Did Chase Elliott Peak Too Early?
I wondered this when Chase Elliott was rattling off top 2 after top 2 finish back in the middle of the summer. One could have made a case that Chase could have won all 5 races in that stretch. Even though Watkins Glen, Elliott had 5 top 5 finishes in a 7 race span.
Was it all too soon?
We’ve seen this in sports over the years. Teams peak too early. Others get hot at the right time and carry that over to a championship run. Did Elliott begin his ascension too soon?
His last 3 finishes are 29th, 36th and 11th respectively. He’s finished outside the top 10 in 5 of his last 7 races. The only reason he’s safe for this round are his playoff points he accumulated. Elliott is still +28 on the cutline going into a race that he has to just get by in.
But is this a week that he also needs to send another message? Because it’s not like the Round of 12 tracks may be much better for him.
1st up is Texas. Elliott has 8 top 11 finishes in the Lonestar state but just 3 top 5’s. 1 of which was last year’s All-Star race. In points paying events, his last Texas top 5 was Nov. 2016.
Then it’s to Talladega to where anything can happen. His playoff finishes there are 12th, 16th, 31st, 8th, 5th and 18th respectively.
Then you have the ROVAL to close it down to where HMS has no road course victories this season.
Elliott needs some mojo back.
Has Stage Racing Has Altered Bristol Setups?
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 or 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, especially this year with so many drivers within a few points above or below the cut line.
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.
Who Advances To The Round of 12?
For the second 3rd 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 15 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.
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.
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: The four drivers below the Round of 12 cutline heading into the third race of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs at Bristol Motor Speedway – William Byron (-3), Cole Custer (-8), Matt DiBenedetto (-25) and Ryan Blaney (-27) – all failed to advance to the Round of 12 and were eliminated from the Playoffs following the Bristol race.
2021: Heading into Bristol Motor Speedway (the third race of the Playoffs) in 2021, Aric Almirola was ranked 11th in the Playoff outlook, up three points on the Round of 12 cutline. Kurt Busch was ranked in the 12th and final position to advance on points to the Round of 12, and he was tied with 13th place Alex Bowman; followed by Tyler Reddick in 14th (-5 points), William Byron in 15th (-18) and Michael McDowell in 16th (-38). Byron finished third and Bowman finished fourth at Bristol, and both drivers advanced on points to the Round of 12 knocking Aric Almirola (18th-place finish), Kurt Busch (19th-place finish) out of the Playoffs. Reddick (12th-place finish) and McDowell (24th-place finish) also failed to advance to the next round.
This year, the bubble is close. No one has clinched their spot into the next round yet. The ones to really watch are Daniel Suarez (+6), Tyler Reddick (+2), Austin Cindric (+2), Kyle Busch (-2), Austin Dillon (-3), Chase Briscoe (-9) and Kevin Harvick (-35).
William Byron (8th, 6th playoffs) just has to finish 27th or better on Saturday night. He’s done so 7 times all season but has 2 top 8’s in his last 3 Bristol starts and won at Martinsville earlier this spring. Denny Hamlin (2nd, 2nd playoffs) has a good enough cushion and just needs to finish 26th or better. Joey Logano is a two-time Bristol night race winner and only needs to finish 19th or better. He has seven top 10s in his last 12 Bristol starts and if not for late race contact with Chase Elliott last spring of 2020, he would have won or at the very least finished second then too. He’s also has 4 top 8’s on short tracks this season and 5 top 6’s in the last 7 races on the overall season at that.
Ryan Blaney (13th, 9th playoffs) just needs a top 15 on Saturday night. Last year was just his second career Bristol top five. However, while the finishes weren’t there prior, he had led at least 47 laps in five of his previous 7 Bristol starts including 3 of which being over 100 laps led at that. He also has finished 4th three times on short tracks this season too.
Which is why it’s down to this grouping on the bubble.
Harvick won this race in 2020 and was 2nd last year. He just won at Richmond last month. Busch in an 8-time Bristol winner on concrete and even won the dirt race this past April.
Reddick concerns me because while he finished fourth in this race in 2020 but 12th last year and has been 12th or worse in all but 1 short track start this season. Dillon has just 1 top 10 in his last 9 Bristol tries and 5 of his 7 short track finishes have been 15th or worse this season…
Briscoe has no top 10’s in any of his last 14 races run on the season.
I think a hungry Harvick gets the win and the four eliminated are Reddick, Dillon, Briscoe and Cindric.
Is This A Crown Jewel?
The Daytona 500. The Southern 500. The Coca-Cola 600. All easily identifiable crown jewels on the NASCAR schedule. The Brickyard 400 used to be when it was around. The question now is, does the Bristol Night Race get elevated into that Brickyard spot or do you just leave the crown jewels at 3?
Everyone wants to win the Bristol Night Race. It’s a career defining achievement. But does it classify as a “crown jewel?”
How much does this race being a cut race make it a crown jewel or does the lack of intensity because it is a playoff race diminish it?
Does The Spring Race Being On Dirt Add To This Races’ Value?
It’s no secret, the crowds were dropping year over year for the two Bristol races. That’s why the change was made to do something about the spring race. They were fearful of Bristol being forced to lose a date and the one in question would be the steepest decline in attendance and that being the spring event. So in came dirt. It was controversial and still some wonder if it was the right decision.
However, higher ratings and a boost in attendance says otherwise. As a result of that though, does that add to the intrigue of the summer night race?
This used to be a huge event on the schedule and while it remained big, it wasn’t like it used to be. However, moving the race into the playoffs and now having the spring race on dirt, does that add to the allure of the night race now?
The crowds surely are to go up and this is after all, the only time to see NASCAR on the concrete portion of the track. For those whining about dirt on Bristol, they’ll surely put their money where their mouths are and show up this weekend, right?
Actually they likely will. The attendance seemed bigger in 2021 and I expect it even bigger in 2022.