BRISTOL, Tenn. — Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race was a survival of the fittest event. In a race where 12 of the 16 NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers encountered some sort of problem, 3 of the 4, not all, resided in the same Hendrick Motorsports camp.
Team Penske saw all 3 cars encounter problems with the right front tire and finished 20th (Austin Cindric), 27th (Joey Logano) and 30th (Ryan Blaney).
Joe Gibbs Racing had tire problems for Christopher Bell (4th) and Denny Hamlin (9th) with mechanical problems for Kyle Busch (34th) and Martin Truex Jr. (36th). Even their allied team in 23XI Racing also had power steering issues, relegating them to 29th (Bubba Wallace) and 35th (Ty Gibbs).
RCR saw both drivers collect in the same crash on lap 276 caused by Daniel Suarez (19th). They would finish 25th (Tyler Reddick) and 31st (Austin Dillon).
Pole sitter Aric Almirola had mechanical problems (28th) and Kevin Harvick (10th) had a poor final pit stop.
As a result, you get a default top 5 for making it to the checkered flag with clean cars for Chase Elliott, William Byron and Kyle Larson.
Alex Bowman likely would have joined them had he not been collected in the same crash on lap 276 that dropped him to 32nd.
Still, Elliott was coming out of the pit lane in 2nd after his last stop. He failed to match Chris Buescher after the final restart and had to settle for runner-up after crossing the finish line 0.458 seconds behind.
“Yeah, I mean I actually really liked my car,” he said. “I thought our Hooters Chevrolet drove really well, and honestly, I don’t think I could realistically ask for anything more balanced.
“I just needed to be able to do a better job of getting into some different lanes. And then second there, the top had become so dominant there at the end. The bottom was pretty good there early in the night and you could run there for a long time, and then as the night went on the top just got better and better and that momentum was hard to break.
“Unfortunately for me, we never got to a lap to get him going, but we started to get there in the last three or four laps.
“I felt like we were winning, but it was … I wasn’t close enough to do anything with it. But I appreciate the effort. We had a long day yesterday. I was able to fight back from a poor effort in qualifying to finish in the top 2, I’m so proud of that.
“I’m happy to be moving on and I’m looking forward to a few more opportunities here in the coming weeks.”
It was bittersweet for Elliott, who badly wanted to win here.
Long before he began competing in the NASCAR Cup Series, Chase Elliott developed a special affinity for Bristol Motor Speedway and the Bass Pro Shops Night Race.
“Yeah, I think it’s Bristol that’s got that asterisk next to it for me, just because the environment here is so cool,” Elliott said Friday before Cup practice. “That fall race, at night, 500 laps — it was one of those events that, when I was a kid, was larger than life.
“For five years you couldn’t get a ticket on that thing. It was just one of those events that everybody wanted to attend, and if you weren’t there or talking about it in the early 2000s, you weren’t living, I thought.’
In fact, the Night Race helped shape Elliott’s decision to follow in the footsteps of his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.
“When I look back on that event and what I remember from it, it was one of the races that made me want to be a race car driver, to be honest,” Elliott said.
“The environment here is unmatched and this event is special. I can’t see another date or song in our schedule that can rival that environment on a Saturday night in August or September.”
Elliott has made 13 Cup Series starts here now, 7 of them in the night race. One of them was the 2020 All-Star Race, which he won. In scoring contests, he is 0-for-12. It’s not like he hasn’t been close before, though.
Elliott was 3rd in 2018, 5th in 2019, 7th in 2020 and while he was 25th last year he had a collision with Kevin Harvick that cut a tire and forced him to unplanned pit stop while running in the top 2 Last year Elliott completed 129 laps. He was 2nd on Saturday night.
It was also a great chance for him to reverse his bad luck.
I wondered this when Elliott was finishing top 2 after top 2 in the middle of the summer. One could make a case that Chase could have won all 5 races in that stretch. Although Watkins Glen, Elliott had 5 top 5 finishes in a 7 race span.
Was it all too soon?
We’ve seen this in sports over the years. Teams peak too early. Others get hot at the right time and carry that into a championship. Did Elliott start his rise too soon?
His last 3 finishes at Bristol were 29th, 36th and 11th respectively. He has finished outside the top 10 in 5 of his last 7 races. The only reason he is safe for this round is because of his playoff points he has accumulated. Elliott was still +28 on the line going into a race he just had to get into.
“Yeah, I knew that could happen going in,” Elliott said. “I don’t think anyone is safe. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have the points and I’m glad we had a good regular season to be able to do that, but nobody is safe in these rounds.
“And we want to do better, too. We had a chance to win tonight, but we want to have a chance to win every week. I think we are very capable of that. We just have to put it all together and execute some solid races.”
For Byron, this is his second consecutive 3rd place finish here and ends a run in which he has finished 8th, 6th and 3rd respectively.
Larson was 5th for his second top 5 in the last 8 races, but his 3rd top 5 in the last 5. It was also his 7th top 10 in the last 8 attempts at Bristol, including 6 of 7 top 6s.