NASCAR’s new-look schedule takes center stage this weekend as the Cup Series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway. For decades the Tennessee short track was a staple of the summer stretch, with the Bristol Night Race at one time being one of the most coveted tickets in stock car racing. But now it has been shifted into September and will serve as the elimination race in the opening round of the playoffs.
The four at the bottom of the 16-driver playoff grid when the checkered flag flies Saturday night will be knocked out of championship contention. William Byron, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney compose the quartet that must find a way to survive to the next round. The added playoff storyline should add to what is already a traditionally hectic and dramatic race.
Other drivers already set to advance and others not in the championship picture have just one goal Saturday, and that’s to win the race.
The .533-mile track will see drivers turning some of the quickest laps of the season, taking just over 14 seconds to get around the concrete racing surface. NASCAR officials will again work in conjunction with track management in the application of a traction compound in hopes
of creating more lane options for drivers and in turn better competition.
NASCAR has already competed at Bristol twice this season. The first visit was in May, when Brad Keselowski inherited the win after leaders Chase Elliott and Joey Logano collided battling for the top spot. Bristol also hosted this year’s All-Star Race in July, with Elliott taking the checkered flag. The previous experience running at Bristol in 2020 should provide teams with a baseline to have their cars set up to tackle the 500-lap grind.
Here are the favorites for the Bristol Night Race:
The Team Penske driver could be extra dangerous to his competitors since Keselowski has nothing to lose. His Richmond win locked him into the round of 12 in the playoffs, so there’s no reason for Keselowski to do anything except try for his second Bristol win of 2020. His last two Bristol outings have ended in finishes of first and third.
Had he not gotten swept up by Elliott’s move for the lead in the May Bristol race, Logano looked well on his way to Victory Lane. Toss out that 21st-place finish and Bristol has been one of the 2018 champion’s best tracks. He won there as recently at 2015 and has top-10 finishes in three of his last five starts.
His playoff run has not started particularly well, but Hamlin has enough of a cushion that there’s no worry in the No. 11 team camp coming to Bristol. Hamlin will be able to concentrate on just winning the race, and he has a strong shot based on his past performance. Hamlin is tied for the best average finish at the track over the last 10 races at 9.0 and is the defending winner of Saturday’s race.
Busch has shown signs of coming back to life in recent weeks with a pair of solid finishes to start the playoffs. If things were to finally come together for Busch at Bristol, he could dominate. He has won eight times at the track. Busch has five top-5 runs over the previous six Bristol races.