BRISTOL, Tenn. — With the bottom seven drivers separated by 31 points, the battle to advance to the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is perhaps as tight as it has ever been.
That battle will come to a head during Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the lowest four drivers in points among the 16-man playoff field will be eliminated from championship contention.
The bottom four entering the .533-mile concrete bullring are William Byron, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney. Byron is just three points below the cut line, while Custer is eight behind and DiBenedetto and Blaney both sit more than 20 markers adrift of 12th place in the standings.
Though Byron and Custer could easily point their way into the next round, DiBenedetto and Blaney are likely in must-win situations in order to advance.
It’s a dicey situation that NBC Sports analyst Kyle Petty equated to walking a tightrope over The Last Great Coliseum during NASCAR America Splash & Go earlier this week.
“These guys are working without a net,” Petty said. “We’re going to Bristol with the Flying Wallendas and there’s six or seven of them, and a couple of them are going to hit the ground. … I feel bad for them, but they had 26 races to gain playoff points and they missed it in those 26.
“I don’t know what would make any of us think that they would have a spectacular run at Bristol.”
Perhaps the most surprising driver at risk of elimination is Team Penske’s Blaney, who enters Bristol last in the playoff standings after sub-par runs at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and Richmond (Va.) Raceway.
Blaney’s team also incurred a 10-point penalty during pre-race inspection at Darlington due to improperly mounted ballast, making this weekend’s Bristol event even more vital than it already would have been otherwise.
That doesn’t mean he’s approaching the weekend any differently, however.
“I feel like if all of a sudden for one race you are extra determined, then why aren’t you that way the whole season? Everyone is always motivated and determined to win races,” said Blaney. “When the playoffs start, I don’t think the determination goes up, but I think the aggression level goes up and there is no give, it is all take. I feel like if you are not in a winning mindset throughout the whole year other than this situation, it’s not the best thing. I try to be in this mindset from the first part of the season to now, even with the situation we are in.
“You’re always dedicated and motivated, I feel like, but in our position, we are going to be pretty aggressive. That is what we have to be and everyone else has to realize that,” Blaney added. “There are a couple of guys that are a few points above or below the cut line that might try to be a little bit safer than what me or Matty D (DiBenedetto) has to be because we have to get a bunch of points and finish good and win the race.
“But I wouldn’t say I am more determined, because the dedication has always been there.”
The good news for Blaney? Both Petty and fellow NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton believe the High Point, N.C., driver has shown what it takes at Bristol to be able to win Saturday’s race and move on to the next round.
Blaney has never won at Bristol, but he’s led 60 or more laps in four of the last five Cup Series races there. The problem with that statistic is that he’s crashed out while in contention for the win in two of those events, including one crash while he was leading during the spring race in 2018.
“If you look at the number of races Ryan Blaney has led at Bristol, and the number of times he has been leading when he got into a wreck … he has the speed … and I think he can win himself in,” Burton noted. “He is the guy that I think has enough speed and has shown me at Bristol to have enough speed where he can win this race and advance.”
Petty took his comments one step further. He believes a Bristol victory for Blaney and the No. 12 team will provide enough momentum to propel them all the way to the title decider at Arizona’s Phoenix Raceway in November.
“Let me say this – if he (Blaney) wins Bristol, he wins the championship,” Petty noted. “What concerns me about Blaney and that team are that they’ve had speed, they’ve led races, they’ve run up front, and they’ve given it away in stage three almost every time.
“They should be sitting here right now with at least three or four wins.”
Blaney is optimistic about his chances for Saturday night, because he’s had speed all season long. He just has to put all the pieces together under the lights at Bristol.
“We are just going to go racing. That is the biggest thing,” Blaney noted. “I was frustrated for 20 minutes right after Darlington and 20 minutes right after Richmond, but after those 20 minutes you have to put it in the past and talk about what we could have done to improve. We have to focus on the next race. There is no dwelling on the past, especially in these playoff races. You have to focus on the next one, especially when you have a bad day.
“I am excited to get going. I love going to Bristol and I am excited to just be able to race and have a shot at advancing. We’ll go try to do our best and see what happens.”