BRISTOL, Tenn — Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race was an event that was a survival of the fittest. On a race that saw 12 of the 16 NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers facing some sort of problem, 3 of the 4 that didn’t all resided in the same Hendrick Motorsports camp.
Team Penske saw all 3 cars face right front tire problems and would finish 20th (Austin Cindric), 27th (Joey Logano) and 30th (Ryan Blaney).
Joe Gibbs Racing had tire problems for Christopher Bell (4th) and Denny Hamlin (9th) with mechanical problems for Kyle Busch (34th) and Martin Truex Jr. (36th). Even their alliance team in 23XI Racing had power steering issues too which relegated them to 29th (Bubba Wallace) and 35th (Ty Gibbs).
RCR saw both drivers collected in the same Lap 276 crash that was sparked by Daniel Suarez (19th). They’d finish 25th (Tyler Reddick) and 31st (Austin Dillon).
Pole sitter Aric Almirola had mechanical problems (28th) and Kevin Harvick (10th) had a bad final pit stop.
As a result, you get by default top 5’s for coming to the checkered flag with clean cars for Chase Elliott, William Byron and Kyle Larson.
Alex Bowman likely would have joined them if not for getting collected in that same Lap 276 crash that dropped him to 32nd.
Still, there Elliott was exiting pit lane in 2nd after his final stop. He couldn’t get up to Chris Buescher after the final restart and had to settle for runner-up after crossing the finish line .458-seconds behind.
“Yeah, I mean, I actually really liked my car,” he said. “I thought our Hooters Chevrolet was driving really good, and honestly, I don’t think I could realistically ask for anything more balance-wise.
“I just needed to be able to do a better job getting in some different lanes. And then being second there, the top had gotten so dominant there at the end. The bottom was pretty good there early in the night and you could run down there for a long time, and then as the night went on the top got better and better and better, and that momentum was hard to beat.
“Unfortunately for me, we never got to any lap traffic to make him move, but we were starting to there in those last three or four laps.
“I felt like we were gaining, but it was — I wasn’t close enough to do anything with him. But I appreciate the effort. We had a long day yesterday. Was able to battle back from a bad qualifying effort to get a top 2, so proud of that.
“Glad to be moving on, and looking forward to some more opportunities here these coming weeks.”
It was bittersweet for Elliott who badly wants to win here.
Long before he started racing in the NASCAR Cup Series, Chase Elliott developed a special affinity for Bristol Motor Speedway and the Bass Pro Shops Night Race.
“Yeah, I think Bristol is the one that kind of has that asterisk next to it for me, just because the environment here is so cool,” Elliott said on Friday before Cup practice. “This fall race, at night, 500 laps—this was one of the events that, when I was a kid, it was larger than life.
“You couldn’t get a ticket for this thing for five years. It was just one of those events that everyone wanted to be at, and if you weren’t there or you weren’t talking about it in the early 2000’s, you weren’t living is how I thought it was.”
In fact, the Night Race helped shape Elliott’s decision to follow in the footsteps of his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.
“When I look back at this event and what I remember of it, this was one of the races that made me want to be a race car driver, honestly,” Elliott said.
“The environment here is unmatched, and this event is special. I don’t see another date or track on our schedule that can rival what this environment is on Saturday night in August or September.”
Elliott has made 13 Cup Series starts here now, 7 of which occurring in the night race. One of those was the 2020 All-Star race to which he won. In the points paying races, he’s 0-for-12. It’s not like he’s not been close before though however.
Elliott was 3rd in 2018, 5th in 2019, 7th in 2020 and while he was 25th last year, he had a run-in with Kevin Harvick which cut down a tire and forced him to have an unscheduled pit stop while running in the top 2. Elliott led 129 laps last year. He was 2nd on Saturday night.
It was also a great chance for him to turn his bad luck back around.
I wondered this when 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 entering Bristol were 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 was still +28 on the cutline going into a race that he has to just get by in.
“Yeah, I knew that could happen going in,” said Elliott. “I don’t think anybody is safe. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have the points and I’m glad that we had a good regular season to be able to make that happen, but nobody is safe in these rounds.
“And we want to do better, too. We had a shot to win tonight, but we want to have a shot to win every week. I think we’re very capable of that. We’ve just got to put it all together and execute solid races.”
For Byron, this as his 2nd straight 3rd place finish here and capped a round to which he finished 8th, 6th and 3rd respectively.
Larson was 5th for his 2nd top 5 in the last 8 races but his 3rd top in the last 5. It was also his 7th top 10 in the last 8 Bristol tries including 6 of the 7 in the top 6.