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The first cut-off race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is already here as the circuit hits the bullring of Bristol Motor Speedway.
By this point of the season, there have usually been two races around the concrete half-mile. However, this year‘s first trip to Bristol culminated in the Cup Series‘ first dirt race since 1970.
The stars are back on the concrete for the Bass Pro Shops Night Race on Saturday night with live coverage starting at 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN/NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as the Round of 16 comes to a close.
GRIDDED FOR GREEN
It‘s an all-Joe Gibbs Racing front row on Saturday night as last week‘s Richmond winner Martin Truex Jr. is on the pole alongside teammate Denny Hamlin, who finished runner-up a week ago. Behind them in Row 2 are Joey Logano and Chase Elliott, while Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell make up Row 3. For the entire starting lineup, click here.
The Cup cars will be fitted with the lower-downforce 750-horsepower package this weekend as utilized at all tracks shorter than 1.4 miles. This package provides more power to the drivers while also decreasing the aerodynamic dependency of downforce, particularly at short tracks.
The high, concrete banks of Bristol provide not only a challenge for race teams but one for Goodyear as well. Concrete wears tires quickly on a “green” surface, but with the ARCA Menards Series, Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series all competing ahead of the Cup event, there may be plenty of rubber left on the track for Saturday night‘s action.
Additionally, Goodyear, NASCAR and the track operations staff will work together to apply the PJ1 grip compound to the lower four feet of both sets of corners for this weekend‘s races in an attempt to speed along the development of a second racing groove, giving drivers an alternate lane to pass.
“While only a half-mile in length, Bristol is a different animal than the other short tracks we have on the NASCAR schedule,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear‘s director of racing. “The amount of banking Bristol has creates very high speeds and high loads, which more closely aligns with some of the bigger tracks we race on. Then you have the concrete surface, which we only race on a handful of times throughout the season. Laying rubber on concrete is a special challenge and is one that we have worked hard on over the past many years to get the right balance.”
IT‘S BRISTOL HISTORY, BABY
— After rising upon the land of a former dairy farm, Bristol hosted its first NASCAR event on July 30, 1961 with a seating capacity of 18,000.
— Jack Smith is credited with winning that first race, but it was Johnny Allen who took the checkered flag in relief of Smith over the final 209 laps. Smith exited the car with a three-lap lead because the heat from the floorboard was burning his right foot. Allen won by two laps over Fireball Roberts.
— The track was dug up and reshaped in 1969 with significantly more banking introduced, bumping the distance around the then-asphalt racetrack from 0.5 miles to 0.533 miles.
— Dale Earnhardt claimed his first career Cup win in his 16th start in the 1979 spring Bristol race.
— Darrell Waltrip dominated Bristol like no other from 1979 through the first concrete event in 1992 by collecting 12 wins, a record seven of which came consecutively.
— By the 1990s, heat and increasing corner speeds were causing the track to require regular repairs. Between races in 1992, Bristol became the first track surfaced in all concrete.
— After reacquiring the track in 1985, track co-founder Larry Carrier sold Bristol to Speedway Motorsports for a reported $26 million in 1996. The track had a capacity of 71,000 and the Bristol Night Race was one of the Series premier events, called the “Toughest Ticket in Racing.”
— Speedway Motorsports immediately launched an aggressive expansion program. Seating was added at a rapid pace and by 2003 was at 160,000 and in 2006 reached 165,000 with the addition of the Kulwicki Grandstand.
— The track was reconfigured to include progressive banking in 2007. After the March 2012 event, Bruton Smith announced the track would return to its former style of racing and eliminated the upper groove that was created with the new banking.
— Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. are the only two drivers to earn top-five finishes in each of the first two races of the Playoffs this year.
— Each of those two drivers has netted an average finish of 2.3 on short tracks this season, while Truex has won six of the last 12 such races.
— Chase Elliott has won each of the last three elimination races but has yet to win a points race in Thunder Valley. He was victorious in the All-Star Race held at Bristol one year ago and has won three of the last four stages there.
— Alex Bowman (-0), Tyler Reddick (-5), William Byron (-18) and Michael McDowell (-38) enter below the cutline entering Saturday‘s race.
— Drivers ninth through 14th in the Playoff standings are separated by just 18 points.
— Each of the last 10 Bristol winners was over the age of 30, and each of the last five has been won by different drivers.
— The final lead change came with 32 or fewer laps to go in the last six Bristol races.
— Kevin Harvick claimed his ninth and final win of last year at Bristol in the Playoffs. He is the only driver to win after leading the most laps in the last nine Bristol races.
ODDS AROUND THE COLOSSEUM
Kyle Larson is searching for his first win at Bristol Motor Speedway and first overall since Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen International. Kyle Busch is an eight-time winner at Bristol and victor in three of the last seven.
Both are listed as 9-2 favorites to win Saturday night under the lights, courtesy of BetMGM. Larson had a pair of runner-up finishes at the bullring in 2018 and has been a threat at every track this season. Busch has finished fourth or better in each of his last four Bristol starts.
Denny Hamlin, a two-time Bristol winner, is listed at 6-1 odds while defending series champion Chase Elliott is posted at 8-1.
Meanwhile, for as strong as Martin Truex Jr. (14-1) has been on short tracks lately, Bristol has been unkind to the 2017 champion. Truex has finished 13th or worse in his last seven Bristol starts, dating back to the 2017 night race, and led only 52 laps in that span — all of which came in the 2019 night race.
But under the radar lies a sleeper who could use a win while setting his 2022 plans: Matt DiBenedetto (66-1). DiBenedetto nearly won the night race in 2019 and led the most laps (93) but was thwarted late by Denny Hamlin. He‘s led in each of the last three Bristol races and could be a factor come Saturday night.
Want to manage a team and race your way to the top of the leaderboards? Check out the playoff version of NASCAR Fantasy Live, which is open now and offers a fresh start for those of you who played the regular-season contest. The free-to-play game lets you choose your drivers each week and show off your crew-chief instincts, and there is a $10,000 prize for the winner.
The 2021 Fantasy Live points leaders are Denny Hamlin (1,117), Kyle Larson (1,112) and Chase Elliott (932).
This year, NASCAR.com also has the Playoffs Grid Challenge game, presented by Ruoff Mortgage, where you can pick the winners for each round of the playoffs right up through the Championship 4. First prize is $10,000.
ALSO ON NASCAR.COM
Get additional camera views by logging on to NASCAR Drive, where each week a select number of in-car cameras will be available — as well as a battle cam and an overhead look.
New for this season, NASCAR has partnered with LiveLike to add fan engagement in the NASCAR Mobile App. Log in to the mobile app during the race for polls, quizzes, the cheer meter and more — and see instant results from NASCAR fans like you.
And finally, head over to the NASCAR Mobile App for AR Racing presented by Mobil 1, where you can design your own car and race the playoff drivers at the playoff tracks in augmented reality.