FOX NASCAR Insider
Some NASCAR Cup Series drivers will have a relatively stress-free 500 laps (or more if the race goes to overtime) Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
More than some will have a stressful 500 laps.
Two of the 16 playoff drivers are locked into the quarterfinal round — NASCAR’s Round of 12 — thanks to a win in the first two races of the round at Darlington (Kyle Larson) and Kansas (Tyler Reddick). The remaining 14 drivers will vie for 10 spots, with the four drivers who don’t win and finish the round lowest in points being eliminated.
This is the fourth time the Bristol night race has served as an elimination race. Only three drivers in the last three years who entered Bristol below the cutline have earned spots in the next round:
–William Byron was 18 points below the cutoff in 2021 and rallied to finish two points ahead of the eliminated Aric Almirola, who had entered three points above the cutoff.
–Chase Briscoe was nine points down in 2022 and finished 14 points above the cutoff. Reddick went from two points above the cutoff to two points below.
–In 2021, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch were tied for the final spot entering the race; Bowman finished 10 points ahead of the cutoff while Busch was eliminated by six points.
So considering that no driver with more than a three-point cushion on the cutoff has been eliminated in the last three years, should all of those above the cushion this year — Kevin Harvick has seven points on Martin Truex Jr. for the final spot — feel confident?
The four drivers who are 13 points or fewer ahead of the cutline are likely going to be nervous, knowing that any incident that puts them a lap down could put them in jeopardy. This also is just the second race on the Bristol concrete oval with the Next Gen car, meaning that there is still much to learn about how the car will react in certain situations.
The maximum points a driver can earn in a race without winning is 55. The fewest a driver could earn is 1.
Here is the outlook and clinching scenarios for playoff drivers. Note that drivers more than likely won’t need the points listed to advance as those scenarios require Harvick, who is 12th in the standings, to sweep both stages and finish second.
NASCAR Playoff Standings & Drivers
Kyle Larson (won Darlington)
Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet
Larson was fifth in 2022 at Bristol, a year after he won the playoff race at the track. All he is doing is looking for playoff points for either winning a stage or a victory to help boost his cushion entering the next round. Larson has advanced out of the opening round the last six times he has made the playoffs.
Kyle Larson wins the Cook Out Southern 500
Tyler Reddick (won Kansas)
23XI Racing No. 45 Toyota
Reddick was 25th at Bristol last year and has one top-five in four Cup starts at the track. Reddick already has advanced to the next round — the first time he has advanced as he was eliminated in the opening round in 2021 and 2022.
Denny Hamlin (+49 on 13th)
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota
Hamlin clinches with 14 points (23rd if he earns no stage points) no matter what anyone else does. Hamlin earned 28 points in finishing ninth at Bristol last year. He has two wins and nine top-fives in 32 starts at the track. He has made it out of the first round in eight of the nine playoff seasons. Barring a series of unpredictable circumstances, it will be nine out of 10 after Saturday.
Denny Hamlin on what went wrong for him on the final restart at Kansas
William Byron (+41)
Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet
Byron clinches with 22 points (15th if he earns no stage points) no matter what anyone else does. That should be relatively simple for him. He earned 40 points at Bristol last year on his way to a third-place finish. He has back-to-back third-place finishes and overall three top-10s in eight starts at the track. He has made it out of the first round in three of his previous four playoff appearances. Like Hamlin, he should feel very, very, very good about where he’s at heading into Bristol.
Brad Keselowski (+33)
RFK Racing No. 6 Ford
Keselowski clinches with 30 points (seventh if he earns no stage points) no matter what anyone else does. Keselowski earned 34 points last year but finished 13th after a flat tire ruined his hopes of the win. He had led 109 laps but could celebrate a little bit as his teammate Chris Buescher won the first race for RFK Racing since Keselowski became a co-owner in 2022. Keselowski loves him some Bristol, a track where he has three victories (most recently in 2020) and has led 1,013 laps in 24 starts. Keselowski advanced out of the first round in the first eight years of the playoff system before not making the playoffs in 2022.
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Ryan Blaney (+25)
Team Penske No. 12 Ford
Blaney clinches with 38 points (he would need to earn stage points and the number of stage points would determine where he would have to finish) no matter what anyone else does. Blaney had a flat tire, hitting the wall and then struggling throughout the Bristol race last year to finish 30th, earning just seven points. He doesn’t have a win and just two top-five finishes (and five top-10s) in 13 starts at Bristol. And yet he should be optimistic. He has advanced out of the first round in five of his six playoff appearances, and he even if he had the issues he had last year, all won’t be lost. Last year, he entered with a 36-point cushion and still had a 26-point edge when the checkered flag fell.
Kyle Busch (+24)
Richard Childress Racing No. 8 Chevrolet
Busch clinches with 39 points (he would need to earn stage points and the number of stage points would determine where he would have to finish) no matter what anyone else does. An engine issue, his second in three weeks, ended his 2022 Bristol race — and his playoffs in the first round for the first time in nine years — after 269 laps. Before the engine issue, he was running well, having finished third and fifth in the opening two stages. Busch has had more better days than bad at Bristol, where he owns eight wins (most recently in 2019) and 14 top-fives in leading 2,593 laps in 33 starts. Busch should be fine if he isn’t snake-bitten. The way his recent playoff history has gone, that could be a big if.
Ross Chastain (+18)
Trackhouse Racing No. 1 Chevrolet
Chastain clinches with 45 points (he would need to earn stage points and the number of stage points would determine where he would have to finish) no matter what anyone else does. Chastain earned 40 points in this race last year with a sixth-place finish. It was the first time in six Bristol starts that Chastain finished in the top 10. He just needs to remember he doesn’t need to win – he just needs to finish on the lead lap and should be OK as long as he doesn’t lose too much of a cushion from stage points. Chastain advanced to the championship round last year, his first time in the playoffs.
Ross Chastain on his playoff plan
Need Stage Points
Chris Buescher (+13)
RFK Racing No. 17 Ford
Buescher clinches with 50 points (he would need to earn stage points and the number of stage points would determine where he would have to finish) no matter what anyone else does. Earning 50 points is extremely difficult as it would likely require at least top-five finishes in both stages as well as the race. But Buescher has great memories of Bristol — he led 169 laps there last year on his way to the victory. Those were the first 169 laps he had led at the track in 13 starts. Buescher has made only one previous playoff appearance (in 2016) and did not advance out of the first round, so he will be looking to seize this opportunity.
Christopher Bell (+13)
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota
Bell clinches with 50 points (he would need to earn stage points and the number of stage points would determine where he would have to finish) no matter what anyone else does. Bell earned 52 points last year at Bristol as he finished second in the opening stage, first in the second stage and then, after a flat tire, rallied for fourth. It was his first top-five at the track in four Cup starts. Bell has advanced out of the opening round of the playoffs in each of the last two years. He also is used to delivering clutch performances in elimination races — he won two of them (the Charlotte road course and Martinsville) last year.
Joey Logano (+12)
Team Penske No. 22 Ford
Logano clinches with 51 points (he would need to earn stage points and the number of stage points would determine where he would have to finish) no matter what anyone else does. The defending Cup champion had a suspension issue last year at Bristol and finished 27th. He knows how to get around the track as he has two wins (most recently 2015) and six top-fives in 26 starts at Bristol. He has never been eliminated in the first or second rounds in his eight playoff appearances and the way Logano and his team tend to grind things out, this won’t be anything new for them.
Last year’s champ Joey Logano discusses being a playoff underdog
Be Great Or Get Help
Kevin Harvick (+7)
Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Harvick has no clinching scenario because if a driver below him in the standings wins the race, he would be eliminated unless he catches one of the drivers ahead of him in the standings. Harvick earned 28 points at Bristol last year with a 10th-place finish — that wasn’t good enough for him to advance last year and it won’t be good enough this year. He had qualified seventh at Bristol last year but earned just one stage point, and a key for him will be to earn more stage points. But at least Bristol is one of his best tracks with three wins (most recently 2020) and 14 top-fives in 42 starts. He also knows how to get out of the first round — he had advanced out of the first round for the first eight seasons of the elimination format until coming up short last year.
Martin Truex Jr. (-7 behind 12th)
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota
Truex is the first driver below the cutline and is in danger of not advancing after winning the regular-season title, which would be one of the biggest shocks of the elimination-style format implemented in 2014. Bristol is not one of his best tracks as he has just two top-5-fives and four top-10s in 32 career starts. He finished 36th last year with a steering issue. One good bit of history for Truex? He has advanced out of the first round all seven times he has made the playoffs (he missed the playoffs last year).
Will Martin Truex Jr. and other Cup champions be eliminated after Bristol?
Be Great And Get Help
Bubba Wallace (-19)
23XI Racing No. 23 Toyota
Wallace is in a big hole. He earned just eight points at Bristol last year as he finished 29th. He has just one top-10 at the track in eight career starts and has an average running position of 20th. This is his first playoff experience, and he’s going to need to pull off a stunner to advance.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-22)
JTG-Daugherty Racing No. 47 Toyota
An accident ended his night early at Bristol last season. He does have four top-five finishes (the last coming in 2018) in 18 starts there but will be hard-pressed to rally to get the points he needs. He has never led a lap at Bristol, another sobering fact considering where he sits in the points. In his only other playoff appearance (2017), Stenhouse did advance out of the first round.
Michael McDowell (-40)
Front Row Motorsports No. 34 Ford
If McDowell was above the cutline, he might have a chance to hold off drivers trying to rally. He was 11th there last year and has one top-10 finish in 23 career starts. He has never led a lap at Bristol, not a good sign considering that while mathematically he has a chance to get in on points, in reality he faces a must-win situation. He was eliminated in the first round in his only other playoff appearance in 2021.
NASCAR Playoff Schedule
Round of 16
Round of 12
Round of 8
- Sun., Nov. 5: NASCAR Cup Series Race Championship – Phoenix Raceway
NASCAR Playoff Format
The four drivers who don’t win a round and have the fewest points are eliminated after each of the first three race rounds. The second round consists of Texas, Talladega and the Charlotte road course. The third round is Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville. The four drivers remaining vie for the title at Phoenix with the driver who finishes the best in that race declared the champion.
Points are reset for each of the first three rounds with playoff points earned during the season making the difference at the start. William Byron and regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. started the playoffs tied atop the leaderboard.
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.
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