NASCAR storylines: It’s Bristol, baby – now with 100% less dirt


As Chase Elliott said before this year’s Cup Series playoffs began, if you don’t enjoy the big moments, you’re never gonna thrive in them.

Elliott did that in last year’s playoffs. He won the last three elimination races, including the championship race in Phoenix, to claim his first Cup title.

Now, it’s time to see if his flair for the dramatic continues.

Entering Saturday’s Cup Round of 16 elimination race on the concrete at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Elliott is 19 points above the cutline to advance to the next round. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Kyle Larson, is already there along with Denny Hamlin and last week’s winner at Richmond, Martin Truex Jr.

That 19-point cushion isn’t safe, but Elliott’s rally for fourth place at Richmond gives him momentum.

Additionally, he doesn’t seem far off from claiming his first Cup points-paying win at Bristol (although he did win the exhibition All-Star Race there in 2020). He’s won three of the last four Bristol stages and has led laps in each of the last five Bristol races.

Of course, any time you mention Bristol, you have to mention Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

Harvick isn’t back to front-running form. But as he’s done all season, he’s been grinding. Finishes of fifth and eighth in the first two playoff races put him 25 points above the cutline entering Bristol, where he’s earned two wins (including last year’s Night Race) and eight top-10 finishes in his last 11 races.

Kyle Busch is a master of the .533-mile short track. An eight-time Bristol Cup race winner, he’s earned three wins and six finishes of fourth or better in his last seven races there. Coming in at just eight points above the cutline, this is as good a track as he could hope for in a make-or-break situation.

Don’t forget his older brother, either. Kurt Busch is tied on the cutline with Alex Bowman, while holding the tiebreaker for better Round of 16 finish.

But Kurt is a six-time Bristol winner who’s finished inside the top 10 in four of his last five races there (including his 2018 win for Stewart-Haas Racing). In contrast, Bowman has finished 15th or worse in his last four Bristol races.

Danger zone

The final three Xfinity playoff positions will be decided in Friday’s regular season finale (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) at Bristol.

Jeremy Clements (+74), Brandon Jones (+67) and Riley Herbst (+66) all have healthy cushions above the playoff cutline. But Friday will still be nerve-wracking for them.

Only eight points separates the trio. That sets up a compelling ‘race within the race’ between them. Every point gained could be the difference in surviving or being eliminated if someone below the cutline scores an upset win.

JR Motorsports’ Michael Annett is currently “first driver out” at 66 points behind 12th-place Herbst. But teammate Noah Gragson’s win last week at Richmond was JRM’s fifth in the last seven Xfinity short track races.

JRM has also been strong recently at Bristol. Gragson won there in June 2020, albeit in controversial fashion following a run-in with teammate Justin Allgaier. Speaking of Allgaier, he’s led at least 126 laps in each of the last four Bristol races.

With Gragson and Allgaier playoff-bound, JRM can go all in on Annett to help him fight for a win.

Then there’s the usual short track clashes to consider, which could turn Friday into an attrition race that gives others behind the cutline – Ryan Sieg (-93) and Brandon Brown (-109) in particular – a chance to turn everything upside down.

The ‘other’ playoff race

Bristol also hosts the first elimination race for the Camping World Truck Series playoffs on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, FS1). Two playoff drivers will be eliminated, leaving eight still in the hunt.

Last year’s champ, Sheldon Creed, didn’t have a particularly great regular season. But before the playoffs began, he was confident that he and his No. 2 GMS Racing team were heading in the right direction.

Indeed, they were. Creed, who was named Tuesday to a full-time 2022 Xfinity ride for Richard Childress Racing, won the first two playoff races at World Wide Technology Raceway and Darlington Raceway.

He and regular season champion John Hunter Nemechek are safely in the Round of 8, with Nemechek advancing on points. That leaves six spots in the Round of 8 up for grabs Thursday.

Here’s how the Truck playoff standings look, minus Creed and Nemechek:

Zane Smith, the other GMS playoff driver, faces elimination after making the Championship 4 last year. Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Chandler Smith is also on the outside looking in.

But in potentially good news for Zane Smith, his organization has won the last two Truck races on the concrete at Bristol (2019 – Brett Moffitt, 2020 – Sam Mayer). Last year, GMS drivers Mayer, Moffitt and Tyler Ankrum combined to lead all 200 laps.

Chandler Smith also has something going for him. He only has two career Truck starts on the concrete at Bristol, but he’s finished top five in both (second in 2019, fifth in 2020).

North Wilkesboro’s worn surface will prove challenging to drivers


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Three Cup drivers got their first chance to experience North Wilkesboro Speedway’s worn racing surface Tuesday and said tires will play a key role in the NASCAR All-Star Race there on May 21.

Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday. That test was to continue Wednesday.

The verdict was unanimous about how important tire wear will be.

“This place has got a lot of character to it,” Reddick said. “Not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving. It’s a really fun place.”

Dillon said: “If you use up your tire too early, you’re going to really be in trouble. You really got to try to make those four tires live.”

Buescher said: “The surface here was so worn out already that we expect to be all over the place. The speeds are fairly slow just because of the amount of grip here. It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight.”

Reddick noted the drop in speed over a short run during Tuesday’s test. That will mean a lot of off-throttle time.

“I think we were seeing a second-and-a-half falloff or so over even 50 laps and that was kind of surprising for me we didn’t have more falloff,” he said. “But, one little miscue, misstep into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car.”

“That’s with no traffic. Maybe with more traffic and everything, the falloff will be more, but certainly we’re out of control from I’d say Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car. … It’s really hard 30-40 laps into a run to even get wide open.”

Chris Buescher runs laps during a Goodyear tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway, while Austin Dillon is on pit road. (Photo: Dustin Long)

One thing that stood out to Dillon was how the facility looks.

While the .625-mile racing surface remains the same since Cup last raced there in 1996, most everything else has changed.

In some cases, it is fresh red paint applied to structures but other work has been more extensive, including repaving the infield and pit road, adding lights for night racing, adding SAFER barriers, the construction of new suites in Turn 4 and new stands along the backstretch.

“It’s cool to see how much they’ve done to the track, the suites, the stands that they’re putting in,” Dillon said. “To me, the work that is going in here, we’re not just coming for one race. We’re coming here for a while. I’m excited about that.”

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup race at COTA


Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, has attracted an entry list that includes talent beyond that of the tour regulars.

Jordan Taylor, who is substituting in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet for injured Chase Elliott, brings a resume that includes 31 IMSA class wins, two 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins and two IMSA wins at COTA.

MORE: NBC Driver Rankings: Christopher Bell is No. 1

Jenson Button won the Formula One championship in 2009 and has five F1 starts at COTA. He is scheduled to be a driver for the NASCAR entry in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kimi Raikkonen, entered by Trackhouse Racing as part of its Project 91 program, won the 2007 F1 championship and has eight F1 starts at the Austin track.

They will draw attention at COTA this weekend, along with these other drivers to watch:


Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best seasonal finish: 2nd (Atlanta I)
  • Past at COTA: 19th and 14th in two career starts

Keselowski hasn’t been a star in road course racing, but his 2023 season has started well, and he figures to be in the mix at the front Sunday. He led the white-flag lap at Atlanta last Sunday before Joey Logano passed him for the win.

AJ Allmendinger

  • Points position: 17th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 5th and 33rd in two starts

The Dinger is a road course expert. Last year at COTA, he was involved in tight racing on the final lap with Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman before Chastain emerged with the victory.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Auto Club)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top fours, including a win

Chastain lifted Trackhouse Racing’s profile by scoring his — and the team’s — first Cup victory at COTA last season. He’s not shy about participating in the last-lap bumping and thumping that often mark road course races.


Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 13th and 21st in two starts

Buescher has never led a lap at COTA and is coming off a 35th-place finish at Atlanta after being swept up in a Lap 190 crash. Although he has shown the power to run near the front this year, he has four consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas I)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top 10s

Bowman’s four-race run of consistent excellence (finishes of fifth, eighth, third and ninth) ended at Atlanta as he came home 14th and failed to lead a lap. At COTA, he is one of only four drivers with top-10 finishes in both races.

William Byron

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I)
  • Past at COTA: 11th and 12th in two starts

Involvement in an accident at Atlanta ended Byron’s two-race winning streak. He’ll be looking to lead a lap at COTA for the first time.



Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended by NASCAR


Three members of the Reaume Brothers Racing No. 33 Craftsman Truck Series team have been suspended for three races by NASCAR after a piece of tungsten ballast came off their truck during last Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The suspensions were announced Tuesday.

Crew chief Gregory Rayl and crew members Matthew Crossman and Travis Armstrong were suspended because of the safety violation. Mason Massey is the team’s driver.

MORE: Xfinity driver Josh Williams suspended for one race

In a tweet following the announcement of the penalty, the team said it will not file an appeal. “The ballast became dislodged only after the left side ballast container had significant contact with the racing surface,” according to the statement. “We would like to be clear that there was no negligence on the part of RBR personnel.”

NASCAR also announced Tuesday that Truck Series owner/driver Cory Roper, who had been suspended indefinitely for violating the substance abuse policy, has been reinstated.

The Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series are scheduled to race this weekend at Circuit of the Americas.


Josh Williams suspended for one race after Atlanta infraction


NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Josh Williams has been suspended for one race because of his actions during last Saturday’s Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Williams will be ineligible to participate in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. He would be able to return for the April 1 race at Richmond, Virginia.

Williams was penalized for a “behavioral” infraction, specifically disobeying a NASCAR request.

In a tweet after the suspension was announced, Williams said: “I stand behind what I did and I don’t regret any decisions I made. I stand behind NASCAR for these decisions and will continue and always support them.” He said Alex Labbe will drive the team’s No. 92 car at Circuit of the Americas this weekend.

MORE: Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended

NASCAR officials ordered Williams off the track during Saturday’s race after his car was involved in an accident. Debris falling from his car prompted a caution flag, leading NASCAR to order him to park.

Instead of going to the garage area, Williams parked his car at the start-finish line and walked to pit road.

Williams was escorted to the NASCAR hauler office at the track. He waited there until the conclusion of the race and then met with officials for about 20 minutes.

MORE: NBC Power Rankings: Christopher Bell rises to the top

Section 8.8.9.I of the Xfinity Series Rule Book states that with the Damaged Vehicle Policy, NASCAR can order a car off the track: “At the discretion of the Series Managing Director, if a damaged vehicle elects not to enter pit road on the first opportunity or if a damaged vehicle exits pit road before sufficient repairs had been made and thereafter causes or extends a caution (e.g. leaking fluid, debris, etc.), then said vehicle may incur a lap(s) or time penalty or may not be permitted to return to the Race.”

Williams later admitted he had violated a rule but said he was frustrated by the NASCAR decision.

“We all work really hard and to only run ‘X’ amount of laps and then to have something like a piece of Bear Bond and put us out of the race, it’s really frustrating,” Williams said after his meeting with series officials. “Small team. We work really hard. We’ve got to make our sponsors happy, right? It doesn’t do any good sitting in the garage. It is what it is. We’ll learn from it and move on.

“I told them I was a little bit frustrated,” Williams said of NASCAR’s call, “but it was in the rule book.”