By Cole Cusumano
Heading into the elimination race for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs Round of 16, it felt as if we were being primed for a monumental event for the ages. You really couldn’t ask for a better scenario with championship hopes on the line under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway — the venue responsible for spawning some of the most iconic historic moments.
An action-packed Spring race seemingly restored the intensity back into Thunder Valley after nearly a decade of forgetful competition, leaving the door open to endless possibilities upon the premier series return. It became evident through two stages that we had been duped for the third consecutive postseason event.
What it boiled down to was another clean show, but this time without the element of intrigue or strategy. The racing was adequate enough to keep viewers mildly engaged, as is typical the case at short tracks, but it was an all around sloppily executed night for a majority of playoff drivers.
When it was all said and done, half of the postseason contenders finished outside of the top-15. This was largely due in part to the tire issues that plagued teams throughout the night, so in hindsight, there wasn’t much that could’ve been done to prevent disaster. You really can’t expect to play it cautiously in an elimination race or make up any lost ground when continuous green-flag runs allow just six cars to finish on the lead lap.
William Byron, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney entered the night below the points cutoff, and that’s the way they exited Tennessee. All four drivers failed to finish above 13th either due to a lackluster performance or a blunder, but no one has as climatic of a night as the No. 21 team.
Having lost a tire early in the race, to what DiBenedetto attributed to a poorly cleaned racing surface following a wreck, the Wood Brother Racing team worked diligently to overcome the adversity of being three laps down and put themselves in an admirable position in the closing laps. In what was shaping up to be another potential Cinderella story, turned out to be nightmare induced horror, as debris cut down another Goodyear Eagle while he was running seventh. The end result was a 19th-place finish and dejection.
The only redeeming quality of this primetime event was the titanic 50-lap battle between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch for the win in the closing laps. After leading an impressive 159 laps, it appeared the Candyman would end his 29-race winless drought, until lap traffic attributed to Joey Gase, Joey Logano and Garrett Smithley prevented there from being a more riveting finish.
This was not the only time these names were brought up from playoff drivers during the race, as a puzzling move by Gase ended Byron’s quest for the Round of 12 while he was running top-10. The inexperienced trials of these young competitors revive questions asked earlier in the year following a blunder from Quin Houff — should NASCAR explore some sort of a graduation program for developmental drivers into the Cup Series?
In the end, it was the same story for 2020, in which Harvick led a race-high 226 laps and impressively secured his ninth victory of the season — the most since Carl Edwards in 2008. At this point, it’s best for viewers to buckle down and enjoy this historic ride the driver of the No. 4 is taking us on, because this very well could not happen again for decades.
Overall, this was an uncharacteristic Bristol event that lacked any sort of memorable entertainment value. Whether it was a testament to the poignancy of the teams in capitalizing on notes from the Spring and All-Star Race, or the absence of the PJ1 traction compound, the night was severely underwhelming and undesirable from a spectator standpoint.
It’s wrong to fault NASCAR, because what track would better suit an elimination race? Having said that, it would be wise for the sanctioning body to develop new methods to create an enticing product in the future.
The Round of 16 which promised history and thrills dramatically fell short in both categories. The hope is the wild card Round of 12 can make up lost ground, for the sake of the sport and the fans.