THE LEFT TURN
NASCAR: 2021 Bass Pro Shops Night Race preview, picks
It's an elimination race this week at Bristol Motor Speedway. This is the last chance for the last four drivers in points to try and survive and advance to the next round. This is one of the most challenging and unforgiving racetracks in the sport. It has been a whole year since they raced on pavement and if we see what we have seen with the truck series, the surface should be fairly slippery and difficult to find grip. With all that is on the line, there's sure to be plenty of drama all throughout the race. One of the things to look out for in this race is how the leader deals with traffic. With this track being as short as it is, the laps will fly by quickly and the leaders will catch the tail end of the field and with a lot of these guys not wanting to go a lap down, this can be a big headache. We saw it two seasons ago when Matt DiBenedetto appeared to have the race in hand until making contact with the lap car of Ryan Newman, and it cost him the victory. In the end, the driver who is the most patient getting through the field will have the best chance.
Last week, Martin Truex Jr punched his ticket to the Round of 12 after fending off a late-race charge from his teammate Denny Hamlin. It was a race that was dominated by strategy and the Joe Gibbs Toyota's as they swept the top three with Christopher Bell coming home in third.
Most of the top 12 were able to stay out of trouble, with the exception of Kurt Busch. When the green flag dropped, everything looked promising for the 2004 champion until he crashed out on lap 42. Because of his misfortune, he dropped from fourth place in points all the way to 12th in a tie with Alex Bowman. Another playoff driver that struggled to get anything going last week was William Byron. After crashing at Darlington, he truly needed a big race to get back into the hunt but when they got to Richmond, the car just didn't have any speed. Going into this week, Byron is 18 points out. He will need to gain points in both stages to make up ground in the playoffs.
As I mentioned, there will be four drivers that are on the outside looking in, but let's not forget about the drivers above the cutline who are in just as much danger. Because of the high attrition at Darlington, the gap between 12th and 8th is very slim. One of the drivers in a tough position is Kyle Busch. After his inexcusable mishap at Darlington, he was able to rebound quite nicely at Richmond with a ninth-place finish. This team is still going to need a lot of things to fall into place at Bristol to make the next round. When you look at the four drivers below the cutline, the two drivers that are in the win-now territory are Michael McDowell and William Byron. Both drivers sit 38 and 18 points out of the top 12 and while it is not mathematically impossible for them to point their way into the next round, they need two perfect stages to get in. Look for a Hail Mary from them.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the massive storylines off the track this week. On Wednesday, the 2022 NASCAR schedule was released. While a lot of things remained the same, there were three major differences from this season compared to the next season. Next season, to kick off the year, NASCAR will hold an exhibition race inside the LA Coliseum. This was met with the familiar polarity we see amongst the fan base, there were some that believed it was a neat concept and some that didn't. In my personal opinion, I have to say that this has the potential to really be special. This brings NASCAR to a newer audience and with the race being a week before the Super Bowl, there is so much room for positive growth. On the flip side, this will make things much more difficult logistically for the road crew in getting back to Daytona. Regardless, racing in football stadiums could be a trend we see in the future.
Before NASCAR goes to the Coliseum in LA, we still have a race in the Coliseum in Bristol to think about, and the driver that I have winning this week is Kyle Busch. As I mentioned earlier, arguably NASCAR's greatest talent of the 21st century is coming into this week with little room for mistakes but on the bright side, this is by far his best racetrack as he's won there eight times. Rowdy can get around this track better than anyone, as he has led over 2,000 laps here in his career. He will roll off ninth when the green flag drops, but don't expect him to stay there long. Look for Kyle to be the car to beat come Saturday as he looks to complete the Joe Gibbs Racing sweep of the opening round of the playoffs.