You can forgive the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers if they’re looking ahead. Next week is the final off week of the season for them. It will end a stretch of nine straight race weekends. Plus, it will be almost playoff time as well.
But, first up, is the Bristol night race. Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET/NBCSN/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is always a must see event. While the crowd has dwindled in the last several years, it’s still among the marquee events in NASCAR.
Points Battle – Bristol A Strong Track For Wildcard Drivers
Heading into this weekend, we have seven wildcard spots available in the Cup Series playoffs. Realistically, we have 11 drivers going for those nine spots. Coincidentally enough, Bristol is a strong spot for most of those wildcard drivers too.
Aric Almirola is second in the wildcard battle but he has struggled though at Bristol. His last top five came in 2014. He was 31st in this race last year and 37th in the spring race. He’s led a total of two laps in his career on the high banked Tennessee oval.
William Byron is in the same boat. He’s finished 18th, 23rd and 16th respectively in Cup action at Bristol.
Erik Jones has been feast or famine. He does have two top five finishes but those are his lone top 10 results in five tries. But, he enters this weekend with four top four finishes in his last five tries including six top eight’s in his last eight tries on the year overall.
That’s where the questions stop though.
Ryan Blaney is arguably the top wildcard driver at Bristol. Blaney, has three top 10 finishes in his last four Bristol starts including a seventh place run in this race last year and fourth this past spring. He led 221 laps on the concrete oval in 2018 and 158 more in April. He also enters this weekend with three top 10 finishes in his last four starts on the year and six in his last nine.
Kyle Larson has four top 10 finishes in his last five tries including a runner-up in both races last year. He led 202, 70, 200 and 17 laps respectively between 2017 and 2018. Also, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has four top eight finishes in his last five starts on the season and six top 10’s in his last eight overall.
Clint Bowyer has been strong too. He has four top 10 finishes in five tries with Stewart-Haas Racing at Bristol including seven top 10 finishes in his last nine overall tries there.
Jimmie Johnson has also been strong in Bristol. He has three consecutive top 10 finishes to go along with a top 11 in six straight tries. Since 2014, his finishes at Bristol are – 19th, 4th, 2nd, 4th, 23rd, 7th, 1st, 11th, 3rd, 9th and 10th respectively.
Ryan Newman has been strong. He came home ninth in the spring race and has four straight top 12’s there.
Daniel Suarez finished eighth with his first start at Bristol with SHR in April.
As you can see, we can very well have a new winner on Saturday night.
Can Stenhouse Jr. Steal Playoff Spot
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. knows it. He’s well aware that Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race is likely his last chance to be a part of this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff field. The Roush/Fenway Racing driver currently sits 21st in the points standings with three races remaining in the regular season. That’s not a lot of time to make up that much ground in the points.
So, the only other way to get into the postseason is to win. Bristol, is just the spot too.
Stenhouse may have three of his last four Bristol starts result in finishes of 14th or worse, including a 33rd place run in April, but prior to that, he was a stud on the concrete oval.
The Mississippi native had six top 10 finishes in a nine race (four year) span including two runner-ups. While he’s never led a lap in his No. 17 Ford at Bristol before, all he’s wanting to do is lead the final one on Saturday evening.
If Stenhouse can win, just think about the playoff implications for others. Right now, the final playoff spot goes to Jimmie Johnson. If Stenhouse wins, it moves up to Clint Bowyer as that would move Johnson to the outside looking in and him battling with Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez to get back in and knock Bowyer out. It would certainly be the turning point that we’ve been looking for.
Busch Brothers Playground
Between them, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch have combined to win 14 Cup Series races at Bristol. Furthermore, they’ve won in each of the last four Cup races on the high banked concrete oval too.
Can they keep that streak going this weekend? I think so.
Kyle won the spring race in April to go along with three wins in his last four Bristol starts. But, he’s struggled on the season lately though with just one top five finish in his last seven tries. Also, when he’s not winning in Bristol, he’s not finishing up front. Four of his last seven starts have also seen him finish 20th or worse, three of those results being 35th or worse.
What about Kurt?
He won already at Kentucky and is the defending race winner of the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. He finished runner-up to brother Kyle in the spring race. Kyle, finished runner-up to Kurt last month in Kentucky.
The elder Busch has three top five finishes in his last four Bristol starts overall.
Starting Position For Whatever Reason Hasn’t Mattered
A track like Bristol you would think that track position would be key right? Well, what if I told you that only two of the last six races have seen the winner come from a top 10 starting spot. In fact, four of the last six winners have come from the 11th, 17th, 18th and 24th spots.
Will that happen again?
Is Bristol Johnson’s Best Shot At A Win?
Jimmie Johnson Johnson has never missed the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs before. Since the postseason format began in 2004, he’s the only driver to be a part of them each and every year. Right now, there are only three races remaining in the regular season and Johnson is on the outside looking in by 12 points.
But, a win on Saturday night would end any speculation about Johnson not making it. He’d automatically be in.
This is uncharted territory for the seven-time series champion to be in though. His seven titles rank him tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most ever. His 83 trips to victory lane are one shy of tying Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for fourth most all-time. He’s 10 wins shy of tying Jeff Gordon for third most in fact.
A few years ago, it was a question of when, not if, Johnson moved his way past Petty and Earnhardt for most championship in the history of NASCAR as well as pass Gordon for third on the all-time wins list. After all, he only needed one championship to do so and he had already won three just since 2010. Plus, he only needed 10 wins to tie Gordon and 11 to pass him. He had won 14 times between 2014 and 2016 alone. He had at least four victories in any given single season in 12 of his last 13 seasons. Furthermore, Johnson had at least three wins in all but one of his years in NASCAR’s premiere series.
No one was better than Johnson was in the 2000’s. He was untouchable. Then, 2017 happened. That was the start of his decline.
Johnson, did win three times that year, but all were kind of fluky. He led just 217 laps for the entire season, worst ever for him. His four top five finishes and 11 top 10’s? Worst ever. His 16.8 average finish? You guessed it, worst ever.
How would he rebound for 2018?
It went further south.
Johnson, failed to win in a season for the first time of his career. His top five finishes went from four to two. His top 10’s remained level at 11. His laps led went from 217 to just 40. His average finish went from 16.8 to 16.7. While he made the playoffs, he was bounced early.
Two straight abysmal years led to a change up top. Gone was Chad Knaus for 2019, the only crew chief that Johnson had ever known in his full time Cup career. In, was Kevin Meendering. Gone also was his long time sponsor in Lowe’s. In came Ally. Gone was the past racing package, in was a new “drafting package” instead.
2019 was supposed to be a year of change. After all, Hendrick Motorsports looked to be turning the corner again.
Unfortunately, 2019 looks a lot like 2018 and 2018 looked a lot like 2017. After 21 races, HMS made another crew chief swap with Johnson. Out was Meendering, in was Cliff Daniels, a 31 year old with no past crew chief experience.
Through 21 races, Johnson had no wins, three top five finishes and eight top 10’s. He’s led just 81 laps. His average finishing spot is 15.3. His last three finishes were 30th, 30th and 15th place respectively.
Watkins Glen was another reset button. Unfortunately, two bad pit calls and another bad finish after what looked like it could have been a solid day put Johnson over the top. Watkins Glen was supposed to be different. It looked different. He had a fast No. 48 Chevrolet. His teammate was untouchable up front. Johnson, was in position to get a top 10 and move further ahead above the cutoff line in the points standings and he left with a similar result for what he’s seen all year – 19th.
His winless streak is now 82. That can end on a track he’s statistically been great at lately. He has three consecutive top 10 finishes to go along with a top 11 in six straight tries. Since 2014, his finishes at Bristol are – 19th, 4th, 2nd, 4th, 23rd, 7th, 1st, 11th, 3rd, 9th and 10th respectively.
The intensity for him is, Bristol is also a strong track for playoff bubble drivers like Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. too. If one of them wins, Johnson’s playoff chances get much worse. So, he has to take care of his own destiny on Saturday and that’s to win.
Can Bowyer Put Himself In Playoffs With Bristol Win?
Clint Bowyer has struggled lately and I do mean struggled. Bowyer, has just one top five finish since Memorial Day weekend. He went from 73 points up in the playoff standings in early May to right on the bubble in late August.
How does one do that?
Six finishes of 20th or worse is how. Combine that with a lack of stage points and you get Bowyer in 15th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings. But, a win in Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race would change everything. It would end a 44 race winless drought and stamp his name into the postseason as a result of that too.
Plus, Bristol is a place that it could happen for him as well. He has four top 10 finishes in five tries with Stewart-Haas Racing at Bristol including seven top 10 finishes in his last nine overall tries there. This is his time to get a much needed top five finish, if not go all out for a win.
Bowman Needs To Turn Things Around
Alex Bowman finally got over the hump on the final day of June. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at the Chicagoland Speedway. It was his sixth top 10 finish in a span of eight races including four of which being in the top two.
See, from Talladega through Kansas, Bowman brought his No. 88 Chevrolet home runner-up for three consecutive weeks. The win was long overdue. Unfortunately, that’s his lone bright spot since really the calendar turned to June in fact.
Over his last nine starts, Bowman has finished inside the top 10 just three time – one of which was that win in Chicago on June 30 and another a 10th place run last Sunday. His last five finishes since that victory are – 21st, 17th, 14th, 20th, 14th and 10th respectively.
He’s been a non factor. Yes, his win stamps his name into the Cup Series playoffs, but if he wants to make any kind of noise in it, he needs to get going again.
Chase Elliott was in a similar slump before his win a couple of weeks in Watkins Glen. Bowman, needs to get out of his slump in similar fashion this weekend in Bristol. He was in the top 10 in both races last year on the concrete oval. He needs a top 10 again on Saturday night.
Chip Ganassi Racing Should Shine
Bristol is a track that we should see Chip Ganassi strong again. For whatever reason, it’s a place that just suits the current drivers’ driving style. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that both drivers enter this weekend trending up as well.
Kyle Larson has four top 10 finishes in his last five Bristol starts including a runner-up in both races last year. He led 202, 70, 200 and 17 laps respectively between 2017 and 2018. Also, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has four top eight finishes in his last five starts on the season and six top 10’s in his last eight overall.
His teammate Kurt Busch is arguably one of the best drivers to ever race on the half mile track.He won already this season in the last primetime event at Kentucky in July. He is the defending race winner of the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race too. He finished runner-up to brother Kyle in the spring race as well. Kyle, finished runner-up to Kurt last month in Kentucky.
The elder Busch has three top five finishes in his last four Bristol starts overall.
See why this could be a strong weekend out of the CGR camp?
Bristol Not One Of Truex Jr’s Best Tracks
Martin Truex Jr. finally got his first career short track victory earlier this season in Richmond. Now, he’s searching for his second on Saturday night at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway. The only difference is, Truex has been strong in the past at Richmond, not so much at Bristol.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has one top 10 finish in his last 14 Bristol starts. His last three finishes are 30th, 30th and 17th respectively. He’s finished 20th or worse in 11 of his last 12. His last top five came way back in 2012.
This isn’t a week I’d take Truex to win.
Bristol The Spot Penske Can End Winless Drought
Team Penske has looked good at Bristol lately, it’s just that the Busch brothers have stolen their thunder with wins. But, if anyone can top the Busch duo, it is Penske.
No, they haven’t won a race since June 10. But, the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway is the place where that winless drought could end.
Ryan Blaney is the obvious pick for them. Blaney is arguably the top wildcard driver at Bristol. Blaney, has three top 10 finishes in his last four Bristol starts including a seventh place run in this race last year and fourth this past spring. He led 221 laps on the concrete oval in 2018 and 158 more in April. He also enters this weekend with three top 10 finishes in his last four starts on the year and six in his last nine.
Joey Logano has seven top 10 finishes in his last eight Bristol starts including a third place run in the spring after leading 146 laps. Also, his last seven Bristol night race finishes are – 8th, 5th, 1st, 1st, 10th, 13th and 4th respectively.
One driver I’m not confident in is Brad Keselowski. His last seven Bristol finishes are 18th, 33rd, 34th, 29th, 23rd, 16th and 18th respectively. But, it’s not like his No. 2 Ford hasn’t been fast either though. Keselowski, led 40 this past spring and has three top 10 finishes in his last four starts on the season.
Overall, the Penske threesome led 344 laps in April. If all goes right, one of these three can win.