Who … should you be talking about after the Bristol Night Race?
Kyle Larson took the lead away from Kevin Harvick in the closing laps at Bristol Motor Speedway and held on to win in the NASCAR Cup Series showdown Saturday night (Sept. 18). It was the first career win for Larson in the Bristol night race.
Lapped traffic was a factor all night, allowing cars in second place to close in on the leader. Such was the case near the end of the event; Larson went to the bottom and then back up the track, squeezing Harvick a bit as he slowed for cars in front of him. Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 then slid up in front of Harvick, preventing the No. 4 from getting another run on him.
Harvick didn’t have the lead until about 33 laps to go, as Chase Elliott was at the helm shortly after the final restart on lap 408. Once again, Harvick used a lapped car to close in on the No. 9. As the pair raced side by side, Harvick slid up into Elliott, which cut his left front tire. Elliott had to pit and was visibly frustrated with Harvick after returning to the track, moving up into Harvick from the bottom while getting a lap back. His aggression helped Larson to run down Harvick and eventually grab the lead, leading to frustration boiling over for both drivers after the race.
It was Larson’s sixth victory of the season, and though the win came down to the final laps, it wasn’t a fluke. The California native led 175 laps at this track, more than any other driver, further solidifying his place as a championship favorite.
And don’t forget: Fellow Hendrick pilot William Byron overcame trouble on pit road to place third, nearly overtaking Harvick for second. It was just enough to secure the 12th position in the next round of the playoffs and keep his title hopes alive.
Among the non-playoff contenders was Erik Jones, who got into the top 10 when others pitted around lap 390. He hung in there and stayed in the front of the pack, bringing home his third straight top 10 at Thunder Valley. It was quite the feat for the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports, which had earned just three top 10s in 2021 prior to the Bristol night race. One of those results was a ninth at the Bristol dirt track this spring.
What … is the buzz about?
The biggest storyline coming out of this race is certainly the incident between Elliott and Harvick. Besides their skirmishes on the racetrack, the pair had heated discussions on pit road and in the garage. Neither driver was happy with the other making contact. Elliott claimed Harvick “did it to [him] at Darlington [Raceway] a few weeks ago,” seemingly tired of Harvick’s racing methods.
The whole ordeal reveals a couple of things: one, that drivers don’t forget, and two, Bristol is a long race on a short track that can cause drivers to lose patience with each other.
Harvick hadn’t won all season and was doing anything he could to triumph as the defending winner of the Bristol night race. Elliott, of course, tried to fight him off but quickly cut a tire and had to pit. In comparison, Denny Hamlin cut a tire as he attempted to snag first place from Larson around lap 400. Hamlin was the aggressor, though, and slid up into the wall.
Hamlin recovered from that issue and ended up ninth, but he didn’t cause a confrontation after the race. That’s something to think about. What if the tables were turned and Harvick had a flat? It wouldn’t be a problem for Elliott but Harvick would still end up frustrated.
Besides, it’s not Elliott’s first run-in and disappointment at a short track. Last spring at Bristol, he slid up into Joey Logano while trying to get the lead in the final laps. Both ended up in the wall, allowing Brad Keselowski to sneak by and take the victory. Then, at Martinsville Speedway in 2017, Hamlin put the bumper on Elliott and spun him out in the last few circuits.
Will the rivalry between the defending Cup champion and the 2014 title winner spill over into next week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway? Maybe, but only if Harvick can run better than he has been at the 1.5-mile tracks. This Round of 12 works more in favor for Elliott, especially at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, so it’s still to be determined whether they’ll continue to have run-ins.
Where … did the other key players wind up in the Bristol night race?
Pole sitter Martin Truex Jr. didn’t appear to be on the road to a good finish after starting off in the lead. However, his team continued to work on the car and have fast pit stops, allowing Truex to ultimately come home a respectable seventh. It was a much better result than his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Christopher Bell and Kyle Busch, who had to pit due to flat tires in the closing laps. Coincidentally, Hamlin also had a tire issue about 50 laps earlier than the No. 18 but he was able to pit under caution, keeping the No. 11 in a good spot.
While the Gibbs stable had strong cars, Bristol dirt victor Logano ended up just outside the top 10. He struggled with handling all throughout the race and did not earn any stage points, but thanks to some off pit strategies and misfortunes to some ahead of him, he finished a respectable 11th. The run was actually a bit unusual, considering his results at tracks using the 750-horsepower package (mostly top 10s).
Kurt Busch, who was tied with Alex Bowman in the playoff standings coming into Bristol, started 15th and dropped like a rock to 22nd in the first 23 laps. He was never able to make up that many positions and finished 19th, the third driver missing the cut.
When … was the moment of truth in the Bristol night race?
The biggest turning point appeared to be the caution that came out for a slow Hamlin. I get that it’s a short track and a car slow against the wall would affect the racing, especially if he wasn’t able to get to pit road right away. But if NASCAR had kept the race green, Hamlin would have been at least one lap down. Plus, Elliott challenged Larson for first and took the position soon after the race went back to green. If he had stayed behind him, Harvick might not have rubbed fenders with the No. 9.
It’s like the Xfinity Series race Friday night when Justin Allgaier slid up into his JR Motorsports cohort Sam Mayer, bringing out the yellow flag and sending the race into overtime. If that had not happened, we probably wouldn’t have seen the carnage and mayhem at the finish of that one.
Enough ifs, though; what’s happened is done. Let’s move on to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Why … should you be paying attention this week after the Bristol night race?
Besides the feud between Harvick and Elliott, we should also see who will step up and survive the Round of 12. Las Vegas is your typical 1.5-mile oval, but Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL could be wild cards. Will Larson build off of the momentum from the Bristol night race and sweep Sin City? Or will someone outside the playoffs break through to victory?
One team to watch this week is Team Penske, as it has a combined five wins since 2014 at Las Vegas. Logano’s won twice (including last spring) and Keselowski has three trophies, though his last win at the track was six races ago in 2018. Larson dominated earlier this spring but Keselowski was second, Ryan Blaney was fifth and Logano was ninth. Don’t count them out of contention for the victory next week.
How … should NASCAR address blocking to help a teammate going forward?
One other thing Elliott did to Harvick besides trading paint was blocking him in a lane, allowing Larson to surge forward and take the lead away in the final laps of the Bristol night race. But should NASCAR have penalized Elliott for that?
In short, no. NASCAR has pretty much let the drivers do multiple things this year that affect the racing on track without penalizing them. In July, Kyle Busch led over Kurt when they approached Kurt’s teammate Ross Chastain. The No. 42 appeared to hold Kyle up, letting Kurt gain ground on his brother. Yet NASCAR didn’t think it was clear that Chastain blocked Kyle, though it was obvious to most others. Of course, I didn’t think Chastain should’ve been penalized for it then either.
And speaking of things that NASCAR left by the wayside, the sanctioning body didn’t punish Kyle Busch for contacting the rear bumper of the pace car after he crashed at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. I know that isn’t the same thing as interfering with a competitor for your teammate. But it does show how NASCAR often lets bad behavior go without consequences.
Now, should the rules change next year regarding blocking? I don’t think so, as long as it doesn’t cause the blocked car to crash. The most important thing is drivers, fans and crews’ safety; blocking itself is part of racing, as long as it doesn’t go on from one car the entire race.
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