Column: Drivers Will Be Scrambling For NASCAR Round Of 12 Berths In Bristol’s Night Race

Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – BRISTOL, TN – All three of NASCAR’s top touring series head for Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend with something momentous on the line.

In the NASCAR Cup Series, drivers at or near the bottom of the Playoff grid are trying to stave off elimination as the first round of the Playoffs comes to an end.

NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers, on the other hand, are trying to lock up the final three spots in the postseason in the final regular-season race of the 2021 campaign.

Volatility is the watchword for Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race, the final leg of the NASCAR Cup Series’ Round of 16 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

A scant 30 points separate sixth-place Kevin Harvick from 14th-place Tyler Reddick, one of four drivers below the current cut line. Kurt Busch in 12th is tied with three-time race winner Alex Bowman in 13th, with Busch holding the tiebreaker based on the best finish in the Round of 16 (sixth at Darlington).

Given the unpredictability of racing at Bristol, where trouble can arise in the blink of an eye, there’s no absolute security below the three drivers who already have secured berths in the Round of 12—Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. via Round of 16 victories and Kyle Larson on points.

That said, Joey Logano should be able to advance if he stays out of early trouble. Logano enters the Night Race 40 points above the cut line, needing to score 16 points to clinch a Round of 12 berth, no matter what else happens.

That translates to a finish of 21st, assuming no stage points, a position that matches Logano’s worst result in the last 11 races at Thunder Valley. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has two wins at the track and an average finish of 15.1 in 24 starts.

Michael McDowell, 16th in the Playoff standings and 38 points below the cut line, almost certainly needs a victory to advance to the Round of 12. The same may be true of William Byron, who trails Kurt Busch and Bowman by 18 points.

That margin isn’t insurmountable, but Byron would have to leap-frog above at least three drivers in the top 12 to advance on points.

“I think it’s going to be a race this weekend to see what we’re made of,” Byron says. “Regardless of the outcome, we’re going to learn a lot about ourselves and our abilities and ability to handle adversity.

“We’ve had the most adversity the last two weeks that we could possibly want. So I think we’re prepared for it. We’ve been through this, and we know what we’re doing. So, just go out there and do the best job we can and try to win.”

The tightest NASCAR Xfinity Series battle is for the regular-season title

There are three Playoff spots still up for grabs as the NASCAR Xfinity Series heads for Friday night’s Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Three drivers are in unassailable positions above the current cutline on points—Jeremy Clements, Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones. At least two of them—the two with the highest point totals among them after Bristol—are guaranteed to advance to the postseason.

Their only vulnerability lies in the prospect of a driver outside the top 12 winning Friday’s race, a circumstance that would eliminate the lowest driver in points among those three. Winning is the only path for Michael Annett, who has missed four races because of a stress fracture in his right femur but still sits 13th in the standings.

Currently 66 points below Herbst in the standings, Annett can’t score enough points to advance, but a victory would turn the trick.

The most intense battle on Friday involves the Regular Season Championship, with AJ Allmendinger leading reigning series champion Austin Cindric by five points. The regular-season winner gets a bonus of 15 Playoff points. Second place gets 10.

“I’m pumped, but, as always, a bit nervous to go to Bristol,” Allmendinger says. “It’s the place where I made my first Cup Series start, so that race track will always be special. It’s one of those races that you know from start to finish you’re going to be in a grind, and you’re going to be in traffic.

“It’s a difficult race, but I think we’ll be really fast there. The Regular Season Championship is on the line this week, so it will be fun battling with Austin going for that title. Hopefully, we can execute all day and have a shot to win.”

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