NASCAR pushes towards Thunder Valley with a wave of new winners still coming

Imagine me telling you a couple of years ago that NASCAR would be returning to North Wilkesboro for the All-Star race, Michael Jordan and Pitbull would be car owners, Kyle Busch would be leaving Joe Gibbs Racing and we’d have 18 different winners in the first 28 races run of the 2022 season.

Oh yeah, Martin Truex Jr. wouldn’t be in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs while Busch and Kevin Harvick would be on the brink of a first round elimination.

I think you’d say that I was crazy. But here we are.

We’re 2 races into the postseason and none of them were won by a playoff drivers. Never in the history of the playoffs (2004-present) did a non playoff driver win the opening round race.

Erik Jones bucked that trend in his Petty GMS car on Labor Day weekend at Darlington of all places. A week later, it was Bubba Wallace’s turn at Kansas with 23XI Racing.

As a result of these wins, just 1 of the 12 spots into the Round of 12 is spoken for. The other 11 are still up for grabs heading into Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN) at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway.

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – SEPTEMBER 11: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Rheem Ford, pits after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on September 11, 2022 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

At the moment, both Busch and 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 (announcement coming on Tuesday) 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.

Another thing that’s worth watching is if Chase Elliott peaked too soon. The regular season champion 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.

He caused a lot of chaos in this race last year that was won by his teammate but can he stay quiet this time around and march to the 2nd round.

Larson is the defending race winner here and is +27, but his last 3 finishes on the year are 37th, 12th and 8th respectively.

It’s their surprise teammates that are stealing the limelight.

William 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.

Alex 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.

Much like Christopher Bell who’s had a top 5 in both playoff races as well as his teammate Denny Hamlin, one could make a case that the top 4 right now are them.

However, Saturday night may be like the other 2 races this round, who can avoid the problems.

For Darlington, Elliott and Briscoe crashed, Harvick’s car went up in flames, Busch’s car went up in smoke, Daniel Suarez’ car had an inspection process penalty, Kyle Larson thought he had an engine going down and just 6 of the 16 playoff drivers left the South Carolina race track with a top 10.

Last week, Harvick and Tyler Reddick each had tire troubles. Briscoe was speeding on pit lane, Hamlin, Busch, Suarez and Austin Dillon each had equipment interference penalties. Busch later spun on Lap 138, while Ryan Blaney had to pit for a 2nd time for a potential loose wheel.

Can that list get trimmed shorter under the lights at the Coliseum?

All Byron has to do is finish 27th or better, Hamlin 26th, Logano 19th, Blaney 15th, Bowman 9th, Elliott 7th, Larson 6th and Chastain 5th. If they can do that even without stage points, they’ll take 8 of the remaining 11 spots available.

The key is, can they do that?

If these troubles for the playoff drivers continue, at a track like Bristol, they’ll fall multiple laps down and likely dash their title hopes.

Survive and advance is what’s on table on Saturday night.

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