1. Who is in danger of elimination this weekend?
With just one race left in the Round of 16, all eyes will be watching the bottom four drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series playoff standings to see who will be eliminated after 500 laps at Bristol Motor Speedway.
And we may see some big upsets.
Looking it the standings right now, three of those drivers aren’t too surprising. Based on his average finish of 16.9 alone, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has had his best career season, and yes, that includes his time with Roush Fenway Racing when he won twice in 2017.
However, despite having six top 10s in his first four Cup seasons at the Last Great Colosseum, Stenhouse hasn’t finished better than 20th on the track’s concrete since 2018. Asking for him to remove a 22-point deficit this weekend may be a tall order.
Like Stenhouse, Michael McDowell is also having a career year complete with earning his second career win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Unlike Stenhouse, however, it took McDowell 21 attempts to finally earn his one and only Cup Series top-10 result at Bristol, so his likelihood of gaining 40 points this weekend doesn’t look great either.
Bubba Wallace was sitting pretty at Kansas Speedway this past weekend after leading three laps and seemingly one of the fastest cars on Sunday. However, a broken toe link forced him into a 32nd-place finish and a whole 19 points below the cut line heading into what is arguably one of his worst tracks for elimination.
In 12 Cup starts, the 23XI Racing driver has only earned one top-10 result and has led six of the 3,404 total laps he’s completed there.
Finally, there’s the big shocker: Martin Truex Jr.
It doesn’t seem right to count out this year’s regular season champion already. You know, the guy that was the top seed entering the playoffs with the most points only two weeks ago?
And in fact, under normal circumstances, I likely still wouldn’t.
However, these are Bristol night race circumstances, and unfortunately for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, he doesn’t perform well at the half-mile short track.
And even worse, everyone else above him in the standings does.
In his 32 career Cup starts at Bristol, Truex has only finished in the top 10 four times – and only two of them have come in the last 11 years.
Harvick alone has three wins at the short track complete with 14 top fives and 22 top 10s in 42 races. As for Logano, he has two wins, six top fives and 10 top 10s in only 26 starts on the Tennessee circuit.
You don’t need a calculator to realize there’s a more prominent pattern of success for the duo over Truex.
The No. 19 team will likely need somebody ahead of him on the bubble to have a bad Saturday night for him to have a chance at staying in the postseason hunt this year. Thankfully for him, however, this is Bristol we’re talking about, and we can almost guarantee some chaos to shake it up a little bit.
2. Do you really want a second Bristol pavement race?
Have you ever heard the phrase, “Less is more”?
It’s a phrase that refers to the idea of a small amount of something special is actually preferable to a large number of it.
On the list of items within the sport of NASCAR that should be limited, wedged somewhere in between road courses and playoff positions, lies the Bristol pavement race.
Before you bring out your pitchforks and torches and chant about how much you despise the Bristol dirt race, just hear this out.
The Bristol night race has been a staple of NASCAR since 1978, and almost every year has left the sport with memories that define stock car racing. Some of them even transcend NASCAR altogether. But how many of those day races have done that same?
Before the dirt race, Bristol had its spring date that saw its grandstands become a ghost town before its pavement replacement race date. That wasn’t a good look in the first place.
But having only the Bristol night race every autumn gives NASCAR fans something more to look forward to every year when it comes to the half-mile circuit. Without a spring event and its empty grandstands at the beginning of the year, it makes the night race a bit more exclusive.
Think about it. In a way, it’s sort of like the holiday season. It wouldn’t be something to look forward to if it happened more than once a year, would it?
3. How will Shane van Gisbergen perform in 2024?
After Shane van Gisbergen made the hint that he was leaving Australian Supercars for the American stock car in 2024, he was arguably the hottest driver on the silly season ticket for the season.
And as of Wednesday, we finally have the answer of where he’s going.
But that leaves a new question; how will he do in his part-time schedule with Trackhouse Racing?
Well, if the schedule was made up entirely of road courses, he’d likely do pretty well. After only two total Cup starts on road courses, the kiwi won in his first start at the Chicago street course and finished 10th at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. For a first-timer, that’s pretty spectacular.
But team owner Justin Marks has other plans for van Gisbergen.
“Next year will be about getting him acclimated to oval track racing,” Marks said in a team release. “Superspeedways, 1.5-mile tracks and everything he has never experienced.”
In other words? Unlike in 2023, the three-time Supercars champion will be out of his comfort zone next season.
On top of his limited schedule across NASCAR’s top three series, Marks plans on entering him in some late model races as well, which will be beneficial for his short track racing game, as he will almost certainly need it for next year’s All-Star Race (which he qualified for with his Chicago win) as it will likely be on a short track again, be it North Wilkesboro Speedway or not.
In fact, his one oval race this year was on the short track in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Motor Speedway park. There, van Gisbergen placed 19th, one lap down when driving for Niece Motorsports. That’s not bad, but it’s definitely not the phenom talent many were probably expecting.
It’s also unfair to gauge how an entire season’s worth of races will go based on one finish, but then again, isn’t that what we all did after he won Chicago?
4. Are Zane Smith’s championship defense hopes fading?
The reigning Truck Series champion Zane Smith entered the Thursday night event at Bristol with two wins to his name in the entirety of the 2023 season. That comes after winning four in 2022 on his way to his championship. However, upon leaving the short track, Smith finds himself now 14 points outside of the Championship 4 with only Talladega Superspeedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway still on the schedule.
That’s a little off from one year ago when he was only three points behind Chandler Smith for the points lead.
So, is it yet fair to say that the Truck champion is in danger of not defending his title?
Well first, there’s Talladega – a track whose mere utterance sends shivers down a car owner’s spine, and among them may be Smith himself. In his four total starts in NASCAR national series races at the 2.66-mile behemoth racetrack, the Californian driver has never once finished inside of the top 15. In fact, he has only once finished within the top 30.
But here’s the good news. Talladega is well-known for being a wild card event where anybody can win, and nobody is safe. Smith also does have an ARCA Menards Series win at the high-banked track as recently as 2018, so success is not completely unfamiliar to the Truck Series racer.
There’s also the fact that he has two consecutive wins at Talladega’s sister track, Daytona International Speedway.
Then, there’s Homestead. Unlike Talladega, the driver of the No. 38 Ford has only two starts at the 1.5-mile oval with one of them ending as runner up. The other, however, ended with him in 37th – but at least that finish was in 2020, a whole three years ago.
But out of the two, even the 24-year-old driver agrees that Homestead will be the trues test for his FRM team.
“Who knows on [Talladega],” Smith said post-race at Bristol. “We’ve obviously won on superspeedways, with FRM. Yeah, that’s anyone’s battle.
“I feel like the only real place that’s a true tell is Homestead.”
But to get to Homestead, Zane Smith will need to survive the chaos of Talladega first.
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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