Will past Cup champions fall in playoff eliminator at Bristol?

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Following last year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron and Cole Custer were out of the postseason.

It marked the first time that a past Cup champion wasn’t eliminated in the first round since the current playoff format debuted in 2014.

As the 2021 Cup playoffs hit “The World’s Fastest Half Mile” on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), six past champions are in danger of receiving that fate.

Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 champion, advanced to the second round with his win last week at Richmond Raceway. With Truex safe, all of the other past champions are above the cutline entering Bristol.

Kurt Busch, the 2004 champion and Chip Ganassi Racing driver, is tied on the cutline with Alex Bowman but holds the tiebreaker of better race finish in the first round.

With three first-round eliminations in the playoff format, Kurt Busch has endured the most of any driver. Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was knocked out twice in the first round during his NASCAR career (2015, 2018). Hall of Famer Tony Stewart took one first-round elimination in 2016.

Kurt Busch failed to advance into the second round in 2014, 2017 and 2019. But none of those cuts came at Bristol Motor Speedway – where he has claimed six Cup victories.

His most recent Bristol win in 2018 began a run of four top-10 finishes in his last five races there.

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Eight points ahead of him in 10th place is his younger brother, Kyle Busch. The two-time Cup champion has claimed 22 NASCAR national series checkered flags at Bristol in his career, including eight in the premier division.

He’ll have an opportunity to advance and put behind him a tough first round that’s seen him wreck out at Darlington (then get fined $50,000 for his actions afterwards) and have a likely top five at Richmond scratched due to a pit road speeding penalty.

Also in the most danger entering Bristol are 2012 champion Brad Keselowski (+13) and reigning champion Chase Elliott (+19).

Keselowski earned his third career Bristol win in May 2020. But since 2016, he’s finished 16th or worse in eight of the last 10 Bristol races.

Additionally, he’s only scored four stage points over the first two playoff races (finished seventh at Darlington and 13th at Richmond).

His recent speed at Bristol does provide some hope, however. Keselowski’s led in five of the last six Bristol races for a total of 395 laps.

Elliott has also been fast as of late at Bristol, where he’s won three of the past four stages and led laps in each of the last five races.

Coming in on a run of seven top-10 finishes in the last nine races (including a win at Road America), the time may be right for Elliott to claim his first points-paying win at Bristol.

As for Logano and Harvick, their respective cushions aren’t safe. But they at least have more in their control.

Logano was victorious in the Cup Series’ last visit to Bristol, when the high-banked half mile transformed into a dirt track. He has not won since then, but a steady start to the playoffs (finished eighth at Darlington and fifth at Richmond) has him in good shape.

Harvick has had a similarly solid start (finished fifth at Darlington, eighth at Richmond). The defending Bristol Night Race winner has fought mightily throughout the season, and this could be a prime opportunity for him to get a victory on the board.