If race fans weren’t satisfied with the level of excitement in the first round of the NASCAR Cup Playoffs, it might be time to find a new sport.
From the bumper tag battle between Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin at Darlington Raceway to the fireworks that erupted on the track and off between Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott at Bristol Motor Speedway, there was no shortage of action in the Round of 16. Once the dust settled, four drivers were eliminated and new rivalries blossomed for the continuation of the 2021 postseason.
Before heading west to Las Vegas, let’s revel in the return of the bullring spectators have come to love over the last six decades. The Last Great Coliseum lived up to its name in grand fashion over the weekend.
With NASCAR’s three top tours all staging races that had decisive Playoff implications, drivers were on the chip entering each race. The chrome horn was a chief component in the Camping World Truck Series—down through the closing laps when Chandler Smith eased Sheldon Creed from the lead with five laps remaining to take the win—and advance to the Round of 8. Grant Enfinger’s late-lap nudge of John Hunter Nemechek allowed the No. 98 Tundra to seize second from the points leader.
AJ Allmendinger played the spoiler in what was shaping up to be a battle between Justin Allgaier and Austin Cindric. Allgaier, who led a race-high 92 laps, was pushed out of the groove as Cindric and Allmendinger traded paint in overtime, eventually sliding sideways across the finish-line with Dinger winning the race and the regular-season title.
The Cup drivers saved the best for last. Even though Harvick was solid in the final stage, there was really no clear-cut winner until Larson, with a huge assist from Elliott, navigated his battered Camaro past Harvick to his sixth win of the season.
“The racing here at Bristol is always intense, very good,” Larson said. “Honestly, for whatever reason, I felt like we didn't run into, like, thick lapped traffic as much as I remembered being here. But I haven't been here on this track since 2019.
“I felt like we didn't really get into heavy stuff. That's what I always look forward to, feel like I'm good at. We kind of did there on that second-to-last long run we had. Then there, yeah, when Chase and Kevin got together, I got into a lapper, there was a bunch of cars all together at that one spot on the race track.
“It was wild. It always is here.”
While Yung Money was celebrated for doing Larson-like things, it was the shouting and shoving match between the two champions—Elliott and Harvick—that stole the show. Elliott proved again he has no issue standing up for himself against the veterans of the sport. He wasn’t going to be pushed around by Denny Hamlin at Martinsville Speedway—and Harvick is no different. Sure, Harvick can make life hell for the defending champion. Elliott can expect that retribution for Harvick’s losing streak extending to 36. Racers don’t forget. But the drama in the aftermath of the Bristol Night Race—the loudest post-race response at Thunder Valley since Dale Earnhardt rattled Terry Labonte’s cage in 1999—had fans looking to renew tickets for next season and begging for the return of a concrete contest in the spring.
While Saturday night’s rout was likely the most scintillating show at the bullring since progressive banking was added to the track in 2007, there’s no reason not to give the Bristol dirt track another go. The racing has suffered something of an image issue since the reconfiguration 14 seasons ago. Kyle Busch didn’t help the cause by denouncing the Car of Tomorrow following his win that year.
By 2012, the crowds had dropped from 160,000 to 100,000. Bristol searched for ways to correct the configuration of the surface—which had lost the once-heralded 36-degree banking and naturally led to the banging and bumping synonymous with short-track racing.
As the teams dialed in the car of tomorrow, the racing improved at Bristol. Yet despite 17 cautions in the 2020 spring race, fans didn’t support the event with their wallets or through TV viewership. So Speedway Motorsports thought outside the box. For more than a month, dirt fans made the pilgrimage to Western Tennessee for a variety of motorsports disciplines never experienced in such short time at one venue.
In 2022, Cup will return on dirt under the lights on Easter Sunday. TV wanted Sunday night programming and will get their wish. Fans had the opportunity to support a pavement race at Bristol and did not. While NASCAR won’t be quick to pull the trigger on a short track, over the last three years, the sanctioning body hasn’t hesitated to pull races from Chicagoland, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Pocono and Dover.
Even Richmond Raceway learned how quickly a track can lose premium placement in the Playoffs when the product doesn’t live up to a broadcast partner’s expectations.
But for now, let’s embrace Bristol for all that is right in racing. And here’s hoping for another seven fabulous races en route to crowning the 2021 champion.