Playoff intensity to reach all-time high in Saturday's Bass Pro Shops Night Race
If you are into numerology, then picking the winner of this weekend’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race should be pretty simple. The mathematical pattern of the last two weeks points to the No. 47 Chevy driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as the sport’s next winner.
The veteran Mississippi driver also fits the current trends: not a Round of 16 Playoff driver and also hasn’t won a race this season.
The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs has opened with a lot of unpredictability, as two non-Playoff drivers have claimed trophies the past two Sundays. Erik Jones stunned everyone by powering to a true “Throwback” victory in the iconic No. 43 Chevy at Darlington’s Playoff opener. Bubba Wallace kept the storyline alive Sunday in Kansas when he became the season’s 18th different winner in the second Playoff race, piloting the No. 45 for 23XI Racing to Winner’s Circle.
While that 43-45-47 scenario is fun one to dream about, this is The Last Great Colosseum, and with so may drivers’ Playoff fates up in the air this weekend, it truly promises to be like an intense Gladiator battle once the green flag drops on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (USA Network, PRN Radio, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio).
Stenhouse is a self-confessed Bristol lover, having posted a bunch of second place finishes in his career at The World’s Fastest Half-Mile. So if we see him standing in Bristol’s famed rooftop Victory Lane late Saturday night posing for photos, it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to anyone.
However, sometimes mathematical patterns just don’t apply when it comes to the chaos, mayhem and drama that Bristol seems to consistently deliver.
While Stenhouse would be an excellent pick, the truth is there are other numbers at work. There are so many drivers who run great at Bristol that the cast of potential winners could be covered by a very wide net. As most drivers will tell you, Bristol victories most often come to those who were best at staying out of trouble and surviving 490 laps just to be there at the end.
After two races in the Round of 16 only Christopher Bell is safely in the Round of 12 and enters Bristol worry-free. The other 15 Playoff drivers who have championship dreams will have to put it all on the line on the iconic high-banked all-concrete bullring where so much NASCAR history has unfolded. That .533-mile oval of steeply graded concrete is so highly revered, some have called the venue “The Holy Grail of Short Tracks.”
Certainly, at the top of the Bristol favorites has to be Kyle Busch, who has won nine Cup Series trophies at Thunder Valley including the Food City Dirt Race in April. As an added plotline, he will be making his final Bristol start for Joe Gibbs Motorsports in the famed No. 18 machine on Saturday night. Earlier this week Busch announced he will drive the No. 8 car for Richard Childress Racing starting in 2023.
Others to watch include the defending Night Race winner Kyle Larson, who runs the high side at Bristol as well as anyone. Then there’s Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Joey Logano, to name a few, who could easily take home the massive BMS Trophy and Gladiator Sword on Saturday night.
And when you factor in the Next Gen car’s first visit to Bristol’s concrete surface, past results and expectations can definitely be tossed out the window.
As Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on Sunday’s NBC broadcast as he looked ahead to the Bass Pro Shops Night Race, “We’ve got an incredible battle around the bubble for the Playoffs going into Bristol, which is a very unpredictable race track. We expect it to be physical. Every race has been more physical than we could imagine all year long. We expect Bristol to be a new high in terms of physicality.”
While the scenarios are plenty for the 15 drivers, and if you want an in-depth look at all of the possibilities you should check out reporting ace Bob Pockrass’ Twitter feed, but to break it down in the most simple of explanations, the large majority of the drivers, barring a complete catastrophe, have a chance of advancing just by finishing above a certain spot in the order.
The only driver who enters the race in a must-win situation is three-time Night Race winner Harvick. His scary fire at Darlington combined with his last place finish at Kansas puts him in that unenviable position.
“Yeah, it is what it is,” Harvick said late Sunday. “We were racing to win anyway (at Kansas), so that’s what we will do again (at Bristol).”
Harvick’s teammate, Chase Briscoe, who is 15th in the Playoff order, nine points below the cutline, summed up what’s going to happen at Bristol, quite succinctly.
“It’s going to be chaos this time around,” Briscoe said. “Not even just for the win, but literally all throughout the field. Every point is going to matter. It’s just how these Playoffs are right now, the end of the race is going to be insane. All 500 laps will be wild because this Next Gen car hasn’t seen anything like Bristol. My guys have been double and triple checking everything to make sure we don’t miss anything. Bristol will quickly expose any kind of weakness you have in the car. I definitely think it’s going to be intense from start to finish. As a fan, I’m looking forward to it and I’m excited to see how it turns out, but as I driver I’m really excited too.”
The action on the track begins with Zane Smith, John Hunter Nemechek, Ben Rhodes and defending winner Chandler Smith battling for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory Thursday night in the UNOH 200 presented by Ohio Logistics (Sept. 15, 9 p.m., FS1, MRN Radio). The rising stars in the ARCA Menards Series also will take on the challenging half-mile bullring in the Bush’s Beans 200 as part of the Thursday night doubleheader (Sept. 15, 6:30 p.m., FS1, MRN Radio).
On Friday, Sparks are sure to fly once again in the Food City 300, as NASCAR Xfinity Series favorites Allmendinger, Allgaier, Noah Gragson, Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs and Josh Berry will be trying to lock in their Playoff positions in the season’s final regular season race (Sept. 16, 7:30 p.m., USA Network, PRN Radio) while others like Ryan Sieg, Landon Cassill and Sheldon Creed are in an intense battle to make one of the 12 Playoff spots. The stars of the NASCAR Cup Series will take to the track on Saturday for the Bass Pro Shops Night Race (Sept. 17, 7:30 p.m., USA Network, PRN Radio), you’ll get to see all of your favorite drivers racing hard to advance in the first elimination race of the Playoffs.
To purchase tickets, please visit www.bristolmotorspeedway.com or call the BMS Ticket Sales Center at (866) 415-4158.