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NASCAR storylines: It’s Bristol, baby - now with 100% less dirt

Christopher Bell revisits a 20th-place result at Darlington and 3rd-place finish at Richmond in the first two rounds of the playoffs and looks ahead to Bristol, a good track for him personally and for Joe Gibbs Racing.

As Chase Elliott said before this year’s Cup Series playoffs began, if you don’t enjoy the big moments, you’re never gonna thrive in them.

Elliott did that in last year’s playoffs. He won the last three elimination races, including the championship race in Phoenix, to claim his first Cup title.

Now, it’s time to see if his flair for the dramatic continues.

Entering Saturday’s Cup Round of 16 elimination race on the concrete at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Elliott is 19 points above the cutline to advance to the next round. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Kyle Larson, is already there along with Denny Hamlin and last week’s winner at Richmond, Martin Truex Jr.

That 19-point cushion isn’t safe, but Elliott’s rally for fourth place at Richmond gives him momentum.

Additionally, he doesn’t seem far off from claiming his first Cup points-paying win at Bristol (although he did win the exhibition All-Star Race there in 2020). He’s won three of the last four Bristol stages and has led laps in each of the last five Bristol races.

Of course, any time you mention Bristol, you have to mention Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

Harvick isn’t back to front-running form. But as he’s done all season, he’s been grinding. Finishes of fifth and eighth in the first two playoff races put him 25 points above the cutline entering Bristol, where he’s earned two wins (including last year’s Night Race) and eight top-10 finishes in his last 11 races.

Kyle Busch is a master of the .533-mile short track. An eight-time Bristol Cup race winner, he’s earned three wins and six finishes of fourth or better in his last seven races there. Coming in at just eight points above the cutline, this is as good a track as he could hope for in a make-or-break situation.

Don’t forget his older brother, either. Kurt Busch is tied on the cutline with Alex Bowman, while holding the tiebreaker for better Round of 16 finish.

But Kurt is a six-time Bristol winner who’s finished inside the top 10 in four of his last five races there (including his 2018 win for Stewart-Haas Racing). In contrast, Bowman has finished 15th or worse in his last four Bristol races.

Danger zone

The final three Xfinity playoff positions will be decided in Friday’s regular season finale (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) at Bristol.

Jeremy Clements (+74), Brandon Jones (+67) and Riley Herbst (+66) all have healthy cushions above the playoff cutline. But Friday will still be nerve-wracking for them.

Only eight points separates the trio. That sets up a compelling ‘race within the race’ between them. Every point gained could be the difference in surviving or being eliminated if someone below the cutline scores an upset win.

JR Motorsports’ Michael Annett is currently “first driver out” at 66 points behind 12th-place Herbst. But teammate Noah Gragson’s win last week at Richmond was JRM’s fifth in the last seven Xfinity short track races.

JRM has also been strong recently at Bristol. Gragson won there in June 2020, albeit in controversial fashion following a run-in with teammate Justin Allgaier. Speaking of Allgaier, he’s led at least 126 laps in each of the last four Bristol races.

With Gragson and Allgaier playoff-bound, JRM can go all in on Annett to help him fight for a win.

Then there’s the usual short track clashes to consider, which could turn Friday into an attrition race that gives others behind the cutline - Ryan Sieg (-93) and Brandon Brown (-109) in particular - a chance to turn everything upside down.

The ‘other’ playoff race

Bristol also hosts the first elimination race for the Camping World Truck Series playoffs on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, FS1). Two playoff drivers will be eliminated, leaving eight still in the hunt.

Last year’s champ, Sheldon Creed, didn’t have a particularly great regular season. But before the playoffs began, he was confident that he and his No. 2 GMS Racing team were heading in the right direction.

Indeed, they were. Creed, who was named Tuesday to a full-time 2022 Xfinity ride for Richard Childress Racing, won the first two playoff races at World Wide Technology Raceway and Darlington Raceway.

He and regular season champion John Hunter Nemechek are safely in the Round of 8, with Nemechek advancing on points. That leaves six spots in the Round of 8 up for grabs Thursday.

Here’s how the Truck playoff standings look, minus Creed and Nemechek:

  • 3. Matt Crafton - 2,094 points (+35 above cutline to advance)
  • 4. Stewart Friesen - 2,092 points (+33)
  • 5. Ben Rhodes - 2,074 points (+15)
  • 6. Todd Gilliland - 2,070 points (+11)
  • 7. Carson Hocevar - 2,067 points (+8)
  • 8. Austin Hill - 2,064 points (+5)
  • 9. Zane Smith - 2,059 points (-5)
  • 10. Chandler Smith - 2,052 points (-12)

Zane Smith, the other GMS playoff driver, faces elimination after making the Championship 4 last year. Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Chandler Smith is also on the outside looking in.

But in potentially good news for Zane Smith, his organization has won the last two Truck races on the concrete at Bristol (2019 - Brett Moffitt, 2020 - Sam Mayer). Last year, GMS drivers Mayer, Moffitt and Tyler Ankrum combined to lead all 200 laps.

Chandler Smith also has something going for him. He only has two career Truck starts on the concrete at Bristol, but he’s finished top five in both (second in 2019, fifth in 2020).