run and followed that up with a solid 6th place finish last week in Kansas.
Bowman entered the playoffs with 1 top 10 in his last 12 regular season starts and no top 5’s in his final 15 regular season races. He went out and finished 10th in the Southern 500 and 4th while also leading the most laps last weekend in Kansas.
Bowman finished 5th in this race a year ago. Byron was 3rd for his 2nd top 8 in his last 3 Bristol starts. I have a feeling this week will look at lot like the last 2 with HMS remaining flipped in performance.
How Will The Race Look?
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on Thursday night got folks perked up. A one lane bottom groove race track that if you wanted to pass, you had to use the bumper. That’s the old Bristol. Would the old Bristol make a return for Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN)?
The new Bristol has progressive banking to where you can run multiple grooves in the corners with the high lane around the top being one of the preferred lanes.
However, fans were begging for that to go away and a return to the old way. Thursday night proved that it can happen.
The track sprayed PJ1 on the bottom and 4 feet off the bottom lane to. It’s adding grip to the low lane in hopes of making this the preferred groove.
The thing is, they didn’t elect to use the resin which caught some by surprise and they also won’t reapply it as the weekend goes on either.
So what kind of race will we see on Saturday night then?
Prior to last year’s race, I was wondering if short tracks were the wrong route to go for cutoff races. That’s because heading into the the last three seasons now, the way that 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.
Last year, 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. Martinsville the last 2 years was the Round of 8 cut race.
This year, the cut races at Bristol and Martinsville with the ROVAL sandwiched between.
We all figured with short tracks in the playoffs that it would have led to some hurt feelings after them. Last year had some moments between Elliott and Harvick who had their spat at Bristol and it carried over into the Round of 12 cut race on the ROVAL. Then Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin had their run-in last year in Martinsville.
Do we expect more of the same this Saturday night in Bristol?
It depends. You still have to look back at 2020 and how the start of the 2021 playoffs went too for the full picture.
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 before Bristol:
Southern 500 – 11 for 52 laps
Richmond – 5 for 30 laps
Heading into this race last year, that was 16 for 82 laps.
767 laps run with 685 of them under green so far (89%).
Then all hell broke loose.
So what will we witness this time around since the two previous races this year were Darlington and Kansas?
With a more durable car and it being tougher to pass, I feel like we’ll still see chaos. With the old car, you couldn’t risk tearing it up. This time around, it’s the opposite.
“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,” Kurt Busch told me last year on why the intensity was less instead of more.
With needing points and also points racing made the possibility of these races tamer in nature early because it’s not like you can push someone out of the way without potentially damaging your car too. You had to be calculated with your risks and moves. Did points racing make these races tamer and if that’s part of the equation, did NASCAR need to think about moving Bristol back to the August race to spark more controversy and drama.
“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.”
They didn’t end up cautious at the end of Bristol last year and with this new body style, they can rough other cars up and continue racing without the fear of it damaging the panels or creating a tire rub.
We’ll see on Saturday night. If it’s less chaos again, then the question of short tracks as cut races will arise.
There’s also the stage points factor as well.
Getting off to a good start matters this weekend in the sense that not all 16 playoff drivers start can start in the top 10, 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 noted last year 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 much practice and without a race here this spring on concrete, 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.
Just 7 points separate 10th through 14th in the standings. 2 of these drivers won’t advance. Chase Briscoe is 15th and only 9 points below the cutline.
That’s why stage points are so key this weekend.
3rd Straight Non Playoff Winner?
The first two races of the playoffs have gone to non playoff winners. That’s shocking in a sense that never in the history of the postseason prior to 2022 had a non playoff driver won the opening playoff race. Then just 3 times prior to this year did a non playoff driver win at Kansas.
So far, Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace have won the pair of playoff races. Do we go 3-for-3 on Saturday night?
If anyone though does, I look for RFK Racing.
Brad Keselowski has 3 top 6 finishes in his last 4 Bristol starts. His teammate Chris Buescher has 3 top 10’s on short tracks this season including a 3rd place run at Richmond.
I also can’t sleep on Jones to go 2-for-3 this round. He has 6 top 11 finishes in 9 Bristol starts including 4 top 5’s. He was 3rd in this race in 2020 and 8th a year ago.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has 6 top 6 finishes in 18 Bristol starts himself including a runner-up at Dover a similar track back in May.
If we get 3 non playoff winners this round, it’s down to this list of Jones, Keselowski, Buescher or Stenhouse Jr. to make it happen.
There’s a lot of drivers that have been waiting to cash in on a payback and I’m wondering if they occur this week. Ross Chastain has a lot of enemies out to get him. Do they do so on Saturday night?
Luckily he’s +26 on the cutline.
What about Daniel Suarez vs. Christopher Bell. In Bell’s case, he is already clinched through the next round on points. For Suarez, he’s only +6 and I don’t necessarily think it would be wise to start a war with Bell, especially when Suarez has more to lose under the lights.
There’s several others in the garage wanting retaliation but do we really see it or does a new one arise?