Christopher Bell is the only driver locked into the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs going into Saturday night’s elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Bet you didn’t have that on the bingo card.
Bell clinched his spot in the Round of 12 via points following a third-place finish at Kansas Speedway. He and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team were able to do so because for the second straight week, the race winner was a non-playoff driver. A fifth-place finish at Darlington Raceway and his third at Kansas have Bell at the top of the playoff grid standings by 58 points over the cutline, and he cannot be kicked out of a transfer spot.
“I’m very happy that we’re finally getting the results that this team deserves,” Bell said. “Our speed has been there all year and I feel like we’ve given up a couple of good finishes.
“The last couple of weeks, we’ve been building on it, and hopefully, we can keep the ball rolling.”
Bell and teammate Denny Hamlin are the only two playoff drivers to start the postseason with back-to-back top-five finishes. Hamlin is third on the playoff grid with a 47-point advantage on the cutline, sitting behind William Byron, who has a 48-point advantage.
Darlington and Kansas were anything but kind to playoff contenders. Considered one of the toughest races on the schedule, Darlington lived up to its reputation with three playoff drivers failing to finish and eight of them finishing 16th or worse.
The fall Kansas race has become unpredictable and treacherous for title hopefuls. Kevin Harvick and Tyler Reddick were knocked out of Sunday’s race, but they were far from the only ones to have an issue on the track or pit road:
– Chase Briscoe was called for speeding under the competition caution
– Hamlin’s team had equipment interference under the same caution
– Harvick hit the wall on lap 34
– Reddick had a tire go down and hit the wall on lap 66
– Ryan Blaney pitted a second time at the first stage break for a potential loose wheel
– Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, and Kyle Busch’s teams were called for equipment interference under the lap 110 caution
– Busch spun by himself off Turn 4 on lap 138
A driver who didn’t have an issue and was more than thankful for a clean race was Ross Chastain. He finished seventh at Kansas, but did you know that it wasn’t just his first top-10 finish in the playoffs but first since mid-July?
“We all just high-fived. It feels good,” Chastain said. “It’s been a rough couple of months here. There were times today where I thought we were going to run 14th, and I thought we were just going to keep this going.
“We had a really good day on pit road. Our pit crew is just incredible. We cycled ourselves back up there, and we were able to stay plugged in between the 48 (Alex Bowman) and the 5 (Kyle Larson). We were running with the guys we are supposed to be running with, and we finished around the guys we are supposed to finish by.”
Chastain goes to Bristol ninth on the playoff grid, 26 points to the good.
The driver on the cutline is Team Penske rookie Austin Cindric. Cindric won’t be able to play any kind of defense as he’s just two points to the good.
“Well, a guarantee would be to win,” Cindric said. “I want to win at Bristol that would be awesome. I have had a lot of heartache at Bristol. I would like to change that, but maybe I will just take moving on to the next round. I have a lot of work ahead and a lot of really good guys I am going to have to beat.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that in such a wild season, there are two series champions in danger of not even getting out of the first round. Kyle Busch and Harvick are below the cutline going to a racetrack that’s been very good to each of them over the years.
Busch was the lowest finishing playoff driver who made it to the checkered flag in Kansas. As a result of his spin, Busch finished 26th and two laps down.
“Not with the luck of this year, nope,” Busch said when asked if he’s confident about going to Bristol and advancing. “We’ll go and try hard, and if what Bristol has always been to me occurs, we’ll be fine. With the way this year has been, if that occurs, it’s going to be ugly.”
Harvick simply said of his outlook for Bristol, “go win.”
The playoff grid going into the first elimination race of the playoffs is as follows:
1. Christopher Bell +58 (clinched)
2. William Byron +48
3. Denny Hamlin +47
4. Joey Logano +40
5. Ryan Blaney +36
6. Alex Bowman +30
7. Chase Elliott +28
8. Kyle Larson +27
9. Ross Chastain +26
10. Daniel Suarez +6
11. Tyler Reddick +2
12. Austin Cindric +2
13. Kyle Busch -2
14. Austin Dillon -3
15. Chase Briscoe -9
16. Kevin Harvick – 35