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Fourteen drivers. Ten spots. One race.
The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs continue Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick have punched their tickets to the Round of 12 with victories at Darlington and Kansas, respectively. That’s it.
Martin Truex Jr., the regular-season champion, rebounded from an 18th-place finish at Darlington to start Kansas in third. But he didn’t last atop that leaderboard, puncturing the center of his right rear tire during Lap 4.
“It’s difficult,” Brad Keselowski, currently fifth in the playoff standings, said in a video conference. “You look at these scenarios, and there’s a lot of opportunity to be aggressive and gain some position, but they come at high risk. You’re just constantly doing risk analysis in real-time.”
Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell join Truex on the wrong side of the elimination line. Wallace, who had won at Kansas last fall, started Sunday’s race strong but ultimately suffered a flat right-rear tire while running in second place.
The playoffs are always tough. Any NASCAR race can come down to perfecting little details or depend on some unpredictable factors breaking a driver’s way. But in the playoffs, the margin for error grows thinner and thinner. Even for a driver like Truex, the field’s No. 2 seed who was celebrating his regular-season title just two weeks ago.
“The whole 10 weeks is super tough, but obviously as you get further and further into the rounds, it gets even harder,” said Ryan Blaney, who is 25 points over the elimination line in sixth. “The bonus points get pretty jumbled up at that point. … Usually, if you get down to the Round of 8, you probably don’t have a lot of playoff points, you probably have to go win one of those three. It is tough. Everyone approaches it differently.”
History isn’t on Truex’s side here. The 2017 Cup Series champion has struggled at Bristol, never winning there and only recording four Top 10 finishes in 32 starts. His last top five finish there was back in spring 2012.
Chris Buescher won this race last September and has been among the hottest drivers down the stretch, winning three of the last seven races. But last week’s 27th-place finish — his worst since April 2 at Richmond — puts the RFK Racing driver in a tie for ninth place with Christopher Bell, just 13 points above the bubble.
As much as is at stake for the 16 drivers in the playoff race, they won’t be the only ones flying around the 0.533-mile bullring. And even if they’re not vying for a playoff spot, the Bristol night race is always one that matters more, Alex Bowman told reporters in the Darlington Raceway media center two weeks ago.
“That’s one of the trophies you want to win, one of the Victory Lanes you want to be in,” Bowman said. “When I was a kid growing up, that’s always the race I wanted to go to.”
SVG signs with Trackhouse Racing
Shane van Gisbergen, the New Zealand-born driver who stunned the NASCAR world by winning the inaugural Chicago Street Race in his Cup Series debut, has signed with Trackhouse Racing and will compete in a combination of NASCAR’s three series next year.
A three-time champion in the Supercars tour, the Auckland, New Zealand, native will race in Cup, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series in 2024, Trackhouse announced Wednesday evening.
“This announcement means so many things to me,” Van Gisbergen said in a release. “I’m proud of what I have achieved here in Australia, but I’m excited by this new chapter in my career and the opportunities that it brings.”
NASCAR lifts Gragson suspension
Noah Gragson has been reinstated after completing “diversity and inclusion training,” NASCAR officials announced Tuesday.
It’s still unclear if Gragson, who was suspended indefinitely on Aug. 5 for liking a racially insensitive meme on Instagram, will return to a NASCAR series. He’s already been released from Legacy Motor Club, which announced John Hunter Nemechek will drive its No. 42 car next year.
“I want to express my sincere gratitude to NASCAR for reinstating me,” Gragson, 25, wrote in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Over the past several weeks, I have dedicated myself to personal growth and reflection, and I believe I have become a better person because of it. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family and the NASCAR industry.
“I am now more focused and committed than ever to representing my future team in the best way possible. I’m eager to get back behind the wheel and compete at the highest level, giving it my all on and off the track. Thank you to everyone who has been a part of this journey, and I can’t wait to make the most of this second chance.”
Odds for Saturday night’s race
Kyle Larson is the favorite to win at 11-2 odds. He’s followed by Denny Hamlin (15-2), William Byron (15-2), Christopher Bell (8-1) and Brad Keselowski (17-2).
How to watch the Bass Pro Shops Night Race
Where: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.)
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR
Date: Saturday, Sept. 16
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Distance: 266.5 miles (500 laps)
Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125; Stage 2 ends on Lap 250; the Final Stage ends on Lap 500.