Cup bubble drivers brace for Bristol battle

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Plenty of attention will be paid to the likes of Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney during Saturday’s Cup elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

But it’s good to remember that they, along with Cole Custer and William Byron below the cutline, are not the only drivers whose playoff hopes are in danger at the half-mile track.

Above the cutoff on the playoff grid are three drivers who will try to stay there over the course of the 500-lap race.

While Clint Bowyer is three points ahead of Byron, the first driver outside the final transfer spot, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola are each seven points ahead of Byron.

Busch, the only driver among the bottom seven in the playoff standings with a Cup win at Bristol, is “ready to rip” at Thunder Valley to keep his title hopes alive.

“I feel like anytime you can go to a track that you’ve had past success at, it lends to just better feelings, it lends to going through the checklist items in an easier fashion,” Busch said earlier this week. “Our confidence is high going into the race. We have our homework done and now we go and race. … We’ve got seven points to the plus and that’s just kind of how we’ve been all year – we’ve been right around that 10th-place position all year.”

Busch has six Cup wins at Bristol with the last coming in the 2018 night race. He finished seventh in May to give him four consecutive top 10s there.

Bristol Motor Speedway
Kurt Busch will try to earn his seventh Bristol Cup win Saturday night. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver discussed the “little weird things” one must account for with each visit to the short track.

Busch said there’s aspect about the track “(owner Speedway Motorsports) might not tell NASCAR, (and) NASCAR might not tell SMI.

“Then there’s the Goodyear tire that shows up with different stager values, even though it’s the same tire code. So, there’s a lot of little things at Bristol all the time. But with this being a cutoff, you have to just go in there and do it. Get the job done, don’t shy away from the pressure.”

For Almirola, who admits his career experience at Bristol has been “feast or famine,” his No. 10 team “just (has) to go race” and “score the most points.

“It is really just about racing and scrapping and getting every point you can get in each stage and then fighting for every spot you can get in the race,” said Almirola, who has one top-five finish in 22 Cup starts at Bristol. “Certainly once the race is happening and once you get through the first two stages, you will know kind of where you stack up points-wise.

“If I am sitting there running seventh, I am probably not going to stuff it in the fence trying to get to sixth if I know I have a decent gap in points back to where I need to. On the flip side of that, if we need that spot or a couple spots, then you are going to be super aggressive and do whatever you can to go get those points.”

This is the first time Bristol will be the site of a Cup playoff race.

Busch’s 2018 Bristol win is the only one he’s earned there in the stage-format era.

“In years past, to win Bristol you would set-up for Lap 250, you would set-up for halfway,” Busch said. “And you would just try to get through the first half of the race the best that you could. But you can’t do that anymore with it being the playoffs and with stage points. So, you’ve got to go hard right away, but you’ve got to build in that adjustability to be able to be that guy at the end that can win as well.”

The lack of practice this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic also changes preparation for teams.

“We’re staying on top of it the best way that we can,” Busch said. “I even asked the shock department yesterday to have shocks that can have compression and rebound adjustable shocks in case we are off on our setup and we have to go aggressive with changes. And the only time that you’re able to really do that is if you’re the last car on the lead lap on a pit stop or something. You’ve got to be ready for all case scenarios right now.”

For Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 team, crew chief Johnny Klausmeier said they’ll be on offense all night.

“We will definitely be paying attention to those guys within 30 points of us, for sure, to dictate our strategy, but, at the end of the day, you have to go be on the offense and that’s only gonna get you so far is trying to hinge off of others,” Klausmeier said. “You don’t want to put yourself in a bad position that’s gonna hurt you later in the race, either. So, you kind of have to balance that and see how you’re doing on speed, see how the car is handling and what you’re fighting and how you’re doing and then go from there.”