Will the third race indeed be the charm for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoff crowd? After whiffing on victory lane the past two weeks, the first time in history that championship-eligible drivers have failed to win two straight races in this format, Bristol Motor Speedway offers an opportunity for one of these 16 contenders to right the ship.
With so much on the line, only a few drivers are breathing easy entering this race, most of them unexpected surprises. The current point leader, Christopher Bell, didn’t win this season until New Hampshire in July and is often overshadowed by his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. William Byron, sitting second in points, hasn’t earned a top-5 finish in over five months. Third-place man Denny Hamlin would be 12th, some 282 points out of the lead without a postseason reset.
Behind them, trendy Championship 4 picks find themselves in precarious positions. Regular season champion Chase Elliott has qualified outside the top 20 three races in a row; he’s 28 points above the cut line and could fall under it if he gets caught up in a wreck Saturday night. Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch is 13th, two points outside the top 12 after spinning out at Kansas last Sunday. And Kevin Harvick sits dead last, in a must-win situation after three straight DNFs for the first time in his Cup career (782 starts).
Expect Bristol to add to the chaos, a .533-mile oval where you’re constantly racing in traffic. Wrecks happen here so quickly, it’s often impossible to react; changes in pit strategy and track position can happen at a moment’s notice. Over 20 percent of the race was run under caution here as recently as 2020, meaning survival is priority one at a short track named Thunder Valley for a reason.
One of the sport’s big-time events tends to favor its best drivers. The last 10 Bristol races in a row have been won by Cup champions; Kyle Larson was victorious last fall here on route to his 2021 series title.
That would seem to favor the playoff crowd in a race where so much is on the line. But pole sitter Aric Almirola, who missed the postseason, looks to spoil the party, becoming the 19th different winner in a year filled with parity. Brad Keselowski also showed up inside the top 10 as he looks to salvage an otherwise sorry season as driver/owner of RFK Racing.
Who can keep their heads above water and advance into the Round of 12? All eyes will be on Harvick, starting seventh, to see if he pulls off a third win in two months in order to advance. That would scramble the field, putting drivers like Daniel Suarez and even Ross Chastain in a vulnerable position.
In the end, I see Suarez, Austin Cindric, Austin Dillon and Chase Briscoe as the most vulnerable among the 16. But don’t be surprised if a big name like Harvick, Busch, or Tyler Reddick misses out. The wild card will be someone like Ross Chastain, who spent much of the season making his rivals mad by wrecking them out. Bristol offers a prime opportunity to get the last laugh, getting revenge by knocking Chastain out of the title race before he becomes a serious contender.
Bass Pro Shops Night Race
Date: Sunday, Sept. 17
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.)
TV: USA Network
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Bubba Wallace
Wallace made history Sunday at Kansas, becoming the first African-American driver to win twice at the sport’s top level. After a rain-shortened Talladega triumph, this one was a full-race, full-throttle performance, Wallace leading 58 of the final 68 laps as he cruised to a one-second win in the No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota.
The race showcased Wallace’s maturity as a driver, battling back from a loose wheel that put him outside the top 20 after stage one. It’s a nice consolation prize after a series of hard-luck races early in the season kept Wallace far from the playoff cut line.
“To be able to say we’re winners at Kansas,” Wallace said. “Through the year that we’ve had and what we’ve been able to do the last couple of months is incredible.”
Who's at the Back: Harrison Burton
The Cup rookie looked to be turning a corner after an impressive third-place finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in July. Instead, it’s been downhill ever since, posting three DNFs in six races since with no result better than 19th.
Kyle Busch made it official this week: he’s heading to Richard Childress Racing beginning with the 2023 Cup season. Busch, 37, will leave Joe Gibbs Racing after 15 years to drive the No. 8 car currently driven by Tyler Reddick. Reddick will stay with the RCR organization in a new third car as the team will be purchasing a charter in order to expand.
The 2023 Cup schedule was announced this week with a few important changes. In May, the All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway for the first Cup event held there since 1996. Two months later, the sport will hold its first-ever street race out in Chicago, replacing the road course event at Road America. Most other races remain unchanged, including the 10 postseason tracks and the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
Kyle Larson announced at Bristol he’d signed a long-term extension with Hendrick Motorsports, the third such HMS driver to do so this year. Larson’s contract now runs through 2026 as he’ll continue to be sponsored by Hendrick’s automotive business, HendrickCars.com.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Alex Bowman at Kansas. He’d led just 29 laps in the previous 27 races held this season.
Kyle Busch’s average finish this season, currently the second worst of his 15-year stint driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Few are better at racing short tracks at the sport’s top level than Denny Hamlin. Leading 276 laps in his last four Bristol races, Hamlin has a win during that stretch along with a stage victory this past fall. Two straight runner-up finishes leave him with the momentum and breathing room you want from a playoff driver on your roster.
Kevin Harvick may be in a must-win situation at the right time. He’s got two straight top-2 finishes at Bristol, leading 297 laps in the process, and starts seventh Saturday night. It’s hard to bet against Harvick, crew chief Rodney Childers and company when their backs are against the wall.
Tyler Reddick was one turn from winning the dirt race held at Bristol this spring before contact with Chase Briscoe wiped them both out. Will racing on the concrete high banks provide a better result? Reddick has never led a lap here in Cup competition but results of fourth and 12th in his last two starts give hope he’ll have enough speed to run near the front.
Aric Almirola has just two top-5 finishes in 24 career starts at Bristol. Earning the pole eliminates any position differential bonus for you. So why trust the No. 10 car? Simple: non-playoff drivers are on a roll. If anyone’s going to keep the streak of new winners going, early returns show it’s a driver who was fifth in this race as recently as two years ago.
Ty Dillon starts a distant 34th in the No. 42 Petty GMS Motorsports Chevrolet. That gives you plenty of room for position differential points and Dillon has been known to provide them here; he’s +32 in nine career starts and has two career 15th-place finishes.
Landon Cassill has had a miserable weekend, missing the playoffs in the NASCAR Xfinity Series with his full-time ride. Making a spot start in the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet, he qualified a distant 35th. But Cassill has a history of surviving this Bristol race running bad equipment, finishing 20th as recently as 2018. That type of run at his dirt cheap price would be good enough on a roster with plenty of top-tier talent around him.
What Vegas Thinks
The vegasinsider.com odds for Bristol leave Denny Hamlin in the driver’s seat at +650. Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott are next at +750, followed by Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell at +800.
Keep in mind two of the last four Bristol races have been won from the pole. That bodes well for Aric Almirola, still listed as a longshot at +5000.
What I Think
I think Kevin Harvick is going to pull the upset, making the most of a must-win situation and advancing into the Round of 12.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.