By David Morgan, Associate Editor
The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Thunder Valley this weekend for the annual Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, a showdown under the lights on the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” that is sure to leave sheet metal twisted and tempers flaring once these drivers get done battling for 500 laps.
Racing at Bristol is always intense, but when the lights go down for the night race, the intensity gets cranked to 11. The aggressiveness that the drivers will show on the high-banked bullring that is called “The Last Great Colosseum” to take home the coveted Bristol trophy and the chance to wield the gladiator sword in Victory Lane illustrates why this race is on every fan’s bucket list, because it is a must-see event from start to finish.
In addition to the normal beating and banging that is commonplace at Bristol, this year’s edition of the Night Race will have major implications for those fighting to make the cut into the next round of the Playoffs as Bristol hosts its first Playoff elimination race.
Bristol is a track that makes it easy to get caught up in someone else’s mess and if that were to happen to any of the drivers on the bubble, their chances to continue on in the race for the championship could go right down the drain.
Just three drivers are safe Saturday night, with nine others hoping to be on the right side of the cut-off line when the checkered flag falls.
The Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano will lead the field to the green with Martin Truex, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch, and Aric Almirola rounding out the top-10 starters.
By the Numbers
What: Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, NASCAR Cup Series race No. 29 of 36
Where: Bristol Motor Speedway – Bristol, Tennessee (Opened: 1960)
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network, 7:30 pm ET Saturday / PRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90
Track Size: 0.533-mile concrete oval
Banking: Turns: 30 to 34 degrees; Straights: 4 to 9 degrees
Race Length: 500 laps, 266.5 miles
Stage Lengths: First two stages – 125 laps each, Final stage – 250 laps
May 2020 Race Winner: Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota (Started on pole, 115 laps led)
August 2019 Race Winner: Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota (Started on pole, 79 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet (14.568 seconds, 131.713 mph – 4/5/2019)
Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings at Bristol Motor Speedway:
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 102.2
- Matt Kenseth – No. 42 Chevrolet – 99.8
- Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet – 96.7
- Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 95.3
- Erik Jones – No. 20 Toyota – 94.5
- Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 93.1
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 92.4
- Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chevrolet – 91.1
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 90.5
- Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Ford – 90.2
NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Standings (One Race Remaining in First Round):
- Kevin Harvick (Advanced to next round with Darlington win)
- Brad Keselowski (Advanced with Richmond win)
- Denny Hamlin (Advanced on points)
- Joey Logano (+64 points over cut-off)
- Martin Truex, Jr. (+38)
- Austin Dillon (+36)
- Chase Elliott (+28)
- Alex Bowman (+27)
- Kyle Busch (+18)
- Aric Almirola (+7)
- Kurt Busch (+7)
- Clint Bowyer (+3)
- William Byron (-3)
- Cole Custer (-8)
- Matt DiBenedetto (-25)
- Ryan Blaney (-27)
From the Driver’s Seat
“I think Bristol just is, I don’t want to say it’s an equalizer because your equipment is so important everywhere, but it’s just one of those racetracks where you’re really hustling the race car and kind of the older school principles matter the most, like just having good grip and a good balanced handling race car, and you’re hustling the car around the racetrack a lot, which suits my style,” said Matt DiBenedetto.
“A place where you really have to drive super-hard from start to finish of the run, I feel like I’m pretty good at all kinds of different racetracks, but if I were choosing places that I love, Martinsville, Bristol, I love both of them a ton and I would say the thing that they have in common is that you’re hustling both of those types of racetracks and you’re just driving it really hard. You’re up on the wheel and it’s very opposite of a place like Richmond, which I’ve run well at, but Richmond is a short track that has a very slow feeling. Every movement that you do is very slow, very easy on the throttle.
“Bristol, you’re attacking the corners really hard and it’s just the most fun short track to go to, so it’s a place I’ve taken well to and I think I know what I need there very well, also, to be good in the race. I know exactly what my car needs. It’s just a place I have a lot of confidence at and it is a bit of a special place to me and has been to my career.”
Last Year’s Result
In the 2019 version of the Bristol Night Race, Matt DiBenedetto was a blink of an eye away from a lifelong dream being realized.
Unfortunately for the driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota, that dream would not come true as Denny Hamlin passed him on lap 489, leaving DiBenedetto to helplessly watch Hamlin’s car pull away through his windshield en route to the victory.
A dejected DiBenedetto, who led a race-high 93 laps, fought back tears on pit road after the race, as numerous drivers came by to offer him words of encouragement and the near-capacity crowd at The Last Great Colosseum cheered to show their admiration for the 28-year old Grass Valley, California native.
“I don’t even know what to say,” DiBenedetto said. “I’m so sad we didn’t win, but proud, proud of the effort. I got tight there from the damage from trying to get by (Ryan) Newman and that immediately flipped a switch and got tight.
“Man, this opportunity has been – that’s what I want everybody to know, how thankful I am that I got this opportunity and to work with great people like (Mike) “Wheels” (Wheeler), my crew chief. I am so thankful everyone on this team gave me this opportunity – all of our sponsors, ProCore, Dumont Jet, Anest Iwata spray equipment, Toyota for backing me this year, everybody at Leavine Family Racing.
“I want to try not to get emotional, but it’s been a tough week and I want to stick around and I want to win. That’s all I want to do is win in the Cup Series and we were close. It’s so hard to be that close, but it’s neat to race door-to-door with Denny Hamlin, someone who I’ve been a fan of since I was a kid. It’s amazing. Great day, but this one is going to hurt for sure.”
Even as he celebrated his win, Hamlin was quick to show his respect for the drive DiBenedetto showed over the closing laps.
“Over a teammate, there’s not someone worse that I wanted to see in the front,” Hamlin said. “When I was marching through the field, I’m like hoping someone passed him so I didn’t take the win away.
“He was fast, he was marching there at the end. I knew I was going to get him. I just was thinking about it the whole time. There’s a lot of people at home, a lot of people in the stands that don’t want to see this happen, but it’s going to happen.”
Even though he couldn’t catch Hamlin to try and make something happen in the closing laps, DiBenedetto noted that if he could have caught back up, there would have been some fireworks. After all, a career-making win was on the line.
“I try and race respectfully, but for the win at Bristol, I’d do anything possible for this team to get me the win,” he said. “Bumping and banging is part of racing at short tracks and that’s why I love short tracks. If I could have gotten to him, I wouldn’t wreck him, but yeah, I would do anything in my power to give this team the best shot at us getting to Victory Lane. Move him or whatever I had to do.”