Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – BRISTOL, TN – Two races into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, we have a certain degree of clarity.
Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick have earned spots in the Round of 12 with their respective victories at Darlington Raceway and Kansas Speedway.
With hard-fought finishes of 11th and seventh in the first two Playoff races—both from the back of the pack because of brushes with the wall in practice—Kyle Busch is 24 points above the current cut line for the Round of 12 coming to arguably his best track for Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
With a pair of top-10 runs and a stage win at Kansas, RFK Racing co-owner Brad Keselowski currently is the top Ford driver in the Playoffs, 33 points above the Round of 12 cut line.
With results of 32nd at Darlington and 26th at Kansas, Michael McDowell is 16th in the standings, 40 points below the cutoff and almost certainly in need of a victory at Bristol to advance to the Round of 12.
That said, there also is considerable uncertainty.
For Martin Truex Jr., the first two races of the Playoffs have been an unmitigated disaster. A loose wheel at Darlington led to an 18th-place finish—and that was the good news. After cutting a tire on Lap 4 at Kansas, Truex shot into the Turn 3 wall and finished 36th, dropping seven points behind Kevin Harvick for the last berth in the Round of 12.
Now Truex must fashion a strong run at a track that has not been kind to him in the past. In 32 starts at Bristol, Truex has posted two top-fives and four top 10s for an average finish of 20.8—though he did finish seventh from the pole in the 2021 Night Race.
“The points situation is the same as every other race,” Truex said. “This weekend, we just need to qualify the best we can, run up front and hope for good things to happen, but we really just have to control what we can control…
“Bristol hasn’t been my favorite place, but we’ve had some good runs there, too. I think we’ve been competitive there over the years… Hoping we can have a strong run there and get to the next round of the playoffs. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Harvick, on the other hand, has a formidable record at Thunder Valley. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has three victories at the track, the last coming in 2020. Harvick has finished in the top-10 in 10 of his last 13 races on Bristol’s concrete surface.
Accordingly, he seems well-equipped to protect his seven-point edge in the first elimination race of 2023.
“I think the thing that people kind of lose track of in these Playoffs, and especially in this particular instance with Bristol, is that a lot of your strategy is dictated off of what happened the first two weeks,” said Harvick, who is retiring from Cup Series racing at the end of the season. “Last year for us, going into Bristol we needed to win because of what happened at Darlington when the car caught on fire, and then you were behind right off the bat.
“The ‘just survive’ strategy at Bristol is great as long as you’re up in the points or in the middle of the pack in the points. But if you’re in the bottom third of those points, you’ve got to make some stuff happen and try to get points in the stages and try to win the race.”
NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs set to begin at Thunder Valley
John Hunter Nemechek is ready for the next step in his career, but he still has unfinished business in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Announced recently as the new driver for Legacy Motor Club in the NASCAR Cup Series next year, Nemechek enters the Xfinity Series Playoffs as the top seed. Having accumulated six victories and 49 Playoff points during the regular season, Nemechek comes to Bristol with a significant cushion.
But no driver can feel complacent as the Xfinity Series Playoffs begin in Friday’s Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Unlike fellow Playoff driver Justin Allgaier, who has 10 top fives and a victory in 22 Bristol starts, Nemechek doesn’t have a lengthy Xfinity Series history at Thunder Valley. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota finished fifth and third, respectively, in his last two Bristol starts, but he hasn’t raced there in the series since 2019.
Nevertheless, Nemechek will be disappointed if he doesn’t make a deep run in the Playoffs.
“I think the way that we’ve run this year, the speed that we’ve had, we want to make it to the final four and definitely feel like we have a shot to do so,” Nemechek said. “We just can’t beat ourselves to get there…
“Our strong point has been being able to have speed and win races this year, and I’m looking forward to doing so in the Playoffs.”
Corey Heim leads NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series drivers into Round of 8
As NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series drivers enter the second elimination round of their Playoffs, the race for the Championship 4 couldn’t be much tighter.
Corey Heim tops the Playoffs standings, but he’s only 24 points ahead of eighth-place Nick Sanchez entering Thursday’s UNOH 200 Presented by Ohio Logistics at Bristol Motor Speedway (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Interestingly, Heim leads the standings without posting a victory in the Round of 10. Ty Majeski won at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, Grant Enfinger took the checkered flag at the Milwaukee Mile, and Christian Eckes triumphed in dramatic fashion at Kansas Speedway.
“It’s exciting, but you know at the same time the job is not finished,” Eckes said during an interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I came here to win a championship, and that’s what I want to do. So, we have a lot more work to do to get there, but the job’s not finished.”
Eckes has a best finish of eighth in two starts at Bristol. Enfinger, on the other hand, has a more extensive and thoroughly impressive record at Thunder Valley.
In six career starts at the .533-mile high-banked short track, Enfinger has never finished outside the top 10. He boasts a best result of second in 2021 and an average finish of 5.2.
“Our GMS team puts a lot into every race, but we’ve put everything we have into Bristol,” Enfinger said. “It’ll be important to have speed, but it’s just as important to have a truck that you can drive hard every lap.
“Everything happens so fast at Bristol, so you have to be on your game all race long. GMS Racing has had a lot of success at Bristol in the past, and we’re hoping to add to that on Thursday.”