After exciting races at Darlington and Richmond, the NASCAR Cup Series has reached the first elimination race of the 2021 playoffs. Just three drivers (Kyle Larson on points, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. on wins) have officially advanced to the Round of 12, meaning nine spots still remain.
The bubble ahead of the next round is hotter than ever. However, the bubble is hotter for some drivers more than for others.
One driver whose bubble is red-hot is Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell. The 36-year-old driver for Front Row Motorsports sits 38 points below the cutline with a DNF at Darlington and a 28th-place finish at Richmond headlined by three speeding penalties. McDowell must win Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol to advance to the Round of 12.
“The playoffs have been really disappointing,” McDowell said. “It’s been mistakes, it hasn’t been of lack of speed. My guys have done such a great job of getting prepared for the playoffs and we actually had good speed at Darlington and Richmond and we don’t have anything to show for it…..We knew no matter what that we’d have to put ourselves to have three incredible races, and now that we’ve wasted two of them, we got to have an incredible race at Bristol. For me, it’s just about trying to win the race”.
Two drivers in contention of elimination are the Hendrick Motorsports duo of William Byron and Alex Bowman. Both drivers had outstanding regular seasons but struggled in the first two playoff races. Byron sits 18 points below the cutline and needs a strong Bristol race with stage points to advance.
“You just got to try and score as many points as possible,” Byron said. “It’s one of those places that, fortunately, starting position isn’t a huge deal. We’re starting upwards of mid-pack and I think we can make ground from there. [We] just have to try and get as many points as possible in the stages and try and win the race”.
On the other hand, Bowman sits in a deadlock with Kurt Busch for the 12th and final transfer position. Busch would, however, win the tiebreaker with the best finish between the two drivers this round.
“I don’t think we expected to be in this position,” Bowman said. “We know we need to go execute and go have a good day, [and] we know that it won’t be easy by any means. But, we also know that if something goes wrong and we don’t make it to the next round, there’s still more opportunities for us to win races this year, [and] plenty of opportunities for us to end up with a good points spot”.
One other driver below the cutline is RCR’s Tyler Reddick, currently 14th in points and with just one top-10 finish in his last five races. Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Christopher Bell, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Aric Almirola all sit above the cutline but have yet to clinch spots in the Round of 12.
Saturday’s green flag at Bristol Motor Speedway will drop just after 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN. Truex Jr. and Hamlin start on the front row.