Through the Field: Fight for Your Right
Honestly, who doesn’t love a good feud between racers after a good Saturday night of short track racin’?
That’s exactly what we saw following this past weekend’s night race at Bristol. Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott both essentially had their chances of winning ended by the other.
Harvick and Elliott made contact on track while passing slower cars. That resulted in the cutting of one of Elliott’s tires. Once Elliott’s No. 9 came back on the track from pit road, he did his best to hold up Harvick’s No. 4 car. That allowed Kyle Larson, Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, to win the race.
Regardless of whose side you take in this disagreement, both drivers had a right to be upset. It was great to see both drivers stand up for themselves after the race. For Harvick, it’s been a frustrating season by his standards. He won nine races last season. But his most recent victory in the Cup Series came one year ago at last season’s Bristol playoff race.
Since then, it’s been tough sledding for the No. 4 team. Despite being the championship favorite in 2020, they failed to advance to the final round. And in 2021, the entire Stewart-Haas Racing team didn’t have the speed they wanted, and Harvick just barely squeaked into the playoff field.
Saturday’s race is the closest Harvick has come to a win all year. It was taken from him by Elliott blocking his preferred racing line after what Harvick thought was a fair racing incident.
As for Elliott, it’s clear he believes the veteran of more than two decades at NASCAR’s highest level isn’t showing him enough respect on the track. Even though Harvick and Elliott are on equal footing in terms of career titles with one apiece. Elliott still believes he deserves better from the old vets on the track.
With both drivers fighting for a title and neither of them being a favorite this year, I’m sure Elliott believed that Harvick wouldn’t drive as aggressively as he did. After all, there was basically just as equal of a chance that Harvick could have ended up with the blown tire.
Both drivers are fighting for a title. And as an illustrious trio of gentlemen from New York said a few decades ago, “you’ve got to fight for your right…” to win a NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Because both drivers advanced to the Round of 12, I don’t anticipate any strong retaliation from either of these drivers; they both need to focus on moving forward rather than taking each other down.
Take a lesson from this incident; don’t hesitate to stand up for yourself when needed. Fight for that right to be who you need to be, but don’t take yourself down as well trying to take down the other person.
As the playoffs roll on the drivers left in the playoff hunt will be the ones who run upfront. Short of a couple of drivers who were just eliminated and Ross Chastain, I don’t see anyone other than the 12 remaining playoff drivers contending for wins outside of the great equalizer of Talladega.
Therefore, I’ll pass along a brief opinion of each of the drivers remaining. Listed by the order of their current position in the standings heading into Las Vegas on Sunday.
Cup Series Playoffs Top 12
#5 Kyle Larson – 3059 points (+46)
He has a 30-point advantage on the rest of the field and can take this round, the most chaotic of the playoffs. So he can just relax, stay out of trouble and move forward. That’s not in Kyle Larson’s blood though. I expect him to fight for the win at Las Vegas. If the No. 5 team finishes well there, expect them to not be as competitive at Talladega or the Charlotte Roval.
#19 Martin Truex Jr. – 3,029 points (+16)
Martin Truex’s No. 19 team has some of their swagger back after a dominant victory at Richmond and overall success from the Joe Gibbs Racing stable. Despite being second in the standings, they’re only 16 points ahead of the cutline of this round. Even if Las Vegas doesn’t turn out well (it’s certainly risky given that Vegas isn’t a 750-horsepower package track, where JGR has had most of its success) Truex has never won on a superspeedway, which will add motivation at Talladega.
#11 Denny Hamlin – 3,024 points (+11)
Now that Denny Hamlin has a victory, he has to be considered a favorite because of the team’s consistency overall. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hamlin contend in each of the first two races in the round. Hoping to defend his win in last season’s fall race at Talladega and relax during the Roval race.
#12 Ryan Blaney – 3,024 points (+11)
I’m probably the least sure about what happens with Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 team than any other. The experience of going deep into the playoffs just isn’t there, but I feel like his team is probably the best Team Penske car right now. He’s likely to be one of the favorites to win at Talladega but could provide good finishes at a good value in the other two races.
#18 Kyle Busch – 3,022 points (+9)
The younger Busch brother generally hasn’t been happy with how his cars have run lately. I feel like he won’t have what he wants to advance to the final round. With that being said, Kyle Busch gets more out of his equipment, no matter how good or bad, than basically anyone in the garage. You really can never count him out, especially not at his home track of Las Vegas.
#9 Chase Elliott – 3,021 points (+8)
Two of the three races resulted in cut tires in the first playoff round for Elliott. It’s rare that we see teams as successful as the No. 9 have two unlucky rounds in a row. Elliott may be the best road course driver in the series. He has won at Talladega before as well, so don’t be surprised to see the No. 9 car in victory lane sometime in the next three weeks.
#88 Alex Bowman – 3,015 points (+2)
Alex Bowman’s No. 48 team has once again been unbelievably streaky in 2021. Some days they look like they can win, other days they are consistently the worst of the Hendrick bunch. But a fifth-place run at Bristol, good enough to advance after two weeks in a row tied at the cutline, could send the team on a hot streak like it had last year. If not, Bowman will easily be knocked out in this round without a victory. He runs fairly well at all of the tracks in this round, but “fairly well” doesn’t win titles.
#24 William Byron – 3,014 points (+1)
William Byron’s team did what they needed to do to succeed and advance, but it will take a fight again to keep them moving forward. There’s obviously better chemistry between Byron and his crew chief Rudy Fugle, but I think it would take a win for the No. 24 to advance. I just don’t see it happening in this round. Expect good finishes, but nothing all that close to a victory or a top-level fantasy performance.
#22 Joey Logano – 3,013 points (-1)
Joey Logano is a stellar veteran driver and can run consistently well in his sleep. It’s been one of those years where he’s just kind of there. With only the Bristol Dirt win on the résume from 2021, I just don’t know that the No. 22 has what it takes to breakthrough.
#2 Brad Keselowski – 3,008 points (-6)
Maybe I’m beating a dead horse here, but I still don’t think Brad Keselowski, the lame-duck who’s headed to Roush after the season, will get the equipment and focus from the organization that he needs to advance. The No. 2 did win Talladega earlier in the season, but that’s the only chance I see of him advancing.
#20 Christopher Bell – 3,005 points (-9)
Similar to Keselowski, I see Joe Gibbs Racing heavily focusing on their three veteran drivers to advance rather than Christopher Bell’s No. 20. But having a crew chief in Adam Stevens who’s won titles before is always a good thing and could result in runs well enough to advance.
#4 Kevin Harvick – 3,002 points (-12)
Harvick’s lack of wins and playoff points have him rock bottom once again in this round. Expect to see a motivated and angry Harvick behind the wheel who feels like he has something to prove. That’s dangerous for the other 11 drivers remaining.
Who’s Out After This Round?
Keselowski, Byron, Bowman, Bell