NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol

What happened?

Kyle Larson won the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol on Saturday night (Sept. 18) after a wildly chaotic final few laps, both for the win and the final playoff spot.

Kevin Harvick, William Byron, Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Martin Truex Jr. pulled ahead on the outside to start the race and led five laps before Chase Elliott passed him. Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Larson took over the top three spots quickly and stayed bunched up until the competition caution at lap 40, as Elliott stayed out front.

Elliott led on the next restart and held on until there were just under 50 laps to go in stage one. Larson and Hamlin both worked by Elliott, and Hamlin then passed Larson for the top spot with 35 to go after a great battle.

Larson challenged Hamlin over the final laps, but Hamlin held on for his ninth stage win of the season — and fourth of the playoffs so far.

Elliott exited pit road second but was sent to the back due to a speeding penalty. Larson stayed in the lead with Brad Keselowski just behind him on the restart. Keselowski got around Larson and took over for seven laps before Hamlin regained the spot. Just a few laps later, there was a big wreck involving Ryan Newman, Cole Custer, Daniel Suarez and Bubba Wallace. Newman tried to clear Custer when he wasn’t clear, and Suarez and Wallace made contact while checking up behind them.

Aric Almirola hit pit road multiple times during the caution trying to diagnose why smoke was trailing the back of his car. He was black-flagged after dropping fluid on the track, but the car was repaired and he rejoined the race still on the lead lap.

Larson took the lead on the next restart and held the position until another accident on lap 220 involving Anthony Alfredo, BJ McLeod and Justin Haley. Corey LaJoie spun Alfredo entering the corner and McLeod and Haley were innocently collected.

There was a brief red flag for clean-up, and the ensuing pit stops shuffled strategies. Eight drivers stayed out while the rest pitted. On the restart with 18 to go in stage two, Larson held off multiple bumps from Hamlin and went on to win his 14th stage of the season.

Harvick took the lead over Blaney on the final stage restart after staying out because they pitted on the prior caution. Blaney got around Harvick just a few laps later, and then they traded spots again with just under 200 laps to go.

Larson finally got back out front with 163 to go, then lapped playoff contenders in Kurt Busch and Tyler Reddick. With just under 140 to go, another caution hit as Quin Houff cut a left-front tire.

The next restart was with 130 to go – Larson held the lead for 18 laps over Hamlin until another yellow flag flew for Houff, with another tire problem.

The next run only lasted four green flag laps, as Hamlin and Larson made contact while the No. 11 was trying to pass the No. 5 for the lead. Hamlin cut a tire and went directly into the wall after entering the corner.

The final restart of the night came with 93 to go. Larson led at the start with Elliott hounding him until finally passing him with 87 to go. Larson surrendered second to Harvick soon after and the battle was on. Harvick was all over Elliott, lap after lap battling for the lead with no luck getting around the defending champ. With 34 to go, Harvick got to the inside and moved Elliott out of the groove to take the lead. Elliott cut a tire and was forced to pit under green.

Elliott re-entered the race three laps down, and he showed his displeasure with Harvick as he got one lap back.

Larson crept up to Harvick in the final laps as Elliott remained just ahead of Harvick. Harvick had a steady lead with 10 laps left, but it started to evaporate and tempers began to flare. Larson cleared Harvick with a slide job coming to the line at four to go.

Elliott then proceeded to get out of the way and let the leaders battle it out, as Larson got away for a 0.227-second victory over Harvick.

The win was Larson’s sixth of the season, 12th of his career and first at Bristol.

Who stood out?

Despite the madness at the front, Larson’s late come-from-behind win was far from a fluke. The No. 5 was leading or near the front all night, leading a race-high 175 laps. Bristol has been one of Larson’s best tracks in the past, leading 200 or more laps twice with a pair of second-place finishes. He seemed destined to suffer a similar fate until the contact between Elliott and Harvick, and he pounced at the perfect time. Perhaps even more impressive was that he was able to keep the car straight as Harvick turned right to try and spin him in the straightaway.

Larson and the No. 5 team are locked in already with finishes of second, sixth and first to open the playoffs. He’s already amassed 59 playoff points – 30 more than second-place Truex – so he really just needs to be steady in each round. Wins are a necessity, though they’re likely to keep coming with how fast this team is. It would take a colossal failure for the No. 5 not to make the championship race, but we said the same thing about Harvick last year. Anything remains possible … I guess.

Putting aside the drama with Elliott, Harvick had his best race of the year at Bristol. I’ll leave the altercation out of this section and just talk about Harvick’s race. Harvick led 71 laps, more than he’d led in any race this season (he only led 129 in the first 28 races combined). It was an encouraging day, even if there’s only one short track left (Martinsville) and it’s nothing like Bristol. The 750-HP speed is there for Harvick; he just has to capitalize where he can.

The lack of playoff points might be what dooms Harvick in the Round of 12. He enters this next round the same way he entered the first round: in last place. Harvick has just two playoff points, leaving him 12 points behind eighth place to start. More on the “fight” in just a bit.

Byron had a steady, quiet and ultimately thrilling run to sneak his way into the Round of 12. He entered Bristol 18 points below the cut line and exited two points up. That’s impressive for a 23-year-old driver looking for his first deep playoff run and a rookie crew chief in Rudy Fugle with no Cup playoff experience. The No. 24 executed Bristol to perfection, grabbing eight stage points, keeping the car in good shape and finishing the job.

The Round of 16 always looked like Byron’s toughest test based on the tracks. Next round, he’ll have a 1.5-mile track in Las Vegas (where he led 25 laps in March), a superspeedway in Talladega (he won at Daytona last year) and a road course in Charlotte (finished sixth there in 2019 and 2020). This might be shaping up to be a longer-than-expected playoff run for Byron, especially considering how things looked entering Bristol.

Who fell flat?

Almirola was up-and-down all night, and in the end he exited Bristol outside the playoff picture. The No. 10 had decent speed early, running just outside and then inside the top 10 throughout parts of the first and second stages. Then, he had the smoke issue where the team had to change an oil line under caution. It worked out that Almirola didn’t lose a lap because NASCAR had to extend the caution due to fluid that Almirola dropped on track. That should’ve been talked about more, as it allowed him to stay on the lead lap and give him a chance at surviving.

The No. 10 car just didn’t have the same speed once it lost track position. Almirola struggled to pass his way back to the top 15, settling for an 18th-place result and missing the Round of 12 by two points. It was a fate that Almirola deserved after the season he had – he did enter the playoffs 23rd in the regular season standings after all. Finishes of 16th, 14th and 18th just aren’t enough to advance when you don’t enter with ample playoff points. He’ll end up 16th in the final standings at worst, a vast improvement from where he would’ve been without the win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Kurt Busch was unexpectedly a non-factor at one of his best tracks. He entered Bristol tied for the final spot and I’m sure a lot of people were extremely confident in the six-time Thunder Valley winner. I know I was, putting him on my fantasy team and everything. Instead, Busch ran outside the top 15 all night and limped home 19th. I was bullish on Busch’s chances to advance, potentially even into the Round of 8 with the way these playoff tracks lined up for him. He runs better at 550-HP tracks, and none were in the Round of 16, so I guess this shouldn’t be a total shock. It was just strange to see Busch go down like this at Bristol without much of a fight.

Reddick’s championship hopes were dashed at Bristol, but he should be optimistic about the future. The second-year driver is in the midst of a strong season, with 13 top 10s in 29 races after scoring just nine top 10s in 36 races last year. Richard Childress Racing isn’t top-tier equipment, but Reddick always gets the most (and sometimes more than the most) out of his cars. Similar to Busch, the lack of 550-HP tracks in this round probably doomed Reddick. He had three top 20s but no top 10s in his first three playoff races.

What did this race prove?

It’s been a while since we’ve had a good feud. I’m glad we’ve finally got one. OK, now it’s time to break down this Elliott-Harvick battle. Here’s how I saw it. Elliott continuously gave Harvick the inside while they were racing for the lead and Harvick just couldn’t clear him. He saw an opportunity as they weaved through traffic, then pushed Elliott up and out of the groove to get the spot. Harvick pushed him a little too far, cutting Elliott’s tire and knocking him out of contention. That’s Harvick’s fault, as he pushed the issue a little too far. I don’t see how that can be disputed:

Once Elliott rejoined the track, he gave Harvick a love tap on the way by. Elliott didn’t drive away, and instead seemed to stay just enough in his path to slow him down. In my opinion, Elliott did nothing wrong there. Harvick ruined his day. It was well within his right to make Harvick’s life difficult as he raced for a win, and he did just that. He didn’t wreck Harvick, or brake-check him, or anything dirty like that. It became obvious that he held Harvick up when he pulled over for Larson to win the race in the final laps.

I get that Harvick was upset about having his 35-race winless streak extended to 36, but this was his own fault. If the roles were reversed, I can’t picture Harvick doing anything different than what Elliott did. That’s why it’s tough to fault Elliott in this altercation – credit to the younger driver for standing up and fighting back against the cagey veteran.

Bristol should have two races per year on the pavement. The dirt race was fun and all … but come on. Nothing is better than the classic Bristol. If they insist on having a dirt race, at least add a third Bristol date. This track is too much fun and means too much to the sport historically for there to only be one race here per year. There are few places that can produce the kind of racing and the kind of anger and frustration that Bristol does. It’s pretty much just Bristol and Martinsville Speedway in that category. Which brings me back to my point last week: more short tracks please!

The composite bodies can’t come soon enough. Multiple times in the final laps we saw minimal contact turn into race-ending tire problems, from Hamlin to Kyle Busch to Elliott to Christopher Bell. That could all change with the NextGen car, as the Cup Series moves to composite bodies, similar to what the Xfinity Series runs. This means there will be fewer cut tires as a result of contact between cars. Nowadays, a simple bump into a rear quarter panel can end a day. Next year, drivers will be able to lean on each other a little bit more without the same consequences. Personally, I can’t wait.

Paint scheme of the race

Stewart Haas Racing has churned out great paint schemes all year long, and that continued at Bristol. Subway returned to NASCAR after exiting in 2017, and their first design on Harvick’s No. 4 Ford was a beauty — and Subway even got some extra air time with the post-race theatrics. 

Better than last time?

Last year, championship contenders emerged at the front of the field early. Harvick, Keselowski and Elliott all led in the first stage and Elliott took the win. Several playoff drivers had trouble in stage two, with Matt DiBenedetto making an unscheduled stop and Byron crashing out. An ill-timed caution in the third stage caught most of the field a lap down – only six cars finished on the lead lap, and Harvick and Kyle Busch duked it out in the final run for the win. Harvick picked up his ninth and final victory of the season in what was a solid, but unspectacular race by Bristol’s standards.

This year, the battle up front also involved title contenders all night. Larson, Hamlin and Elliott all showed flashes of being the best car early. The playoff drama and ultimate madness over the final 50 laps has to put this race above last year. There was a wreck involving the leader, multiple playoff drivers pitting with tire problems and an insane battle for the win. To top it all off, there was an altercation on pit road after the race. Give me 2021 over 2020, comfortably.

Playoff picture

Larson was already locked into the Round of 12 based on points, so his win didn’t mix things up. Harvick, Elliott, Blaney and Logano joined Larson, Hamlin and Truex as locks for the Round of 12 after points were accumulated for the first two stages. That left nine drivers battling for the final five spots.

Keselowski (+37), Alex Bowman (+10), Bell (+9), Kyle Busch (+7) and Byron (+2) secured the final five spots in the Round of 12. Reddick (-2), Almirola (-2), Kurt Busch (-6) and Michael McDowell (-49) were eliminated. Bowman and Byron both entered Bristol below the cut line and knocked out Almirola and Kurt Busch.

Here’s the full standings before the Round of 12 reset:

And here’s how the Round of 12 looks after the reset:

What’s next?

The Round of 12 begins next week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the fourth of 10 playoff races. This will be the fifth straight night race, and the final one scheduled this season. The South Point 400 will go green on Sunday (Sept. 26) at 7 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

7 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dan

I’m not much of an Elliott fan but Harvick got everything he deserved. He has some big balls complaining about what happened last night after all the “bonehead” stuff he’s pulled over the years.

DoninAjax

The 15 finished TWENTY-SIX laps down in 482 green flag laps. That is one lap in less than 20 laps. He was 2 laps down at the 40-lap “competition caution.”

Carl D.

I’m in full agreement with Logan on the Harvick vs. Elliott feud. I’d call it karma, but that implies some sort of divine intervention. Harvick’s wounds were self-inflicted. I think the winless drought is getting to him.

I also agree that both Bristol races should be run on concrete.

JW Farmer

Dan, you are incorrect. I was at the race and the entire night, Harvick was “pushing up” in the middle of the corners, the sign of a tight race-car. When Harvick caught Elliott, the least that should have been done was that Elliott’s spotter tell him to “give space” which in this instance, as I said, I was there, he did not–instead he pinched Harvick and should have known Harvick was going to slide up the track. If this would have been corner exit and Harvick wasn’t clear, I could understand his beef, but this is Bristol and Elliott needs to stop crying when he has Hendrick equipment.

Dan

Ok you were there and surely saw more. I watched on TV. But I still feel Harvick had no right to act they way he did. I could point out several uncalled for things Harvick had done in the past. My point is Harvick has done some bonehead things in the past and gotten away with them. Think Talladega several years ago just to name one.

Echo

Your being there doesn’t mean your right. We at home saw exactly what happened, in real time, and close up, dozens of times. Replay after replay. I don’t believe there’s a seat in Bristol that could have given you better coverage of what was going on at the front of the pack than the constant coverage we had at home. Harvick has always been a punk and most have seen it over the years.

Bill B

The spotter should have told him to give him room? That’s BS. When you are going for the lead you pinch the other driver down and don’t allow him to drift up, you make him lift. If he doesn’t lift then it’s his fault for drifting up into the other car and we get exactly what we had Saturday night. It’s up to each driver to control their own car, they have a gas pedal, a brake pedal and a steering wheel. When they don’t control their car it’s their fault,.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch