Ever since NASCAR released the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series schedule last year, the September Bristol night race became one of its more anticipated races. Any time the series rolls into Bristol Motor Speedway for the track’s annual night race it is indeed a special night but this season the anticipation has been ratcheted up to the next level.
The reason for the added intensity that the race is expected to produce is that for the first time ever the race is not only taking place during the playoff round of the schedule but is the elimination race for the Round of 16.
Saturday night’s race comes on the heels of races at Darlington and Richmond and will be the last opportunity for twelve drivers to advance on to the next round with four drivers being eliminated after the checkered flag waves.
Kevin Harvick’s win at Darlington and Brad Keselowski Richmond win automatically advances them into the Round of 12 along with Denny Hamlin who has locked himself into the next round with his point total.
While those three drivers will go to Bristol knowing that are advancing, almost half of the sixteen driver playoff field know they will have to race their way into the next round based on their performance on Bristol’s high-banked half-mile layout. Aric Almirola (+7), Kurt Busch (+7) and Clint Bowyer (+3) are just ahead of the cutoff line in tenth thru twelfth in the standings with William Byron (-3) and Cole Custer (-8) now finding themselves just below the cutoff line that will allow them to transfer into the next round.
Each of those drivers know that the easiest way to advance would be to win the race but only one driver will be able to leave with the checkered flag so Saturday night will be all about how many points that they accumulate throughout the race.
While the race does award a ton of points throughout the finishing order, the difference between advancing or not will more than likely come down to the points earned during the first two stages of the race. Matt DiBenedetto (-25) and Ryan Blaney (-27) will enter the race in the 15th and 16th positions in the points knowing that maybe their only realistic avenue to advancing will be by taking the checkered flag.
Earning points during the first two stages might not be as important to them as it is earning track position for the start of the third and final stage of the race. Bristol like so many other stops on the schedule puts a premium on track position as passing can be very difficult especially when lapped traffic comes into play.
Whether it is trying to earn as many points possible on the night or take the checkered flag, the one variable that every driver will have to conquer to advance is the track itself. 500 laps at the East Tennessee track makes for a long night that can push a driver’s patience and temper to its limit which often times can lead to a decision that not only can end his night but also end the night for another driver (or two).
There will be so many story lines to follow as the race progresses and it might be that you will need a calculator to keep track of which drivers are above the cutoff line as the 500 laps go quickly off the board.
Saturday night will just be another opportunity for the fabled venue to produce the kind of racing and finish that we have come to expect over the years. The only difference that this time there is so much more at stake for a handful of drivers.