With two non-title contenders having won the first two races of the NASCAR playoffs, Saturday night’s final Round 1 elimination race brings some enhanced pressure never seen before in the current playoff format. No driver has clinched a spot in round 2, and no driver is eliminated either. Throw in the usual intensity of racing at Bristol and we have the makings of what should be a highly competitive Bass Pro Shops NRA night race. Patience will be tested, tempers will be hot, and virtually anything can and probably will happen. Don’t be surprised to see a few surprises regarding the playoff field.
The racing at Bristol is unlike any other facility, in that it is the shortest track on the circuit as well as the highest banked. It takes 500 well-run laps to get a win and with as tightly packed as the cars can get, it is nearly impossible for any driver to keep their car unscathed. Trust me when I say that the additional circumstances regarding the playoffs will make things very interesting. There will be all kinds of different agendas meshing, with the desperate drivers at the bottom of the playoff standings doing anything they can to run up front and get a win, and those in good shape in the standings doing anything they can to avoid trouble. This is where things could get heated.
Typically, at Bristol, the aggressive drivers are known to do well. Rookies and most younger drivers are apt to make mistakes here. With the spring race here being run on a dirt surface, the series drivers only get one shot at these race conditions. That in itself can lead to problems for inexperienced drivers. With drivers facing playoff elimination following this race, watch for most playoff contenders to be very aggressive when it comes to securing points at the ends of each of the stage and of course, at the end of the race.
The VSiN NASCAR Race Hub has my simulation and a whole bunch of other useful stats you’ll need to make educated wagers on Saturday’s race, but let’s take a look at some of the key factors that I use when handicapping races.
Bass Pro Shop NRA Night Race Statistical Breakdown
As I indicated earlier, the last two spring races at Bristol have been run on a converted dirt surface. Thus, the field hasn’t raced on the customary track since last September. As such, you’ll want to completely discount any stats or ratings that came from the April event. For the record, Kyle Busch won that race. That said, the race a year ago here is probably the most impactful in terms of understanding which drivers have the best feel for staying clean and getting around Bristol quickly. When I say quickly, understand that the laps at BMS are only around 15 seconds long. However, you’ll also have to keep in mind that NASCAR introduced the new cars prior to this season, so NO driver has any actual race experience at Bristol in the current cars.
Going back to last September’s race, Kyle Larson was the winner, leading 175 of the 500 laps that night. He was also the top-rated driver for that race, scoring a 141.2 on NASCAR’s grading scale. That was a full 18 points better than anyone else in the field, so he should be a factor this week as well. Other drivers that ran well in that race were Kevin Harvick, who finished 2nd, as well as William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin, all of whom finished with driver ratings in excess of 100. Interestingly, Larson, Harvick, and Blaney spent all 500 laps in the top 15, a nice feat for BMS.
In terms of my “handicap” ratings, these are the my top five drivers in TRACK RATINGS heading into Sunday’s race:
- Kevin Harvick – 121.8
- Brad Keselowski – 113.2
- Kyle Busch – 108.3
- Kyle Larson – 107.9
- Chase Elliott – 105.6
Of these drivers, only Keselowski is not a playoff competitor. Harvick and Busch are interesting cases, as both are currently below the cut line for advancing in the playoffs and both could be among the “desperate” drivers that will do anything to be successful.
My track DESIGNATION RATINGS are somewhat similar, with the top 5 looking like this:
- Chase Elliott – 118.3
- Kyle Larson -113.0
- Denny Hamlin – 110.4
- Kevin Harvick – 105.7
- Kyle Busch – 103.1
Substitute Hamlin in for Keselowski and you have the same list as above. All five of these drivers are playoff contenders. Of course, with Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace pulling upset wins in the first two races of the playoffs, we know now that anything can happen in these current cars.
In terms of my Recent Ratings, this is the top 5 heading into Bristol:
- Chase Elliott – 110.4
- Christopher Bell – 100.8
- Kyle Larson – 97.3
- Denny Hamlin – 96.1
- Joey Logano – 93.2
All five of these drivers are in the hunt for the championship still, and while remains the favorite for the series title, Hamlin is the favorite for this race at + 550. Larson is next in line at + 650.
Final Simulation Results/My Predictions
My initial simulation run on Tuesday prior to practice and qualifying on Saturday showed Chase Elliott as the predicted winner for Bristol, followed by Hamlin, Harvick, Larson, and Kyle Busch.
Saturday’s practice session was won by Denny Hamlin, who also had the top 10-lap race average as well. Historically, practice speed has been the most important factor for handicapping race success at Bristol. Larson, Bell, and Busch also had strong practice sessions. A little later on Friday. Non-playoff contender Aric Almirola put up the best speed in qualifying, followed by Chase Briscoe and Alex Bowman. Briscoe is another driver that has demonstrated the willingness to do just about anything to be successful, and he is a desperate driver at this point in terms of his chances to advance to Round 2.
After updating the initial simulation with Friday’s practice and qualifying results, my final simulation showed this top 5:
- Denny Hamlin (+ 550)
- Kyle Larson (+ 650)
- Kevin Harvick (+ 850)
- Christopher Bell (+ 800)
- Alex Bowman (+ 1500)
These were the biggest movers from the initial simulation:
Chase Briscoe + 8 spots
Alex Bowman + 7 spots
Bubba Wallace + 7 spots
AJ Allmendinger + 7 spots
Martin Truex -11 spots
Austin Dillon -10 spots
Daniel Suarez -7 spots
Drivers projected higher on simulation than usual: Bowman (5), Almirola (9), Briscoe (11)
Drivers projected lower on simulation than usual: Byron (14), Chastain (16), Truex (17), Suarez (27)
My final Bristol predictions:
- Harvick 2. Hamlin 3. Busch 4. Bell 5. Larson
Longshot driver(s): Briscoe
Driver(s) to fade: Chastain
Bristol receives a Handicap-Ability Grade of C- on my scale. As I’ve expressed several times now, anything can and will happen at Bristol, and the desperation of playoff elimination will only enhance that spirit. Typically the drivers running up front in the top 5 or 6 spots can usually stay out 0f the fray, so drivers will be aggressive in putting their cars up front. Any race at Bristol is always a big one and makes for great TV alongside your baseball and college football wagering options.