Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – News and Notes from Bristol

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race
The Place: Bristol Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday August 19
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 266.5 miles (500 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 125),
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 250), Final Stage (Ends on lap 500)

Good Things Coming In Threes

As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (Saturday, August 19 at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the number to remember is “three.”

With three races remaining before the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs (Bristol, Darlington, Richmond), the spotlight is on the three drivers who currently hold, based on points, the remaining trio of slots in the post-season – Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth.

And in keeping with the theme – there are three drivers with previous wins at the Last Great Colosseum who have yet to secure a post-season slot with a playoff-eligible win: Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano.

 

Lights, Camera … And A Whole Lot Of Action

The spotlights are on Bristol Motor Speedway. In more ways than one.

It’s Bristol at night, baby! Few things in sports match the intensity and spectacle of NASCAR racing beneath the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway. The world’s fastest half mile has produced some of the most intense moments in NASCAR history.

Google “2008 Bristol night race, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch” for just one example.

And in case you’ve been living under a rock, it’s crunch time for drivers trying to make the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Win, and you’re in.

And if you don’t win, you better hope there’s a repeat winner in order to keep your hopes alive.

All of those factors together promise to make for a thrilling showdown in Thunder Valley.

 

Chasing The Return To The Post-Season

Right now, Chase Elliott is the best of the rest when it comes to the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff grid.

He’s looking to qualify for back-to-back Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series post-season berths as he still pursues his first career win.

The driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is seventh overall in the Monster Energy Series points standings, a solid 62 points ahead of the first driver on the outside looking in – Clint Bowyer. Elliott holds a 10-point lead over Jamie McMurray and a 31-point advantage over Matt Kenseth.

If Elliott is going to break through for his first career win and the automatic berth in the playoffs, this may be the track where he does it. In just three career starts at Bristol, Elliott has amassed a top-five and two top-10 finishes, as well as an average finish of 8.7 (series-best among active drivers). On the season, he has six top fives and 13 top 10s.

 

McMaybe In

He’s so close, but so much can happen in three races.

Jamie McMurray, in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, holds a 52-point cushion over Clint Bowyer on the cutoff line and is in good position to head to the post-season on points if there is a repeat winner at any of the next three races.

However, with 13 different playoff-eligible winners on the board thus far in 2017, McMurray can’t bank on that at Bristol.

McMurray has posted 29 starts at Bristol, tallying three top fives and 11 top 10s in his career. He also holds an average finish of 16.4 at the Last Great Colosseum. So far in 2017, McMurray has just two top fives but has recorded an average finish of 13.6, keeping him in playoff contention.

 

Ken He Do It?

Kenseth is in the most precarious position of the drivers currently on the playoff grid. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota currently holds the final playoff spot by virtue of a 31-point advantage over Clint Bowyer.

However, if a new driver wins at Bristol, and he’s not named Chase Elliott or Jamie McMurray, Kenseth drops out of the post-season group picture.

Kenseth has four wins, 14 top fives and 21 top 10s in 35 starts at Bristol. His four wins trail only the Busch brothers among active drivers at Bristol, as Kyle and Kurt have five victories apiece at the track.

Also of note, Kenseth is the only one of the three drivers trying to hold on to a 2017 playoff berth via points who has recorded a win in Thunder Valley.

And a win quiets all the points talk.

 

Bowyer, Logano Playoff Hopes Lean on Past Bristol Success

The bubble picture looks OK for Clint Bowyer. Not great, but OK. He doesn’t exactly need a win to make the playoffs, but that’s certainly the easiest path.

For Joey Logano, it’s dire. Mathematically speaking, there’s a chance he can still earn a playoff spot on points. There’s also a chance of finding broccoli on a dessert menu.

He needs a win, and there’s pleasant news on that front.

Bowyer and Logano are the first two drivers outside the 16-driver playoff bubble, and both are VERY strong at Bristol. Which is good for them, and potentially bad for the likes of Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth. A win by either Bowyer or Logano would shove one of those three drivers outside the bubble.

First, Bowyer. Bowyer finished second in the Monster Energy Series’ first trip to Bristol in April. It’s a bit of a deceiving finish, as his average running position of 13.6 would suggest. Still, he’s finished in the top 10 in three of the last four Bristol races (and in the top five in two of those).

Logano boasts a stellar record at Bristol, scoring two wins (including the 2015 Night Race) and top 10s in each of the last four finishes. None of those finishes were flukes, as he led multiple laps in each.

 

Truex Hones in on Regular Season Championship

In Stage 1 at Michigan, Martin Truex Jr. scored seven stage points. Seven.

For Truex and the No. 78 team, that’s an Aaron-Judge-Post-Home-Run-Derby type slump.

Seriously. Prior to Michigan, here are the Stage 1 point totals of the previous five races: 9, 9, 9, 10, 10. Stage 2 figures look pretty similar. So, yes, seven looks weak in comparison.

Therefore, if anyone’s wondering how Truex’s points lead has ballooned to 129 points over second-place Kyle Larson, that’s why.

That’s also why Truex is quite likely to lock up the regular season championship this weekend at Bristol, two races before the regular season actually ends at Richmond. If Truex leaves Bristol with a 121-point lead over second-place (or a 120-point lead if the second place driver has one win), he is guaranteed to be the points leader following race No. 26 at Richmond.

And that’s extremely important this season. The regular season champion earns 15 playoff points, a major boost towards landing an even bigger title – 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion.

 

The Making Of A Champion?

Three in a row.

That’s what Kyle Larson won at Michigan International Speedway when he used a masterful restart in NASCAR Overtime to split the pair of Furniture Row Racing Toyotas and park his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in Victory Lane…again.

With the 2017 sweep and the 2016 August win for his first career checkered flag in the Monster Energy Series, Larson is the true Wolverine in the Irish Hills.

Throwing in his win at Auto Club Speedway in March, Larson has three race wins and has also accumulated 18 total playoff points this season – second only to Martin Truex Jr.’s 35 playoff points.

At Bristol, the young Californian has posted three top-10s and an average finish of 19.3 in seven starts.

But the most relevant of his stats in Thunder Valley might be that Larson captured a stage win at Bristol in the spring race – for one of those all-important playoff points.

 

Jones, Suarez Showing Skills Beyond Their Experience

Coming into the 2017 season, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year class earned quite a bit of ink.

Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez received the most attention, with pundits foreshadowing solid seasons with a playoff berth a possibility. They were spot on.

Both, though, need a win to land a spot in the playoff field. And both have been racing with the sense of urgency that comes with that truth.

Jones, specifically, has been on a tear, with three consecutive top-10 finishes, including a career-best finish of third (Michigan).

Bristol holds special memories for Jones. In 2015, Jones logged some laps in the Monster Energy Series Bristol race for an injured Denny Hamlin – his first taste of action at NASCAR’s top level. Since then, Jones has raced at Bristol once, a 17th-place finish in April. Jones won two Bristol races in the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

Suarez stumbled a bit at Michigan, after a late-race wreck with Kasey Kahne ended his day. Prior to that, Suarez had four consecutive top 10s, including a career series-best finish of third (Watkins Glen).

Like Jones, Suarez has only one start at Bristol – an 18th-place finish in April. But in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Suarez finished in the top five in three of his five starts.

 

Dale Jr.’s Final Stand At The Last Great Colosseum

Saturday night marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 35th, and final, start at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Junior has finished in the top 10 in nearly half his Bristol starts (16 of 34) and visited Victory Lane at this race in 2004.

Earnhardt also won the NASCAR XFINITY Series race in August of 2004 and is setting himself up to win a pair of swords, as he’s entered in both Friday’s Food City 500 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Fans will have multiple opportunities to honor the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet throughout the weekend as Bristol Motor Speedway pays tribute in conjunction with the Jr. Nation Appreci88ion Tour.

  • The Dale Jr. Moments Museum in the Fan Zone will showcase his signature Bristol memories.
  • A select amount of Dale Jr. collector cards highlighting his top six Bristol moments will be handed out at the gates on Saturday, Aug. 19
  • During pre-race, those with seats on the frontstretch will be able to take part in a card stunt saluting the driver of the No. 88 Chevy. All guests will also be encouraged to stand up and salute Junior on Lap 88 to show their #Appreci88ion
  • Junior fans will want to pick up a copy of the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race commemorative program which will feature numerous stories on Dale and a special collector’s cover designed by famed NASCAR artist Sam Bass
  • Earnhardt Jr. will make a special guest appearance at the Mountain Dew display at 4 p.m. in the Fan Zone on Saturday, Aug. 19

 

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Etc.

Taking on Tennessee: Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the 175th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in the Volunteer State. Here’s the breakdown by track of the first 174 races:

Bristol Motor Speedway – 113

Nashville Speedway – 42

Smokey Mountain Raceway – 12

Kingsport Speedway – 3

Chattanooga International Raceway – 2

Tennessee-Carolina Speedway – 2