NASCAR will cap its wreck-heavy opening playoff round with a race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday. The Bass Pro Shops Night Race starts at 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN.
Four drivers will be eliminated from the postseason based on their finish at the 0.533-mile short track. Alex Bowman (0 points to the cut), Tyler Reddick (-5), William Byron (-18) and Michael McDowell (-38) all sit below the cut line entering the race, with Kurt Busch tied with Bowman in points.
Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. each earned a win in the first two playoff races to advance to the next round, along with Kyle Larson on points. Larson and Kyle Busch are the favorites to win this weekend at +450 odds, according to BetMGM.
That means my take isn’t entirely creative, because I’m predicting a Joe Gibbs Racing sweep in the first round with Kyle Busch taking the checkered flag. Busch has the most wins at the track of active playoff drivers with eight career Cup victories at Bristol. He finished second in this race last season, behind Kevin Harvick, and had a top-10 finish at Richmond last weekend (ninth), which could have easily been a top-three had it not been for his late-race speeding penalty.
Plus, the organizational dominance JGR has demonstrated this round is hard to discount. Could Bowman or Byron pull off an upset and ensure another Hendrick car advances with a win? Sure. Bristol’s tight turns are hard on tires and always make for unexpected exits. They’ll be scrapping for positions, along with Kurt Busch, who has six wins in 40 races at Bristol.
As for drivers exiting after this round, Michael McDowell essentially needs to win to advance, which is unlikely given his recent race finishes and track record. His best Cup finish at Bristol was 10th last season. Aric Almirola is starting near Reddick on Saturday with Almirola having just a three-point advantage above the cut heading into the race. He’s in jeopardy, too, since Almirola’s finished in the bottom-20 at Bristol more times than not, and he’s DNF’d 30 percent of his races at the track. Reddick has DNF’d half his Cup races there, but he’s only entered two events (excluding the dirt race). He crashed out once compared to Almirola’s seven early exits in 23 Bristol Cup races. Byron has DNF’d 17 percent of his Bristol entries, Bowman sits at 10% and Kurt Busch just below eight percent.
It’s not a perfect measure, but an early exit for any of those drivers would make all the difference. Therefore, I predict Kurt Busch and Bowman will sneak through to the Round of 12, while Almirola will drop below the cutoff, joining Byron, Reddick and McDowell among the drivers eliminated from the playoffs.
Martin Truex Jr. is starting on the pole with Denny Hamlin in the front row.
How to watch NASCAR Cup race at Bristol
Race: Bass Pro Shops Night Race
When: Saturday, September 18
Time: 7:30 p.m. EST
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 266.5 miles (500 Laps) with stages ending on laps 125, 250 and 500
NASCAR at Bristol Night Race Cup starting order
Martin Truex Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.