Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – BRISTOL, TN – Tight-racing, hot tempers and amazing finishes typically characterize the annual Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway night race and with Playoff hopes on the line as the regular season nears its conclusion, it’s easy to expect all that high drama in Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The last four Bristol races have a been Busch Brothers Battle – with current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points leader Kyle Busch winning three of them, including the sport’s first season visit this April. His older brother Kurt Busch returns to the track as defending winner of this late summer night race.
Kyle Busch, of Joe Gibbs Racing, and Team Penske driver Joey Logano have been vying for the regular season championship all year. Busch takes a 20-point lead into Bristol.
And while that’s a compelling battle atop the standings, there is also an intense competition at the Playoff cutoff line. Four drivers – Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson – are separated by 22 points from Newman in 15th to Johnson in 18th.
Fifteenth place Newman holds a 10-point edge over 16th place Bowyer, who sits six points to the championship good over 17th place Suarez and 12 points to good on 18th place Johnson.
Bristol should be an especially interesting race for these drivers, who coincidentally finished in consecutive order in April. Bowyer was seventh, Suarez was eighth and Newman and Johnson were ninth and 10th.
Johnson is the only one among the four with a series victory at Bristol – winning twice in 2010 and then 2017 – the last time a driver not named Busch celebrated in Victory Lane. His 21 top-10 finishes are most among active drivers.
Both Newman (2005) and Bowyer (2008) have visited Bristol Victory Lane in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. And Suarez scored his career-best Xfinity Series result at Bristol – runner-up in 2015 and 2017 Xfinity races at the track.
Among these four drivers, Johnson has led the most laps – nearly triple the next best output. He’s been out front 914 laps in 35 starts. Bowyer has led 281 laps in 27 starts. Newman has been out front 123 laps in 35 starts and the third-year Suarez has led five laps in five races.
Of course, all you need to lead is the last one. And rest assured, these four drivers in particular, know that.
FIVE TO GO FOR XFINITY SERIES
With five races remaining to set the 2019 Xfinity Series 12-driver Playoff field, Friday night’s Food City 300 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be an extra dose of adrenalin in an already typically show-stopping short track stop.
While the series “Big 3” – championship leader Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer – have accounted for 13 of 21 wins. It has been three races – the longest span on the season – since one of those drivers hoisted a trophy.
Chase Briscoe earned his career first series win at Iowa and Austin Cindric has won the two races since – road course events at Watkins Glen, N.Y. and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A win at Bristol would make the Team Penske driver Cindric only the ninth driver in series history to win three consecutive events. Bell is the last to do so, winning three straight last July.
Defending series champion Reddick has led the championship standings for the last 18 races, earning three wins but really maintaining the top position thanks to the Richard Childress Racing driver’s 18 top-10 finishes through the opening 21 events.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Bell, a five race winner, is ranked second and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Custer – also, a five-time winner this season. Of the three top drivers, however, only Bell has won previously at Bristol – taking the checkered flag for the first time at the track this April.
Six drivers have clinched Playoff positions with wins – Reddick, Bell, Custer, Michael Annett, Chase Briscoe and Cindric – and six more have a healthy heads-up on the field in the Playoff standings. Justin Allgaier, rookie Noah Gragson, Justin Haley, rookie John Hunter Nemechek, Ryan Sieg and Brandon Jones are still vying for a victory to guarantee their Playoff berth. But Jones, 12th in driver standings, does have a solid 108-point gap on 13th place Grey Gaulding.
Allgaier most likely shows up at Bristol the most motivated among those still looking for the first win of the season. The veteran and former Bristol winner (2010) led a race high 138 laps and won both stages of the April race before being collected in a late-race accident and suffering a 30th-place finish.