Hendrick stars dodging playoff elimination at Bristol
(AP) –A surprisingly strong start to the playoffs for Joe Gibbs Racing — two races, two wins and two drivers locked into the second round — has put Hendrick Motorsports in a precarious position headed into the first elimination race.
Alex Bowman and William Byron both start Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway below the cutline, and reigning series champion Chase Elliott isn’t breathing any easier than his Hendrick teammates.
Elliott is only 19 points to the good, which means a poor finish could make for a fast ending to his attempt at repeating as Cup champion. Four drivers will be cut from the 16-driver field after the race, and only Hendrick driver and regular-season champion Kyle Larson, as well as Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. on consecutive playoff-opening JGR wins, have secured spots in the second round.
But the field is at least tight — only 30 points separate Kevin Harvick in sixth from Tyler Reddick in 14th — and Bristol is the kind of track that can totally flip the standings. The .533-mile concrete bullring in northeast Tennessee can be a beast with progressive banking that goes from 24 to 28 degrees on a racing surface just 40 feet wide.
It’s tight quarters, traffic can often be an impediment, and lack of patience or loss of tempers can easily alter the outcome.
Byron called Bristol a playoff track with “the most opportunity for mistakes and the biggest opportunity for success.”
“There’s not much difference between the good cars and the bad ones,” Byron continued. “It’s a very tough place to get around. It’s just the most unpredictable race of the (first) round.”
Bowman is 13th in the standings, the first driver below the cutline, but technically tied with Kurt Busch for 12th. Bowman has won a career-high three races this season, which at the start of the playoffs tied him with Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney with second most to Larson’s Cup-leading five victories.
But he’s not been good enough through the first two playoff races. He was sixth at Bristol in the spring, but that race was run on dirt and delayed a day by dangerous rain and tflooding.
Still, Bowman said he’s confident at Bristol and has faith in the No. 48 team.
“I don’t think there’s a sense of urgency (but) I don’t think we expected to be in this situation,” Bowman said. “We know we need to go execute and go have a good day. We know it’s not going to be easy by any means.
“But we also know that if something goes wrong and we don’t make it to the next round, there are still more opportunities for us to win races this year.”