NASCAR Cup playoffs: Sizing up drivers looking to avoid elimination at Bristol

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The first elimination race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs takes place Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

While Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson have advanced on either wins or points, the other 13 playoff drivers will race for nine remaining spots to the next round.

Entering Bristol, 25 points covers sixth-place Kevin Harvick down to Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman, who are tied on the 12th-place cutline to advance (Kurt Busch holds the tiebreaker of better finish in the Round of 16).

Bowman, Tyler Reddick, William Byron and Michael McDowell are below the cutline going into Saturday’s race on the .533-mile banked concrete track. Last year, the four drivers who came into this race below the cutline – Byron, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney – were all eliminated.

As the axe prepares to drop in the first of three elimination races, let’s take a look at some of the drivers seeking to avoid it.

Kevin Harvick (+25 above playoff cutline)

  • Round of 16 finishes: Fifth at Darlington, eighth at Richmond (avg. of 38 points)
  • 2021 concrete track finishes: Sixth at Dover, fifth at Nashville Superspeedway (avg. of 38 points)
  • Bristol career: Three wins, average finish of 13.5 in 40 starts (defending Bristol Night Race winner)

Chase Elliott (+19 above playoff cutline)

  • Round of 16 finishes: 31st at Darlington, fourth at Richmond (avg. of 25.5 points)
  • 2021 concrete track finishes: Third at Dover, 39th – disqualified at Nashville Superspeedway (avg. of 25.5 points)
  • Bristol career: No wins in points races, avg. finish of 12.1 in 10 starts (has led laps in last five races). He won the All-Star Race at Bristol in 2020.

Christopher Bell (+17 above playoff cutline)

  • Round of 16 finishes: 20th at Darlington, third at Richmond (avg. of 32.5 points)
  • 2021 concrete track finishes: 21st at Dover, ninth at Nashville Superspeedway (avg. of 22 points)
  • Bristol career: No wins, avg. finish of 18.5 in two starts (has Bristol wins in Xfinity and Truck)

Brad Keselowski (+13 above playoff cutline)

  • Round of 16 finishes: Seventh at Darlington, 13th at Richmond (avg. of 29 points)
  • 2021 concrete track finishes: 16th at Dover, 23rd at Nashville Superspeedway (avg. of 21.5 points)
  • Bristol career: Three wins, avg. finish of 17.3 in 22 starts (has led laps in five of last six races)

Kyle Busch (+8 above playoff cutline)

  • Round of 16 finishes: 35th at Darlington, ninth at Richmond (avg. of 19.5 points)
  • 2021 concrete track finishes: 27th at Dover, 11th at Nashville Superspeedway (avg. of 24.5 points)
  • Bristol career: Eight wins, avg. finish of 12.8 in 31 starts (three wins, six top-five finishes in last seven races)

Aric Almirola (+3 above playoff cutline)

  • Round of 16 finishes: 16th at Darlington, 14th at Richmond (avg. of 25.5 points)
  • 2021 concrete track finishes: 37th at Dover, fourth at Nashville Superspeedway (avg. of 18.5 points)
  • Bristol career: No wins, avg. finish of 24.1 in 23 starts (finished fifth in 2020 playoff race)

Kurt Busch (holds playoff cutline tiebreaker)

  • Round of 16 finishes: Sixth at Darlington, 37th at Richmond (avg. of 22.5 points)
  • 2021 concrete track finishes: 13th at Dover, eighth at Nashville Superspeedway (avg. of 34 points)
  • Bristol career: Six wins, avg. finish of 14.0 in 40 starts (one win, five top-ten finishes in last seven races)

Alex Bowman (tied on playoff cutline)

  • Round of 16 finishes: 26th at Darlington, 12th at Richmond (avg. of 19 points)
  • 2021 concrete track finishes: Won at Dover, 14th at Nashville Superspeedway (avg. of 37 points)
  • Bristol career: No wins, avg. finish of 22.0 in 10 starts (finished 15th or worse in last four races)

Tyler Reddick (-5 below playoff cutline)

  • Round of 16 finishes: 18th at Darlington, 15th at Richmond (avg. of 22.5 points)
  • 2021 concrete track finishes: Eighth at Dover, 18th at Nashville Superspeedway (avg. of 24.5 points)
  • Bristol career: No wins, avg. finish of 20.0 in two starts (finished fourth as a non-playoff driver in 2020 playoff race)

William Byron (-18 below playoff cutline)

  • Round of 16 finishes: 34th at Darlington, 19th at Richmond (avg. of 10.5 points)
  • 2021 concrete track finishes: Fourth at Dover, third at Nashville Superspeedway (avg. of 43 points)
  • Bristol career: No wins, avg. finish of 20.7 in six starts (eighth in May 2020 is lone top-10 finish at track)

Michael McDowell (-38 below playoff cutline)

  • Round of 16 finishes: 37th at Darlington, 28th at Richmond (avg. of five points)
  • 2021 concrete track finishes: 25th at Dover, 16th at Nashville Superspeedway (avg. of 16.5 points)
  • Bristol career: No wins, avg. finish of 29.9 in 21 starts (finished 10th as non-playoff driver in 2020 playoff race; lone top 10 at track)

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.