Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Previewing the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

After running on the dirt at Bristol earlier this year, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to the track we all know and love this weekend for Saturday night’s running of the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race and the first elimination race of the Playoffs.

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.

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.

Winners of the first two races of the Playoffs, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, will lead the field to the green on Saturday from the front row. Joey Logano rolls off third, followed by Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski.

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

April 2021 Race Winner (Dirt): Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (Started 10th, 61 laps led)

September 2020 Race Winner:  Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford (Started fourth, 226 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:

  1. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 102.9
  2. Kyle Larson – No. 5 Chevrolet – 99.1
  3. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet – 98.7
  4. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 96.8
  5. Erik Jones – No. 20 Toyota – 95.0
  6. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 91.6
  7. Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 91.3
  8. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chevrolet – 91.2
  9. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Ford – 89.6
  10. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 89.3

NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Standings (One Race Remaining in First Round):

  1. Denny Hamlin (Advanced to next round with Darlington win)
  2. Martin Truex, Jr. (Advanced with Richmond win)
  3. Kyle Larson (Advanced on points)
  4. Joey Logano (+40 points over cut-off)
  5. Ryan Blaney (+28)
  6. Kevin Harvick (+25)
  7. Chase Elliott (+19)
  8. Christopher Bell (+17)
  9. Brad Keselowski (+13)
  10. Kyle Busch (+8)
  11. Aric Almirola (+3)
  12. Kurt Busch (Tied with 13th)

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13. Alex Bowman (Tied with 12th)

14. Tyler Reddick (-5)

15. William Byron (-18)

16. Michael McDowell (-38)

From the Driver’s Seat

“Bristol Motor Speedway is tough,” said Erik Jones. “You are hustling the car nonstop. It is really the only place that we get to go where you are just all out for the whole race. A lot of places, you kind of have to manage your car. At Bristol, you are really going with all you’ve got from the start.

“Just being able to run both lanes; being able to make the bottom work in the PJ-1 and be able to move up as the race goes on. Getting in that upper groove, you can make a lot of speed up there and that’s really just as important. You have to have a good car in both lanes. That’s probably the toughest part, having that balance.”

Last Year’s Result

Last September’s Bristol Night Race came down to a battle of the titans between Kevin Harvick, the 2020 regular season champion, and Kyle Busch, a master at Bristol who was winless on the season.

Starting at the rear of the field after a pre-race inspection failure, Busch charged to the front, finishing second in the first stage and winning the second. As the laps wound down in the final stage, it came down to Busch vs. Harvick.

On lap 459, Busch passed Harvick for the lead in traffic, but 10 laps later, it would be Harvick reclaiming the lead when Busch found himself bottled up behind the lapped car of Joey Logano.

Over the final 31 laps, Busch tried every trick in the book to get back by Harvick for what could have been his ninth Bristol win, but Harvick was just too strong as he was able to hold off Busch to bring home the coveted Gladiator sword trophy.

To beat Kyle Busch at Bristol, I kind of got myself in a little bit of a ringer there,” said Harvick.  “I hit a lapped car and got a hole in the right-front nose, but 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 really enjoys coming here and, hell, how can you not enjoy coming here with all this enthusiasm.  Everybody is tired of being at home.”

Meanwhile, Busch was left to lament what could have been as his winless season continued.

“Frustrated over finishing second,” said Busch. “You know, just felt like this was one of our greater shots to win, and I don’t know.  You know, just come up short.

“You know, Skittles Camry was fast and we had a good car, one that was in contention all night long.  Fired off the start of the race, I was like, oh, wow, this is a pretty good car and then got beat by another really good car, I guess.  Yeah, that’s all there is to it.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.