Bristol elimination race: A look at what each driver needs to advance

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Saturday night’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) will eliminate four drivers from title contention. 

Here’s is a look at the playoff standings, what it will take for each driver to advance and their results in the first two races of the opening round. The tiebreaker is best result in this round. 

1. Christopher Bell — Has clinched a spot in the second round. Reached the second round in last year’s playoffs before he was eliminated. Finished 5th at Darlington and 3rd at Kansas. 

2. William Byron (+48 to the cutline) — Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Was eliminated in the first round in 2020, made it to the second round in 2021. Finished 8th at Darlington and 6th at Kansas. 

3. Denny Hamlin (+47 to the cutline)— Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race each of the past three years. Finished 2nd at Darlington and 2nd at Kansas. 

4. Joey Logano (+40 to the cutline)— Needs to score 16 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race every even-numbered year of the Cup playoffs: 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20. Finished 4th at Darlington and 17th at Kansas. 

5. Ryan Blaney (+36 to the cutline)— Needs to score 20 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has been eliminated in the first round only once. That was in 2020. Finished 13th at Darlington and 9th at Kansas. 

6. Alex Bowman (+30 to the cutline)— Needs to score 26 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to at least the second round in each of the past four seasons. Finished 10th at Darlington and 4th at Kansas. 

7. Chase Elliott (+28 to the cutline)— Needs to score 28 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the championship race each of the past two seasons. Finished 36th at Darlington and 11th at Kansas. 

8. Kyle Larson (+27 to the cutline)— Needs to score 29 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Reigning Cup champion. Finished 12th at Darlington and 8th at Kansas. 

9. Ross Chastain (+26 to the cutline)— Needs to score 30 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. Finished 20th at Darlington and 7th at Kansas. 

10. Daniel Suarez (+6 to the cutline)— Needs to score 50 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. Finished 18th at Darlington and 10th at Kansas. 

11. Tyler Reddick (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Eliminated in the first round last year in his first time in the Cup playoffs. Finished 3rd at Darlington and 35th at Kansas. 

12. Austin Cindric (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. Finished 16th at Darlington and 12th at Kansas. 

13. Kyle Busch (-2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Two-time Cup champion who has never been eliminated in the first round. Finished 30th at Darlington and 26th at Kansas. 

14. Austin Dillon (-3 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has twice been eliminated in the first round. Finished 17th at Darlington and 14th at Kansas. 

15. Chase Briscoe (-9 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). First time in Cup playoffs. Finished 27th at Darlington and 13th at Kansas. 

16. Kevin Harvick (-35 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). The 2014 Cup champion has never been eliminated in the first round. Finished 33rd at Darlington and 36th at Kansas. 

Dr. Diandra: The cars each playoff driver should avoid to survive Bristol

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With only Christopher Bell locked into the next round of the playoffs, the first item on every other drivers’ to-do list is to simply survive Bristol.

The worst thing that can happen to a playoff driver is him taking himself out of the race.

The second-worst thing is for another driver take him out.

During a discussion of accidents on SiriusXM Speedway, host Dave Moody asked if some drivers tend to run into each other more than they run into other drivers.

I suspected they did, but here are the numbers.

The method

Never trust statistics unless you know what data was used, where it came from, and how the claimant arrived at their results.

I started with NASCAR’s caution list, selecting all accidents and spins involving two or more cars. For 2022, that totaled 69 incidents involving 280 cars.

Incidents at road courses, however, often don’t cause cautions. Therefore, I added the list of incidents I compiled from analyzing video of the five road course races. That provided 20 more incidents involving 48 cars.

I then identified all the pairwise correlations. That’s a fancy way of saying I found all the pairs of drivers who were in the same accidents.

For Ross Chastain, for example, I counted how many times the No. 1 car was in an accident that also involved the No. 2 car, the No. 3 car, etc. I repeated this for each driver.

Each pair of drivers’ score is the number of accidents they had in common. These numbers ranged from zero to six.

No analysis is ever absolute. So here are the caveats:

  • Counting accidents is subjective. I may not have counted one or two incidents in the road course races that someone else might. NASCAR didn’t count accidents that didn’t cautions.
  • I haven’t discriminated between two-car incidents and multi-car crashes. They all potentially hamper the driver’s finish. But drivers take two-car altercations a little more personally. They thus get more attention and we remember them better.

Who contacts the most cars?

I start by examining how many pairwise collisions each driver tallied in the 28 races this year. Again, a pairwise collision is simply an accident or spin involving both drivers.

Two of this year’s rookie class rise to the top of the list. Harrison Burton was involved in 75 pairwise interactions and Todd Gilliland in 70.

Being a rookie doesn’t necessarily mean you get tangled up with more cars. Austin Cindric had only 45 pairwise interactions.

The third driver in the overall rankings is veteran Denny Hamlin, with a 66. Aside from Burton, Gilliland and Hamlin, no driver has more than 60 pairwise collisions this year.

Six drivers score between 50 and 59.

Justin Haley holds the lowest score of all full-time drivers at 19. Other low-scoring drivers are:

Specific pairs

If collisions were random, then every car would have about the same pairwise collision score with every other car. We already know not to expect that because where cars typically run influences who collides with whom.

Cars that tend to run at the front of the field are more likely to run into other cars that run at the front of the field. The same holds true for mid-pack and back-of-pack drivers. The only exception is at superspeedways because those crashes tend to collect a broader swathe of positions.

The two drivers involved in the largest number of common incidents this year are Cindric and Burton, with a total of six. One-ninth of Cindric’s incidents included Burton.

But running position can’t entirely explain this data.

Cindric’s average running position is 17.0, which is almost five positions away from Burton’s average running position of 22.9. But playoff driver Austin Dillon has an 18.2 average running position and has no shared incidents with Burton.

Cindric and Dillon have no shared incidents, either.

Running position can, however, explain the other two drivers that have a high score with Burton. Gilliland and Corey LaJoie each have five shared accidents with the No. 21. LaJoie’s average running position is 25.4 and Gilliland’s is 23.5.

But LaJoie has only one shared accident with Gilliland.

If this makes your head spin, the diagram below may help. I denote each driver by his car number. The numbers on the arrows tell you how many shared incidents each pair has.

A graphic showing the numbers of pairwise correlations (i.e. shared accidents) for Harrison Burton and select drivers.

Aside from the Burton/Gilliland and Burton/LaJoie pairings, only two other driver pairs had five mutual encounters. Denny Hamlin shares five accidents each with Elliott and Ryan Blaney.

How to survive Bristol

The table below shows driver pairs with scores of four or more for each of the playoff drivers. These are the cars each driver should avoid if they are to survive Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday, USA Network.) Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe, William Byron and Alex Bowman are not included because none had any scores of four or above.A table showing playoff drivers and which cars they most frequently find themselves in accidents with.

Starting lineup for Bristol Cup playoff race

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BRISTOL, Tennessee — Aric Almirola will take the green flag in front of eight playoff drivers in the Cup starting lineup Saturday night as the first round concludes at Bristol Motor Speedway (USA, coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET).

Almirola, who failed to make the playoff (after re-signing a contract extension for the No. 10 Ford), captured the fourth pole position of his Cup career. His most recent was 47 starts ago (last year at Nashville Superspeedway).

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver became the 14th pole-sitter in Cup this season by turning a lap of 14.946 seconds on the 0.533-mile oval in qualifying Friday.

MORE: Click here for Bristol Cup starting lineup by row l By car

It was the sixth top 10 starts in seven races at the short track for Almirola, whose previous best in qualifying at Bristol was second.

Here are the starting positions of the 16 playoff drivers:

Chase Briscoe (second), Alex Bowman (third), Denny Hamlin (fourth), Kyle Larson (fifth), Ryan Blaney (sixth), Kevin Harvick (seventh), Christopher Bell (eighth), Austin Cindric (ninth), Ross Chastain (12th), Joey Logano (15th), William Byron (16th), Tyler Reddick (17th), Kyle Busch (21st), Chase Elliott (23rd), Austin Dillon (28th) and Daniel Suarez (29th).

UNDER THE LIGHTS AT BRISTOL: Details for Saturday’s race

Four drivers will be eliminated after Saturday’s 500-lap race concludes the first round of the playoffs. Only Bell is locked into the second round.

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are below the cutline to start the first race on Bristol’s high-banked concrete with the Next Gen car. Busch and Harvick are trying to avoid first-round elimination for the first time in their careers.

Harvick finished second at Bristol last year after winning therein 2020.

Busch has a series-leading eight victories in NASCAR’s premier series at Bristol — most recently in a 2019 win that is among his six top-five finishes in the past eight races there.

Aric Almirola wins Cup pole at Bristol

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Aric Almirola won his first pole since June 2021 and will lead the field to the green flag in Saturday night’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“We’re showing what we’re capable of,” Almirola told NBC Sports’ Kim Coon.

MORE: Bristol Cup qualifying results

This is Almirola’s fourth career Cup pole. His last pole was at Nashville in June 2021. He is the 14th different driver to win a pole this season.

Almirola will be joined by Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Chase Briscoe on the front row.

Alex Bowman qualified third. Denny Hamlin will start fourth. Kyle Larson, who signed a contract extension through 2026 to remain at Hendrick Motorsports, completed the top five.

Almirola and Brad Keselowski were the only non-playoff drivers to qualify in the top 10. Keselowski will start 10th.

Daniel Suarez, who is six points above the cutline going into Saturday’s elimination race, qualified 29th. That’s worst among the 16 playoff drivers. Austin Dillon, who is three points below the cutline, qualified 28th.

The Cup race will be at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network. Countdown to Green airs at 6:30 p.m. ET on USA Network.

Friday 5: What matters most in Cup? Youth or experience

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As a Cup champion will switch teams for the second year in row, a key question becomes what is more valuable in NASCAR’s top series: Youth or experience?

Brad Keselowski moved this year from Team Penske to what is now RFK Racing to be an owner/driver. Kyle Busch moves next year from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing. 

In both instances, the move came near the peak season, statistically, for each as a driver. David Smith — who operated his own analytics website and worked for NBC Sports before joining RFK Racing before this season — noted that the age 39 season was a driver’s peak season. Keselowski turned 38 before this year’s Daytona 500. Busch turns 38 next May.

MORE: Kyle Busch and JGR: A long, sometimes rough road

As the Cup lineup trends younger, what is the place for drivers in their late 30s?

Keselowski was replaced by Austin Cindric, who turned 24 earlier this month. Joe Gibbs Racing is expected to replace Busch with Ty Gibbs, who turns 20 in October.

Cindric is worthy, having nearly won back-to-back Xfinity championships the previous two seasons. Gibbs won in his first Xfinity start last year. He’s won more than 20% of his Xfinity starts. 

“We know Ty Gibbs is ready to race (in Cup),” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development told NBC Sports in July.

Cindric and Gibbs were among eight drivers in last weekend’s Cup playoff race at Kansas Speedway who are age 25 or younger. 

The average age of last weekend’s Cup race — won by 28-year-old Bubba Wallace — was 30.4 years. 

That’s a slightly younger average age than the field for last weekend’s IndyCar season finale at Laguna Seca. The average age for that race — won by 25-year-old Alex Palou — was 30.8.

Car owner Rick Hendrick started the change toward younger drivers in Cup, hiring a 21-year-old Jeff Gordon to run the full season in 1993. Two years later, Gordon won the first of his four championships.

It took time for other others to follow, but the sport has gradually looked to younger drivers. That became more important when the economy forced companies to scale back sponsorship of teams. Younger drivers don’t cost as much as veterans. That helped drive some of the sport’s movements in recent years. 

Joe Gibbs Racing planned to keep Busch after Mars, Inc. announced last year that it was not returning to the team and sport after this season. JGR had a company to sponsor Busch’s No. 18 team until the deal fell through because of economic factors. 

Without a sponsor, JGR could not offer Busch what he felt the only active two-time Cup champion deserved, something he alluded to last month at Watkins Glen when he foreshadowed change.

You want to be able to go somewhere that you feel like you have a legit shot to race to win,” Busch said. “You know, trust me, I don’t feel like it’s fair to me or my family or anything else if we’re going to have to spend less time together moving forward because we are going to have to change our lifestyle, no question. 

“There’s a big change coming. And so, is it worth it to go run around and not have an opportunity to win right away versus building something versus jumping in something that can win. All those questions are certainly being weighed out.”

Busch said this week, after announcing he will join RCR, that he was told at one point that returning to the No. 18 car at JGR was no longer an option.

Asked how could a deal not get done with JGR, Busch said: “Only thing I can say to that is it didn’t happen. Apparently, they’ve got other irons in the fire, maybe other sponsors for other drivers and that’s the road they’re going down.”

Asked if he felt JGR was looking at a cheaper option than paying a former champion, Busch paused and said: “Fair assessment.”

For as much as people prefer sports to be about the events, it’s often about business. Without the financial resources, teams can’t compete. Owners such as Roger Penske, Gene Haas and Hendrick can have an advantage because they have other companies and can connect those companies with sponsors, making deals more valuable to companies. 

It’s not surprising that Hendrick (nine titles), Penske (two) and Haas (two) have combined to win 13 of the last 16 Cup championships. Joe Gibbs has two titles and Barney Visser, whose Furniture Row Racing team no longer is in the sport, has the other title in that time. 

This is what teams such as RFK Racing and Richard Childress Racing face to win a championship. 

None of RFK’s cars made the playoffs this year. Both of RCR’s cars made the playoffs. Tyler Reddick enters Saturday night’s elimination race two points above the cutline, while teammate Austin Dillon is three points below. 

Richard Childress Racing seeks to have a driver finish in the top 10 in points for the first time since 2014. Busch is expected to help the organization, which has three wins this year, become even more competitive.

“I know how serious (Busch) is about wanting to win that next championship,” said Childress, who last won a Cup title in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt. “I think with his knowledge of cars and his knowledge as a racer, he’s going to bring some stuff to the table.”

Kevin Harvick said in July he would be for having Busch join Stewart-Haas Racing because of how Busch could help a team.

“I know there’s a lot of things that go on around Kyle, but in the end Kyle is still one of the best that’s ever come through this garage,” Harvick said. “There’s a lot of teams that can say that they’ve never had one of those types of drivers. He literally could rebuild an organization if somebody took a chance that hasn’t had one of those types of drivers.”

Harvick, who is 46 years old, has won twice this season. He’ll likely need to win Saturday night to advance to the second round after a fire and crash sidelined him in the first two races of this round.

Hamlin also has shown what an older driver can do. The 41-year-old seeks his fourth consecutive appearance in the title race. 

“I still think that there’s a level of experience that really, really matters in our sport,” said Hamlin, who owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan. “I feel as good as I’ve ever been in the car. My craft, I feel as good as ever. 

“I’ve been lightning fast even though the win column hasn’t shown it as much this year. So I’m pretty happy with where I’m at considering my age. When I see Harvick, still being competitive and winning at this age, it just makes me look at my future and say, you know, I’ve got a longer runway than I thought.”

2. Former champs seek to avoid elimination

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick both enter Saturday’s playoff elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) outside a transfer spot. 

Busch and Harvick have combined to win three of the last eight titles. Busch’s championships came in 2015 and ’19. Harvick won the 2014 crown. They account for 32% of all Cup title race appearances.

Neither driver has been eliminated in the first round since the playoff format debuted in 2014. Harvick was in a must-win situation in 2015 and won to advance to the second round.

He is in a similar situation after a fire eliminated him at Darlington and a crash ended his race early last week at Kansas. Harvick goes into Bristol 35 points from the transfer spot and all but needs a victory to move on in the postseason.

“It is what it is,” Harvick said last week at Kansas of his deficit. “We were racing to win anyway today, so that is what we will do again next week.”

Busch entered the 2015 first round elimination race outside a transfer spot by one point and finished second to Harvick at Dover to advance. Busch and Harvick took the spots of Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray, eliminating them.

Busch is two points out of a transfer spot this time. While he doesn’t need to win, he is winless in his last 17 short track races, dating back to 2019. His longest short track winless drought is 18 races from 2012-15.

Busch has 23 total wins at Bristol. He has eight Cup wins on concrete and won the spring race there on the dirt. He also has nine Xfinity wins and five Truck victories there. 

“If I can have past Bristol results be Bristol results, then, yeah, shouldn’t be a problem,” Busch said after the Kansas race of advancing to the next round. “But if I have Bristol results similar to what’s happened this year every week, then no, it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

3. What it will take to advance

A look at what it will take for drivers to advance to the second round of the Cup playoffs.

Christopher Bell — Has clinched a spot in the second round. Reached the second round in last year’s playoffs before he was eliminated. 

William Byron (+48 to the cutline) — Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Was eliminated in the first round in 2020, made it to the second round in 2021.

Denny Hamlin (+47 to the cutline)— Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race each of the past three years. 

Joey Logano (+40 to the cutline)— Needs to score 16 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race every even-numbered year of the Cup playoffs: 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20.

Ryan Blaney (+36 to the cutline)— Needs to score 20 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has been eliminated in the first round only once. That was in 2020.

Alex Bowman (+30 to the cutline)— Needs to score 26 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to at least the second round in each of the past four seasons.

Chase Elliott (+28 to the cutline)— Needs to score 28 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the championship race each of the past two seasons. 

Kyle Larson (+27 to the cutline)— Needs to score 29 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Reigning Cup champion. 

Ross Chastain (+26 to the cutline)— Needs to score 30 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs.

Daniel Suarez (+6 to the cutline)— Needs to score 50 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. 

Tyler Reddick (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Eliminated in the first round last year in his first time in the Cup playoffs.

Austin Cindric (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. 

Kyle Busch (-2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Two-time Cup champion who has never been eliminated in the first round. 

Austin Dillon (-3 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has twice been eliminated in the first round. 

Chase Briscoe (-9 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). First time in Cup playoffs. 

Kevin Harvick (-35 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). The 2014 Cup champion has never been eliminated in the first round. 

4. Bristol’s questions  

Saturday night’s race at Bristol is a mystery for teams. 

The spring Bristol race was on dirt, so this marks the first time on the track’s concrete surface. Other than wheel-force testing with one car per manufacturer, no teams have been on the track. And the right side tires are different from anywhere else the series runs (the left side tires are the same as those used at Pocono).

“It’s certainly an unknown,” Randall Burnett, crew chief for Tyler Reddick, told NBC Sports. “I think it makes for exciting races when you go into an unknown like that. … I think you’ve really got to do your homework, and I think our team strives on that. 

“These tracks that we’ve had a lot of unknowns, I feel like we’ve unloaded well and rose to the challenge. I look forward to these kind of races.”

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, calls Bristol the “the last challenge of the Next Gen car and the last unknown setup-wise of the Next Gen car.”

While the series will race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the first time this year later in the playoffs, teams will be able to test there ahead of time. That will give them a better understanding of what is needed there than what teams have going into Bristol.

“I don’t know where you go get notes for Bristol,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “It’s very unique, so I am so thankful to be going into Bristol with a very large (points) cushion. Some of those guys toward the back of the (playoff) standings, having to go to Bristol and run 500 laps with this car, it’s going to be a nail-biter.”

5. Back in the playoffs 

Jeremy Clements said on Wednesday’s NASCAR America MotorMouths that an appeal panel rescinding the penalties against his team and putting him back in the Xfinity playoffs this week felt like “we won again. We’re celebrating again.”

Clements won at Daytona last month to earn a spot in the playoffs, but NASCAR penalized the team three days later for an intake manifold infraction found at the NASCAR R&D Center. Among the penalties was that Clements’ victory would not count toward playoff eligibility.

“We ended up noticing that there were other winning engines there and they didn’t have their intakes, and we, unfortunately, brought ours just because we didn’t know and it didn’t need to be,” Clements said on why the team appealed.

Part of the argument from Clements and his team was that other organizations did not have their intake manifolds inspected and that the Clements team shouldn’t be penalized for bringing their intake manifold to the R&D Center.

Clements said the appeal panel “just had common sense and that’s what prevailed. Just so happy to get this victory back and be back in the playoffs.”

With Clements back in the playoffs, it meant one person was dropped. Ryan Sieg, who was holding the final playoff spot after Clements’ penalty, fell out of a playoff spot with Clements back in. 

Landon Cassill holds the final playoff spot going into tonight’s regular season finale for the Xfinity Series at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). Cassill leads Sieg by 19 points. Sheldon Creed trails Cassill by 32 points.