This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for the 2017 Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race; one of the most anticipated races of the year. Short track racing is always known for its intensity but throw in the fact that the championship contending sixteen drivers will be decided in just three races time and you get a whole new level of pressure and excitement.
As of last weekend’s Pure Michigan 400, thirteen drivers are absolutely guaranteed a spot in the championship playoffs, which leaves just three positions currently available for drivers without race wins or for any driver that manages to get a first victory of the season in the next three races. With that said, let’s have a look at who is in contention in this weekend’s race. Here are my five picks for Bristol:
There are a number of drivers entering this weekend with a must-win outlook. One of those is Joey Logano. The #22 Team Penske Ford driver has had an unlucky season and is currently eighteenth in the provisional playoff standings; two places away from where he needs to be at least. If he wants to qualify for the championship playoffs, he basically needs to win. He already has won this season, but that win back at Richmond lost its playoff eligibility after a technical violation in post-race inspection.
This is the weekend that Logano and his crew chief, Todd Gordon, have had circled for the last few weeks as their best chance of getting a win. Logano has had good form at both Bristol races for the last few years, including two successive victories in the night race in 2014 and 2015. Logano and the #22 team are very capable at the short track races, so be sure to keep an eye on the double deuce Saturday night, as he will be giving it everything to try and secure his spot in the playoffs.
Another driver who you might have expected to have already secured a playoff position by now is the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Matt Kenseth. For the last few races, Kenseth seems to have been cropping up into contention in the late stages of the races, which is important as he also needs a win if he wants to be a contender for the championship. The bad news, however, is that those opportunities have been thwarted for him so far. He was so close to getting the win at Watkins Glen, but he just couldn’t catch Martin Truex Jr who had just enough fuel to make it to the finish. He was also right up at the sharp end a week ago in Michigan in overtime, but a late puncture put him out of the running for the final lap.
If Kenseth can have an uneventful race this weekend, chances are he’ll be fighting near the front. Joe Gibbs Racing have nine wins at Bristol to their name, with Kenseth having three wins of his own during his career. If he can give JGR their tenth win it’ll put him in the hunt in his final season driving for the team and possibly his final season in the Cup series if he chooses to retire. It could be his most meaningful victory yet.
Of course, if one JGR Toyota is in contention, you can bet your bottom dollar that the sister #18 car of Kyle Busch will also be a factor. Rowdy has five victories at Bristol Motor Speedway to his name and it could have been six after a disastrous end to his Bristol Night Race one year ago. Kyle led 256 of the 500 laps last year, but a failure on his Toyota Camry led to him spinning out and being collected by Justin Allgaier; ending his race immediately. Expect Busch to come back with a vengeance this time around, especially as he’s already secured his spot in the playoffs. He’s got nothing to lose and only further confidence to gain as he prepares to fight for a second championship.
Another Kyle will certainly be in the mix on Saturday night. Fresh off of a victory last weekend at Michigan, Kyle Larson will be hoping to build on his momentum by running at the front in Bristol. That’s exactly what he did in the Spring race, with the #42 Chip Ganassi Racing driver taking pole position and leading a race-high 202 laps before falling back at the end of the race to sixth.
That word, momentum, could be key for Larson in the playoffs. It’s no secret that Larson has suffered a bit of a mid-season slump which he will be hoping that he ended with his win last week in Michigan. He himself stated in victory lane that he didn’t really have a race-winning car, but the confidence of the race win could revitalize the #42 team to put Kyle in race winning situations more often. This revitalization could come just in time for those all important playoff races that begin next month.
My final pick for the race win this weekend is arguably a wild card choice. After what could be his breakout race a week ago, Erik Jones will be entering Bristol high on confidence for sure. The rookie in the #77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota Camry took third place at Michigan and ran up at the front all day.
Bristol is a great hunting ground for Jones. He unofficially made his Cup series debut back in the 2015 Food City 500 when Denny Hamlin had to jump out of the #11 FedEx Camry due to back spasms, but it was earlier this year where Jones started to showcase his affinity for the short track. He showed great pace throughout practice and qualifying and went on to take two top tens in the first two stages of the race before falling to seventeenth place in the final segment. He’s also shown speed in his years before the Cup series at Bristol, with two wins in the NASCAR XFINITY Series spring race. Don’t count the rookie out from taking a maiden Cup series victory on Saturday if he plays his cards right and uses the speed of his Furniture Row Racing Camry to his advantage.
Kyle Larson’s win at Michigan last week meant that one of my picks have gone on to take victory in the last two races. Will any of the above candidates do so this weekend? Track action begins with practice and qualifying on Friday, with the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway taking place under the lights on Saturday night.