Playoff Field Down To 12 After Bristol
What do you get when you mix Michael Buffer, a NASCAR playoff elimination race, a little rain, a new villain, and Dale Earnhardt Jr?
3 words. “It’s Bristol Baby!”
That short but now iconic quote from Junior not only serves as a popular hashtag and marketing tagline for Bristol Motor Speedway. It sums up the racing at the historic “World’s Fastest Half Mile” perfectly.
Bristol has produced so many moments that they have a ring of honor full of them going around the top of the grandstands. From Dale Earnhardt Sr “Rattling his (Terry Labonte’s) cage” in 1995 to Tony Stewart throwing a perfect strike at Matt Kenseth’s hood after Kenseth wrecked him back in 2012, there is no shortage of reasons why the .533 mile concrete oval tucked away in an East Tennessee mountain valley is forever a fan favorite and the perfect place for 16 drivers to rumble for a shot at moving on in the playoffs.
In the 2 weeks leading up to Saturday night, there was definitely no shortage of drama and pressure on the playoff contenders, starting with a wild night in Darlington for the Southern 500, which saw Denny Hamlin dominate a lot of the race only to let it slip away late. The following week at Kansas, the regular season champion — Martin Truex Jr – had a punctured right rear tire that caused him to hit the wall and break a suspension control arm, ending his day within the first 10 laps. That’s just 2 examples of the brutality the contenders went through, all culminating in an even more grueling 500 lap battle at Bristol.
Coming into the night, Martin Truex Jr, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, and Michael McDowell all found themselves on the bubble – needing to fight like heck to either point their way into the next round, or win to ensure it. And unfortunately, they would all have to try and do it the hard way – on points.
Following qualifying and practice, it was evident that the fastest cars were going to be Christopher Bell, who has now won the pole for all 3 playoff races after taking it here by a thousandth of a second over Denny Hamlin, and made for his 5th pole of the 2023 season. But, as he found out the hard way at Darlington, being fast and winning the pole are no guarantee of a win. Kyle Larson turned the fastest lap in practice, yet Ty Gibbs held the fastest 10 lap average in practice with an average speed of 124.291.
All 3 of them were contenders in this race. Yet neither of them would go on to win it.
The action was delayed by weather off and on from square one. Shortly after engines were fired to complete pre-race ceremonies, it began to steadily drizzle, which prompted race control to tell them to shut the engines back off. Once the rain stopped, they got the cars on track and ran several parade laps before once again it began to drizzle, which led to them being brought back to pit road. The third time was the charm as the green flag finally dropped about an hour after the originally scheduled 6:30 start.
Once it did get underway, the race was anything but what many would expect of a Saturday night short track race. There were only 6 cautions, accounting for just 53 laps, with 2 of those being for stage breaks, 1 for rain, and a stoppage for rain during the 1st stage break caution. That is a far cry from some of the bullring type of races Bristol has been known for in the past where they would have 15 or more yellows. It is a trend with the current short track package to see the races become strung out and single-file with long green flag runs, and this race was non exception to that. Regardless of what you might think about this trend/type of racing, it was still a good race, just because of what was at stake alone.
Christopher Bell got out in clean air early on, catching the tail end of the field 26 laps in, making Daniel Suarez the first car to go a lap down. Over the next 20 laps, the battle for the lead between Bell and Denny Hamlin got heated as they navigated through lap traffic. Despite the pressure, Bell held his own up until the first caution came out at lap 70.
Aj Allmendinger was forced up the track after contact from Bell. He slowed up as Denny Hamlin went around him, leaving Austin Cindric with nowhere to go. Cindric plowed into him, prompting the yellow. It was on pit road during this caution that the playoff chaos began.
Denny Hamlin was caught speeding. Kyle Larson, who had worked his way up almost 10 spots after starting dead last in 36th due to a near-crash in qualifying that cost him a lot of time, was sent back to the tail end of the field because he ran over equipment in his pit stall. In the strategy battle, Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie opted to stay out, and would lead the field back to the green on lap 76, holding on to the first and 2nd spots up until Christopher Bell overtook Wallace with about 20 to go in the stage on fresher tires. Bell was about to re-take the lead when rain brought out the 2nd caution on lap 106.
Following the restart on lap 113, Christopher Bell did reclaim the top spot and led the last 5 laps to win the opening stage.
Following the brief red flag, stage 2 went green at lap 140, and thanks to the rain and the fact the cars sat still and cooled for over 15 minutes, the track went back to being a 1-groove surface for a few laps. Several drivers tried to run the high line, particularly in turns 3 and 4, but could not make it stick. As time went on, that groove became the dominant one, especially on the exit of turn 4. Kyle Larson, who worked his way all the way back through the field, used the line to perfection to overtake Bell for the lead at lap 179, with a little help from lap traffic. That lead was short-lived as Bell gave Kyle a dose of his own medicine and overtook him up high off 4 coming into the front stretch.
The lead ballooned to well over 3 seconds up until the last 5 laps of the stage when Larson trimmed back to within a second and a half. But it was ultimately Bell who swept the stages.
Chaos struck on pit road once again for Bell during the 2ns stage break as he entered the leader but then lost 3 spots, giving way to Ty Gibbs taking the lead when the final stage went green at lap 260. It didn’t take long after that to get the biggest incident on track of the night when Corey LaJoie got loose on the backstretch and ended up bouncing off the inside wall and back up the track into traffic, collecting Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Erik Jones, Justin Haley, and Ty Dillon in the process. Logano’s left rear suspension was so heavily damaged that the tire was turned completely sideways, thus ending both his night and his playoff run. Kevin Harvick never recovered, finishing 5 laps down and dashing his hopes of advancing any further in his final NASCAR playoffs.
The action resumed at lap 297, with Ty Gibbs jumping ahead of Hamlin. He held on up until lap 358 when Denny went high off of turn 4 and blew by on the outside going down the front straightaway. Denny never looked back from there.
There would be one more caution when NASCAR basically threw a “fun flag” for Martin Truex Jr getting loose on the frontstretch and bouncing the right rear of his car off the wall, which fortunately kept him from spinning out. But, the yellow was thrown by the time he straightened back out.
The rest of the way, it was a race against traffic and the number of laps left for Kyle Larson, who never could close the gap on Denny Hamlin to any less than 4 tenths of a second even in heavy lap traffic, and in the end, Denny Hamlin secured his spot in the next round with his 51st career victory in the Cup Series, and becoming the winningest driver in cup series history to have not won a championship, surpassing Junior Johnson.
Asked what that means as he chases his goal of winning 60 races and his first championship, Denny said this.
“This era of NASCAR racing, it is tougher to win than it’s ever been. There’s more cars capable of winning. We all run the same parts and pieces nowadays, so finding an edge is difficult. We all share each other’s data, so there are no secrets for drivers anymore. So for me, I feel very blessed and honored to have the amount of wins that we’ve had in this era of NASCAR racing. I’ve been blessed to be with Joe Gibbs. JGR’s team, the 450 people we talked about, the shop built me the fastest cars for decades and now we’re racing NASCAR’s car (the next gen car) and still being successful. So it’s really cool to win on all kinds of different tracks, different cars, different tires, all this different stuff. We’re still finding a way to adapt and win. So, nights like tonight are pleasing. We keep knocking on the door, keep showing up, keep making the final four. Eventually your number will be called (the championship will come). Hopefully this is a year for it to be called.”
Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin had a lot of praise for the Bristol Night race.
“What a fantastic atmosphere. Just electric. (It) Represents everything that is quintessential about Stock car racing. Short track, high bank action everywhere. I say it all the time. The reason I love this track so much is that it shows you just how hard it is to drive these race cars. It’s amazing to watch these guys do what they do. It’s my favorite track, and we won our second Bristol night race. I’m super pumped and really proud of this team.
He also had nothing but respect for Kyle Larson, statomg beating him will take a total team effort and a philosophical shift towards just doing what they do for the love of racing.
“I’ve told all of you how I feel about Larson and his talent. We had such a lead that we kind of got a little conservative behind the eight and some other car there and just kind of had nowhere to go for a little bit. And here comes Larson like a prize fighter off the mat. He was right on our bumper giving us all we wanted one more time. We’ve had our run-ins lately, but when you’re two teams that consistently find yourself up front, you race with a lot of passion and race to win. You’re going to have that, and that’s why we all show up to watch these races, right? I think the world of Larson and his team and I’m just glad we were able to beat him today. We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. All you can do is move on to the next race. Tonight we’re going to enjoy this one. But I told them (the team) in our meeting today that you just got to keep competing at a high level for the love of the game. It can’t be about results. To put in the passion that it takes to perform at this high level, you have to do it for the love of the game. We have to don that and just keep executing at that level and we’ll find ourselves in Phoenix with a shot to get it done”
After tonight, 2 things are evident. The teams to beat if you want the championship are the 11 and the 5. They have been the most consistent all season long. It is also evident that NASCAR has something that it has needed for a while – a villain. That bad guy? Denny Hamlin. And he embraces it.
Will the “dark side” prevail at Phoenix in November or will he fall victim to playoff chaos? Will “Yung Money” prevent a flock of boo birds by taking the upper hand in the rivalry? We have 7 more weeks to find out