Can Matt DiBenedetto cement his future with a Cinderella Bristol victory?
The third time's the charm for yet another legendary NASCAR track in 2020. In the same year Darlington Raceway hosted three Cup Series events for the first time in their long history, Bristol Motor Speedway joins them with the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race on Saturday night, Sept. 19.
Sure, one of those events was the NASCAR All-Star Race, a non-points event held in mid-July. But Bristol, long one of the more popular tracks on the circuit, has been deserving of a better place on the sport's calendar. This track's can't-miss night race was once attended by over 160,000 spectators with a years-long waiting list for anyone who wanted tickets.
Since then, the sport's popularity has waned and a repaving effort changed the way drivers competed at this fast-action, bump-fenders type of racetrack. But Thunder Valley remains one of the sport's iconic facilities and NASCAR adjusted its schedule this year to give the night race here the attention it deserves. And if it's anything like the race in May? When Brad Keselowski slipped past crashing leaders Chase Elliott and Joey Logano in the closing laps to score the victory? The limited number of fans allowed into the track will be on their feet.
That should hype up the drama for a race that serves as the Round of 16 playoff finale. Four drivers will lose their ability to compete for the championship after this event; the other 12 will have their totals reset for the next round.
As usual, a surprise top-tier driver or two are among those at risk of dropping out. Ryan Blaney, the third member of Team Penske's playoff roster, sits 27 points below the cutline and almost certainly must win to advance. Reigning NASCAR champion Kyle Busch also sits only 15 points above the bubble; an ill-timed wreck would leave him short of the Championship 4 for the first time since 2014.
But this race could mean more for Matt DiBenedetto than perhaps any other driver on the grid. It was here, one year ago, where he put forth his best effort in the Cup Series to date. Leading 93 laps, he appeared in position for a shocking upset before Denny Hamlin caught and passed him in the final moments.
Matty D has his contract up for renewal with the Wood Brothers at the end of this month. Austin Cindric, the son of Team Penske President Tim Cindric, is ready for a Cup Series promotion. It's hard to keep a potential NASCAR Xfinity Series champion down a level for another year. The current sponsorship climate leaves the No. 21 ride, a Penske satellite effort, the most reasonable choice for Cindric come 2021.
No doubt DiBenedetto knows the pressure; the only way to stay employed may be to win. There would be no bigger Cinderella story in racing this year if he was able to cash in, earn Wood Brothers Cup victory No. 100 and continue on in the 2020 NASCAR playoffs. The driver's entire stock car career may hang on 500 laps Saturday night.
Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race
Date: Saturday, Sept. 19
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Brad Keselowski
Keselowski pulled away with ease to win a clean, caution-free (besides stage breaks) short track show at Richmond Raceway last Saturday night. Leading a race-high 192 laps, the driver of the No. 2 Ford was flawless in charging to his fourth victory of 2020. That's the 2012 Cup Series champion's highest total in four years.
Three of those four wins have also come at tracks one mile or less in length. It's a good omen for Phoenix Raceway, the championship finale if Keselowski can actually get over the hump and make it there. In the six years of this playoff format, he's qualified for the final round only once, in 2017.
Who's at the Back: Jimmie Johnson
It's just a shame to see Johnson struggling in his final year on the Cup circuit. First, there was the playoff miss. That capped off a winless regular season in which the seven-time series champion cracked the top 5 just four times.
The hope was no pressure for the championship would leave the No. 48 team loose and aggressive to win a race. But the speed just simply hasn't been there. Finishes of 18th and 31st with zero laps led make it increasingly unlikely Johnson will recapture momentum and visit Victory Lane as a Cup full-timer.
Daniel Suarez is officially a free agent for 2021 after being open about his disappointing season at Gaunt Brothers Racing. Suarez, who claimed in a Frontstretch interview support at the No. 96, single-car effort was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, claimed he didn't have the resources to be a contender there. That means the Mexican native will be running for his fourth Cup team in as many seasons after being the initial replacement for Carl Edwards over at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Rookie Brennan Poole has been replaced (for now) at Rick Ware Racing. Poole, who did not have sponsorship for this event, will be sidelined and JJ Yeley will step into the No. 15 car with sponsorship from Thriv5. The 29-year-old Poole was 16th in the Daytona 500, 15th in the second Daytona oval event but hadn't cracked the top 20 anywhere else.
Young Sam Mayer has already made a splash this week at Bristol. The 17-year-old talent, running only a partial NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series schedule with GMS Racing, broke through with a surprise Bristol victory Thursday night. He became the second-youngest winner in series history, trailing only then 16-year-old Cole Custer. Custer has gone on to be this year's Rookie of the Year in Cup... is that potentially a good sign for Mayer’s future?
NASCAR by the Numbers
Career Bristol victories for Kyle Busch, the most for him at any Cup Series track.
Victories this year for Busch in Cup. It’s the longest he’s gone in any season of his career without winning a race.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
How could you not build a fantasy team around two drivers already bound for the Round of 12: Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski? Hamlin is the defending winner of this race and will likely be aggressive, looking for playoff bonus points. He's led 210 laps here in his last two starts and hasn't run outside the top 20 at a Bristol race since 2015.
Keselowski, meanwhile, won Bristol in May and has been the best short track driver on the circuit this season. Starting from the pole may lead to bonus laps led early on as well as crucial stage bonuses for your roster.
Erik Jones has had a difficult 2020 and is busy auditioning for a ride. Bristol should offer him an opportunity for redemption, though. His three top-5 finishes here include 260 laps led as a rookie in 2017, then a solid fifth-place finish back in May. It's one of the last opportunities on the calendar for non-playoff drivers to break through so don't be surprised if you see this No. 20 Toyota pull an upset.
William Byron enters this race below the cutline and needs a solid performance to advance to the Round of 12. He just might get it at a Bristol track where he ran eighth in May and has never finished lower than 23rd. Trust the sleeper pick to fill out your roster.
Rookies should populate the back half of your roster here. Three of them start inside the top 20, including non-playoff drivers Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell. Reddick got caught up in a wreck here in May but could easily benefit from teammate Austin Dillon's momentum and speed in recent weeks.
As for Bell? He was ninth in May, a solid effort behind the No. 95 of Leavine Family Racing. The small team was the one Matty D nearly drove to victory in the August Bristol night race last year.
What Vegas Thinks
Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott, who won the All-Star Race here in July, share +450 odds to win according to vegasinsider.com. That tops the list of contenders with Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski next up at 6/1.
Matt Kenseth, who ran well at Richmond, is a former Bristol winner and sleeper pick. He's 200/1.
What I Think
I’ll go with Brad Keselowski going back-to-back and making a statement he's still a title contender. But don't be surprised if Matt DiBenedetto pulls this one out. It's an underdog story plenty of fans will be pulling for.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)