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September 15, 2023

What to Watch: Playoff drivers looking to keep title hopes alive at Bristol

Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick drive at Bristol.
Logan Riely
Getty Images

Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway

(⏰ Saturday, 6:30 p.m. ET | 📺 USA, NBC Sports App | 📻 PRN, SiriusXM)

Everything you need to know for Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol, the 29th points-paying race of the 2023 Cup Series campaign.

Weekend schedule | TV schedule | Weather tracker | Bristol playoff race 101

📍 Location: Bristol, Tennessee
📐 Track length: 0.533 miles
🎟️ Buy tickets: Find weekend passes, seats for the race
💰 Cup Series race purse: $8,805,799
📏 Race distance: 500 laps | 266.5 miles
🔢 Stages: 125 | 250 | 500

📋 Starting lineup: Bell wins third straight pole
🚗 Pit stall assignments:
See where drivers will pit
🏆 Most recent winner: Chris Buescher, fall 2022

Key things to watch 🔑

Friday update

Christopher Bell continued a run of three straight events winning the Busch Light Pole Award, becoming the first driver to sweep the poles in the Round of 16. The good starting positions haven’t translated to a victory thanks to in-race issues, including missteps on pit road. But if Bell and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team can clean up those issues, one would figure he’d be in the running to finally close out a race with a checkered flag. Bell won twice in elimination races last year, so he has a recent history of rising to the occasion. Bell’s biggest competition could come from teammate Denny Hamlin, who will join Bell on the front row and has risen to race favorite in DraftKings’ updated race-day odds.

Big story line

Can Martin Truex Jr. avoid going from regular-season champion to early playoff exit? In the history of the NASCAR Playoffs era, there has never been a regular-season champion eliminated from postseason contention before the Round of 8. Truex enters Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App) seven points below the elimination line. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has experienced a tough start to the Round of 16 with finishes of 18th and 36th at Darlington and Kansas. Given the No. 19 Toyota’s current situation, Bristol could be an uphill battle for Truex to keep the streak alive of regular-season champions avoiding a first-round playoff exit.

While Truex has visited Victory Lane at short tracks such as Richmond and Martinsville, he has not been able to break through in Thunder Valley, with only two top fives and four top 10s at the 0.533-mile high-banked short track. In his last nine Bristol starts, Truex has eight finishes of 13th or worse, including three DNFs. Last year’s Bristol Night Race result was 36th place and the No. 19 did not finish. These are not the numbers that Truex wants to see going to a track that is far from his best. If he wants to avoid a shocking elimination in the Round of 16, Truex will likely have to put together the best Bristol drive of his Cup Series career and outperform what his history here suggests. | Truex Jr. blows a tire in Kansas playoff race

History tells us…

Expect several playoff drivers to have issues. The 2023 Cup Series Playoffs have seen multiple title contenders run into trouble in the first two Round of 16 races. At both Darlington and Kansas, 10 of 16 playoff drivers did not have a clear, straightforward race. Looking back at the 2022 Bristol Night Race, 12 of 16 title competitors experienced problems. Whether it is a mechanical issue, a mistake on pit road or contact on the track, expect Bristol to deliver drama again that could shake up the playoff picture by the end of Saturday night.

Any issue for the four drivers currently below the elimination line would be catastrophic for their hopes of advancing to the Round of 12. At the same time, issues for others above the line could play into the hands of Martin Truex Jr. (-7), Bubba Wallace (-19), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-22) and Michael McDowell (-40) if they are lucky enough to stay out of trouble themselves. A mistake-free Bristol is a recipe for success but there is no telling what will happen in this high-pressure elimination race. | Preview Show: Inside the playoff grid’s uncertainty as Bristol looms

He may not be the betting favorite to win, but watch out for…

Kyle Busch.
After winning three times in the first 15 races, Busch battled some inconsistency in the late summer. However, kicking off the postseason with finishes of 11th at Darlington and seventh at Kansas is a good start at building momentum during the most important time of the year. Entering the Bristol Night Race with 16-1 odds, the Richard Childress Racing driver will look to rediscover his past Bristol magic and earn his fourth win of 2023. Busch has eight career Cup Series wins on the Bristol concrete, which includes three wins in the last nine Bristol races.

His 16 short-track wins are the most among active drivers. However, his recent results on short tracks have not been spectacular. The driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet has finished outside of the top 10 in four of the last five short-track races. In the last two Bristol races, Busch did not finish higher than 21st place. Nevertheless, this guy knows how to get around Bristol, so a ninth win here cannot be ruled out. | Relive Busch’s dramatic race-ending moment in the 2022 Night Race

Familiar favorites ⭐️

Our biggest pieces of the week — get covered for race day from all angles.

– At-track photos: Sights and scenes from Bristol Motor Speedway | Photo gallery
– Bubble Watch: Clock ticking on Cup Series Playoffs’ elimination phase | Who’s who on the bubble
– Fantasy Fastlane: Kyle Busch, RFK drivers ripe for the picking | Advice for your lineup
– Paint Scheme Preview:
See the schemes for Bristol | Pick a favorite
– Power Rankings: Defending Championship 4 drivers in Bristol bubble trouble? | Latest driver rankings
– Stacking Pennies:
Corey LaJoie reacts to a close call with Chase Briscoe at Kansas | Listen to the podcast

💎 NASCAR 75: Learn more about the history of the sport, from pioneers to current stars | Visit NASCAR 75 hub

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– Fantasy Live: Participate in interactive gameplay from week to week | Choose your lineup
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– NASCAR BetCenter: Don’t miss your chance to make picks each week | Visit the BetCenter
– Going the distance:
2023 Cup Series championship odds | See them here

🔮 Advance to Victory Lane: Racing Insights projects the finishing order