The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs’ Round of 16 came to a close on the high bankings of short track Bristol Motor Speedway with the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. A frantic late battle between Kevin Harvick—the series leader in wins in 2020—and Kyle Busch—the reigning champion seeking his first of the year and having fought his way from the back—saw the two take their duel through lapped traffic before Harvick held him off for the win.
Brad Keselowski, who won the previous race at Richmond, started on the pole ahead of Team Penske team-mate Joey Logano. Corey LaJoie and Bubba Wallace were sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments, J.J. Yeley for a driver change from Brennan Poole, and three of four Joe Gibbs Racing cars (Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones) for failing inspection twice.
Entering Bristol, William Byron (–3 points), Cole Custer (–8), Matt DiBenedetto (–25), and Ryan Blaney (–27) were below the cut-off line.
Keselowski led the first 17 laps before points leader Harvick took the lead. Ten laps later, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact with Jimmie Johnson that sent the former into the inside wall, bringing out a yellow flag that also served as the competition caution.
DiBenedetto took two tyres on pit road to take the lead ahead of fellow two-tyre stop Tyler Reddick. Reddick spun his tyres on the lap 41 restart and enabled DiBenedetto to pull ahead before Keselowski reclaimed the top spot after two laps.
By lap 60, Busch had entered the top twenty. His climb took him into the top ten thirty laps later.
Chase Elliott chased down Keselowski for the lead and made the pass on lap 108. Elliott would take the stage win, while Busch completed his back-to-front ascent with a runner-up finish.
Harvick, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell, Kurt Busch, Keselowski, Byron, Logano, and Wallace also received stage points; Bell and Wallace were the lone non-playoff drivers to do so. Playoff contenders outside the top ten were Hamlin (eleventh), DiBenedetto (twelfth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifteenth), Aric Almirola (eighteenth), Clint Bowyer (nineteenth), Austin Dillon (twentieth), Blaney (twenty-third), and Custer (twenty-fourth).
The seventh-place stage finish locked Logano into the Round of 12, while Blaney’s failure to score stage points placed him in a must-win situation.
Kyle Busch and Bowman led the field to the green flag to begin the second stage. As the former led, Elliott took second from his Hendrick Motorsports team-mate.
DiBenedetto’s playoff hopes took a hit when he was forced to pit on lap 190 for a loose wheel, and he dropped two laps down upon returning to the track. Further misfortunes befell the other playoff drivers when Custer made contact with Busch and got lapped, while Hamlin and fellow JGR driver Truex also hit each other, resulting in front damage for the former.
The next playoff victim was Byron, whose race ended after running into the slow car of Joey Gase on lap 235; Bell also took damage.
“I think the #51 car—it was like a black and green car—checked up in the middle of the straightaway,” Byron began in his interview with NBCSN. “I was running behind the #95 and I had literally nowhere to go. You can’t stop in the middle of the straightaway when everybody is so committed to the top like that. Just ridiculous that that’s what takes us out.”
The restart took place on lap 242, though the stage ended under another caution when Ryan Newman spun. After taking the wave-around during the Byron caution, the Newman incident provided DiBenedetto with the free pass to rejoin the lead lap and remain in contention, though he still faced an uphill battle.
Busch took the stage win ahead of Harvick. Elliott, Logano, Kurt Busch, Bowman, Almirola, Bowyer, Jones, and Dillon also finished in the top ten. Jones was the lone driver not in the playoffs to do so; Outside the top ten were Blaney (eleventh), Keselowski (twelfth), Hamlin (seventeenth), Custer (twenty-second), DiBenedetto (twenty-fifth), Truex (twenty-eighth), and Byron (thirty-seventh, out).
Elliott secured his place in the next round with his finish, the fifth driver to be guaranteed a spot in the twelve-driver field.
The final segment began with Kyle Busch continuing to lead until Harvick passed him on lap 282.
As the race crossed the 300-lap mark, more troubles struck the other playoff drivers. Bowman pitted for a vibration, and Kurt Busch did the same 25 laps later. Keselowski lost his power steering and fell off the pace, resulting in a black flag for failing to meet minimum speed and a trip to the garage. Fellow Ford driver DiBenedetto subsequently went a lap down.
While not a playoff contender, Timmy Hill exited the race for steering issues, joining Stenhouse and Josh Bilicki (fuel pressure) as the non-playoff retirements.
Green-flag pit stops began with less than 150 laps to go. On the track, Harvick’s run placed much of the field a lap down; by lap 400, only the top seven cars were on the lead lap.
On lap 407, as the pit cycle continued, James Davison spun as he and Dillon tried to avoid a pitting Harvick. As the two went up the track, Davison was hit by Sorenson. Despite being the first car a lap down, Dillon did not receive the free pass as he was involved in the incident.
Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Harvick and Bowyer paced the field to the restart on lap 418. The former took off, and Kyle Busch rejoined the battle for the lead shortly after. With lapped traffic hindering Harvick’s progress, Busch cleared him for first on lap 459, but lost it eleven laps later as Logano blocked his momentum.
With Jones over a second back, the two leaders continued their battle through lapped cars. Despite closing the gap, Busch was unable to make the pass as Harvick took his ninth win of the season and second of the playoffs.
“To beat Kyle Busch at Bristol, I kind of got myself in a little bit of a wringer there, I hit a lapped car and got a hole in the right front nose,” Harvick said after the race. “Just kept fighting, we don’t have anything else to lose. We were here to try to win a race. I know how much Rodney (Childers, crew chief) really enjoys coming here and… hell, how could you not? We’re coming here with all this enthusiam. Everybody’s tired of being at home!”
It is Harvick’s third career Cup win at Bristol and first since the 2016 Night Race. Only six cars (Harvick, Busch, Jones, Reddick, Almirola, Bowyer) finished on the lead lap, marking the second consecutive Night Race with fewer than ten drivers doing so; by comparison, the May race saw twenty-two lead-lap finishers.
Busch’s runner-up finish means the winless dry spell continues, having extended to twenty-nine races. The defending champion commented he “just didn’t have enough there at the end. […] Lapped cars were definitely a problem, but that’s part of racing. You got to try to get around them where you can, and there was just no room for me to do what I needed to do on a couple of those opportunities to get past him.”
With their finishes, Blaney, Byron, Custer, and DiBenedetto have been eliminated from the playoffs, assuming no developments in post-race inspection. Harvick will begin the Round of 12 as the points leader with 3,067 ahead of Hamlin (3,048).