The Stage is Set for a Dramatic Round of 16 Conclusion at Bristol
In all likelihood, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney must win next Saturday in the Bristol Night Race in order to advance into the Round of 12 of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Having already entered the second race of the first round at Richmond 17 points below the elimination cutline, both drivers needed to score stage points and finish inside the top-10 to give themselves any chance to advance on points next Saturday.
Instead, neither scored any stage points and ran outside the top-15 before finishing 17th and 19th respectively.
Meanwhile, William Byron suffered through what he called “bleeding a slow death” en route to a 21st place finish and also falling below the cutline. Cole Custer was simply fine for the second week in a row and also enters the final race of this round on the outside looking in.
1. Kevin Harvick (Advanced)
2. Brad Keselowski (Advanced)
3. Denny Hamlin (Advanced)
4. Joey Logano +51
5. Martin Truex +38
6. Austin Dillon +36
7. Chase Elliott +28
8. Alex Bowman +27
9. Kyle Busch +18
10. Aric Almirola +7
11. Kurt Busch +7
12. Clint Bowyer +3
13. William Byron -3
14. Cole Custer -8
15. Matt DiBenedetto -25
16. Ryan Blaney -27
The bottom four winless drivers after each three-race round will advance and have their points reset for the next round until only four drivers are championship eligible to compete amongst themselves in the finale at Richmond Raceway.
Blaney suffered a 10 point penalty and was forced to start at the rear of the field last weekend at Darlington. A flat tire and late race damaged relegated him to a 24th place finish.
He finished 19th after having to pit twice for loose lug nuts early in the race and after struggling in traffic.
“We have to win next weekend,” Blaney said. “It is pretty plain and simple. It is our goal every week to win the race but now it is our season on the line. We will see if we can get it done. We have been pretty close at Bristol before, it is just a matter of trying to put a whole race together there.”
For DiBenedetto, it will be the second year in a row that Bristol Motor Speedway will serve as a potential must-win scenario. Last year, DiBenedetto was driving for Leavine Family Racing and needed a win to make the playoffs, with the underlying realization that he would be replaced by Christopher Bell in 2021.
He finished second after getting passed late by Denny Hamlin last August.
For his part, Byron started fifth and quickly faded from the top-10 and then the top-15 and was never a threat to contend or score stage points. He expected Richmond to be a struggle based on last season and his fears quickly manifested.
“It seems like any time we entered the corner with brake pressure at all, we were locking the left front and sliding it across the track,” Byron said. “We were tight in and usually you’re loose in here, and we were extremely tight into the corner and locking the left front up and having to get off the brake as quickly as possible to keep the front tires turning.
“That doesn’t make a lot of speed. And whenever we tried to go any faster, we were killing the front tires. We were running 80 percent and just fell off like a rock at the end of every run and without any cautions, it was what it was.”
At just three points below the cutline, Byron will have an opportunity to race his way in without needing a win. He finished eighth at Bristol in June and also raced his way into the All-Star Race via the Open.
“It’s disappointing but we have to put this one behind us and go to Bristol,” Byron said. “We finished top-10 there and made the All-Star Race so we just have to go there and get it done.”
At seven, seven and three points above the cutline respectively, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer are susceptible to being bumped out with either a good day by someone below them or a bad day from themselves.
That doesn’t even include the possibility that DiBenedetto or Blaney could win their way into the next round and eliminate the 12th place driver in points.
Right now, that would be Bowyer.
Bowyer finished 10th on Saturday night and only scored one stage point. On the other hand, he’s scored back-to-back top-10s and made the most on Saturday when he didn’t entirely like the balance of his car.
“It was a challenge,” Bowyer said. “We struggled all night long. We were off a beat. At the end of the day, we’re still in it. We’ve got to go to Bristol and perform. I like the racetrack. We got some top-10s going but we got to be better. But we need to be great next week. It’s a lot of fun and I feel like it’s a track I can win at some day.”
Cole Custer says he isn’t feeling the pressure of an eight-point deficit.
“We’re not in a desperate position,” Custer said. “We’re in a position to control a lot of what happens. If we have a good day and run good and get stage points, we can point our way in. It also depends on the way the guys around us run a little bit.
“But if we have a good day at Bristol, we can get ourselves into the next round. I think we’re not in a bad spot. It’s a manageable one.”
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch has put himself in a decent spot to advance as he is 18 points above the cutline with finishes of seventh and sixth to open the playoffs. Alex Bowman is 27 points up and Chase Elliott is 28 points up.
The surprise of the opening round continues to be Austin Dillon, who has finished second and fourth at Darlington and Richmond respectively. He’s 36 points up after many predicted the Richard Childress Racing No. 3 to be a first-round elimination.
“We’ve steadily gotten our stuff better and we’ve got a really good group working hard. RCR has all-hands on deck. ECR Engines. I’ve had confidence in myself my entire career. I’ve been through some ups and downs and weathered the storm to this point.
“I’ve always felt that when I’m given something to work with I can work with it and make it happen.”
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