BRISTOL, Tenn. – As NASCAR seeks inventive ways to push the sport forward, last weekend’s racing at Bristol Motor Speedway might give series officials something else to ponder.
What about Bristol hosting the championship weekend?
For a series that moved Daytona off July 4th weekend, races on the road course instead of the oval at Indianapolis, and will run the NASCAR Clash in a football stadium, the idea of Bristol hosting the championship doesn’t seem any more far-fetched. NBCSN’s Dale Jarrett suggested it last weekend.
“Bottom line, it’s the best racetrack we have,” Joey Logano said. “In my opinion, Bristol is the best racetrack out there, not only for the drivers and putting on a good race, but for the fans.
“There’s not a bad seat in this place. You can sit anywhere and you can see the whole racetrack. There’s always action around the whole thing.”
As if any more evidence was needed to consider ending the season at Bristol, the track provided three nights of memorable action.
Chandler Smith scored his first Camping World Truck Series win Thursday night after trading paint with reigning series champion Sheldon Creed in the final laps.
AJ Allmendinger and Austin Cindric slid across the finish line in the Xfinity Series race. Allmendinger won the race and regular-season title, and saw his car heavily damaged in the crash.
Kyle Larson passed Kevin Harvick with four laps left to win Saturday night’s Cup race. The main attraction, though, was the post-race confrontation between Chase Elliott and Harvick. Elliott was upset with Harvick about contact that cut Elliott’s tire and cost him a chance at the win. Harvick was upset with Elliott, believing that Elliott retaliated by running in Harvick’s line, which helped Larson to get by.
NASCAR has built the playoffs around drama and conflict. Phoenix, which hosts the championship weekend for a second consecutive year in November, doesn’t have the reputation for drama and conflict that Bristol has. Then again, few, if any, tracks do.
The idea of Bristol hosting the championship race in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks has the potential to create an energy and atmosphere unlike any NASCAR title event. That alone should make Bristol part of the conversation on where the sport should end its season.
With the incoming Next Gen car expected to be able to take more of a pounding that the current Cup car, ending the year at a short track becomes more feasible.
Making Bristol the title weekend site, though, would require other big moves by the sport.
The season would need to end in October to have better weather. The average high temperature in October for Bristol is 70 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Also, October is the month with the least amount of rainfall in Bristol.
“Is it too cold to end here at the end of October?,” Kevin Harvick asked before last weekend’s race. “Probably not. Why not, right?”
NASCAR would need to move the end of the season up at least one week, and likely two or more weeks, to create a better fit for Bristol to host the season-ending event.
How to do that?
Maybe NASCAR could go back to starting the season in January as it did from 1970-81 when Riverside (California) hosted the first race of the year.
To end the NASCAR season earlier also might require a doubleheader weekend somewhere to shorten the schedule. The challenge is that NASCAR didn’t see enough from fans to put a doubleheader weekend into next year’s Cup schedule.
One thing to consider: Is it better to have a Saturday race earlier in the year or have another weekend going head-to-head against football in the fall?
If such a move allows Bristol to hold the championship weekend, then what is there to debate?
Is the sport’s most popular driver being picked on? Or is it a case of that’s how competitors race for the lead late in the race?
Elliott was frustrated with Kevin Harvick after contact while racing for the lead cut Elliott’s tire and cost him a chance to win last weekend at Bristol.
“It’s something (Harvick) does all the time,” Elliott told NBCSN’s Dave Burns after the race. “He runs into your left side constantly at other tracks. Sometimes it does cut your left side and other times it doesn’t. Did it to me at Darlington a few weeks ago because he was tired of racing with me. Whether he did it on purpose, it doesn’t matter.
“At some point you’ve got to draw the line. I don’t care who he is or how long he’s been doing it. I’m going to stand up for myself, my team and we’ll go on down the road.”
That was a sentiment last year at Darlington when Kyle Busch made contact with Elliott late in the track’s second May race and Elliott crashed. Elliott gave Busch a one-finger salute after exiting the car.
While Busch said he made a mistake, Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, said after that incident: “I don’t think (Busch) intentionally wrecked us, but you just get tired of coming out on the wrong end of those deals too often.”
Elliott lost a chance to win the 2017 playoff race at Martinsville and advance to the title race when Denny Hamlin’s contact turned Elliott in the final laps. He repaid Hamlin at Phoenix. Elliott raced Hamlin tight and caused Hamlin to hit the wall, ending Hamlin’s title hopes.
Of course, Elliott has been on the other side. Racing underneath Joey Logano for the lead late at Bristol in May 2020, Elliott went up the track and they both crashed. Brad Keselowski won.
Logano was upset with Elliott for how Elliott reacted after the incident.
“The part that’s frustrating is that afterwards, a simple apology, like be a man and come up to someone and say, ‘Hey, my bad,’” Logano said that day. “But I had to force an apology, which, to me, is childish.”
Harvick’s frustration with Elliott last weekend was with Elliott running in his line. Harvick felt that helped Elliott’s teammate, Kyle Larson, ultimately win.
“Throw a temper tantrum like you’re 2 years old because you got passed for the lead and got a flat tire,” Harvick told NBCSN’s Dillon Welch.
“We barely even rubbed. It’s all Chase’s way or it’s no way, and if he doesn’t get his way, then he throws a fit.”
Both Elliott and Harvick are in the Round of 12, which begins Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN). How they race each other moving forward could be among the key storylines of these playoffs.
The storyline for the beginning of the Xfinity playoffs could easily viewed as a matter of old vs. new.
AJ Allmendinger and Austin Cindric are the favorites heading into Saturday’s playoff opener at Las Vegas (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). They finished first and second in the points and won nine of the first 26 races. They’ll also be watched closely after their door-banging finish at Bristol last weekend.
Allmendinger is the veteran. The 39-year-old driver has raced in Cup or Xfinity since 2007.
Cindric, 23, is the new kid, part of a talented generation of racers. Cindric moves to Cup next year in the No. 2 car for Team Penske, replacing Brad Keselowski.
But there’s another way Allmendinger vs. Cindric as old vs. new.
The championship battle is old to Cindric, the reigning series champion. He also won the regular-season title last year.
Allmendinger has never won a NASCAR championship. This is his first full-time season in the Xfinity Series. He made the inaugural Cup playoffs in 2014 and was eliminated in the first round.
Time is an element for Allmendinger, understanding where he is at his career.
“I’m almost 40 years old,” he told NBCSN’s Dave Burns. “ … Why not go for it, give everything you’ve got? You never know how long you’ve got left. So I’m going to run every lap like it’s my last one because it might be.”
Last weekend’s incident was the second time Allmendinger and Cindric have had contact coming to the finish line this season.
The first time happened in the second race of the year, when they made contact racing to the end of the stage at the Daytona road course. Cindric won the stage. Allmendinger’s damaged car no longer was competitive.
“I think there’s a mutual respect between AJ and I,” Cindric said after the Bristol race. “I feel like I understand my limitations with him as far as what I expect and where that respect stops. It’s in those situations that it stops that makes it hard to race against him in those situations.
“I think (Friday) was a test for him because I don’t know if in his NASCAR career he’s been in a championship position. Definitely told me a lot (Friday), for better or for worse. I’ll be fine with it. I’ve been run over before. I’ve gotten into people before.”
Allmendinger said he looks forward to racing Cindric in the playoffs.
“If Team Penske wasn’t in the Xfinity Series with that 22 car, we wouldn’t be as good as we are,” Allmendinger said. “They make us step up every weekend to be better.
“It’s the same way I’m working my ass off to try to figure out how to step my game up to beat Austin every weekend and beat everybody else.
“He’s the champ. He’s the guy you’ve got to go for. I’ll compete 100% and do it out of respect because I don’t want any hard feelings going into the playoffs. But, if the are hard feelings, OK, whatever, I guess, fine.”