Kevin Harvick or Chase Elliott? Which side are you on after Saturday night's fireworks at Bristol Motor Speedway?
Either way, NASCAR came out the big winner.
Both drivers came up short of victory lane after fender-rubbing for the lead turned into a flat tire for Elliott. Forced to make an unscheduled stop, Elliott fell two laps behind but caught, then passed the leaders back on fresh tires. Frustrated over the way he was raced, Elliott then held up the No. 4 in the closing laps despite a faster car until his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Kyle Larson, found a way to sneak past Harvick and take the win.
"I just ran my line," Elliott claimed, to the laughter of everyone watching. It was clear to even the winner his actions made the difference in the race.
"Chase was upset," Larson said, "And kind of held [Harvick] up. He got [him] having to move around and use his tires on the bottom… [I] just got a big run, decided to pull the trigger and slide him… It was wild."
That left Harvick raging mad, winless for a whole year since 2020's Bristol night race. Lightning struck at Thunder Valley as he and Elliott slammed together on pit road before getting in each other's faces to vent their frustration.
"Acting like you're two years old because you got passed for the lead and you got a flat tire," Harvick said of Elliott afterward. "We barely even rubbed. Just it's all Chase's way or it's no way. And if he doesn't get his way, then he throws a fit.
"It's something all the time," Elliott responded, taking issue with this contact that cut a tire. "He runs into your left side constantly at other tracks. Did it to me in Darlington a few weeks ago, 'cause he was tired of racing with me.
"At some point, you got to draw the line. I don't care who he is or how long he's been doing it, I'm going to stand up for myself and my team."
The two then continued their convo in public, videoed here with limited audio in which Harvick keeps telling Elliott "he's not racing smart."
Is Harvick right?
The case for Elliott: He got the short end of the stick with this contact. Bump-and-runs happen at Bristol all the time, so why can't he hold Harvick up as payback? Elliott's also gotten pushed around at other tracks (see: Martinsville Speedway, 2017). A driver known for his laid-back personality risks being known as a pushover inside the garage without getting even. In racing, nice guys can finish last.
The case for Harvick: The Darlington contact Elliott speaks of? If Harvick did slam into him, it wasn't the reason Elliott's No. 9 car crashed out. As for Bristol, the contact between them was eerily similar to this 2020 wreck for the lead last year. In that one, Elliott took out Joey Logano at the finish, allowing Brad Keselowski to pass them both for the win. Elliott was fine with fender rubbing then; hard to change your tune just because the other guy kept going.
But one reason I side with Harvick is how this finish felt like teammate collusion. Elliott knew Larson, an HMS teammate, was in second and it benefitted the company for the No. 9 to go out there and hold Harvick up. It's the type of multi-car warfare that will only get messier as the playoffs move on: 11 of 12 drivers remaining are from just three teams.
The second teammates weaponize their cars, it sends NASCAR down a messy road refereeing what's supposed to be an individual sport. And yeah, Harvick could have worded it better, but holding up the leader that long felt like a bit of a temper tantrum.
Through it all, there's one driver smiling all the way to the bank: Larson. Just don't expect this year's championship favorite to get involved in the scuffle.
"I'm 5'6", 135 pounds," Larson joked. "I'm not going to get too wound up about anything."
Green: William Byron. Lost in the madness was an amazing comeback by Byron to advance into NASCAR's round of 12. The key moment was in stage two, when crew chief Rudy Fugle left his driver out on old tires. Maintaining track position was the goal but Byron climbed three positions to fourth, a gutsy effort that earned three stage points needed to get him above the cutline.
Yellow: Team Penske. The good: all three of their drivers advanced into the round of 12. The next three tracks (Las Vegas, Talladega, Charlotte Roval) also heavily favor their program. But only Blaney starts this round above the cutline and the trio was hardly inspiring the past three weeks: no one ran better than fourth in any race.
Red: The Underdogs. So much for a Cinderella champion. Aric Almirola was a nice story, winning New Hampshire in July despite finishing the year outside the top 20 in points, but couldn't keep up his momentum and got eliminated at Bristol. The other three out after the round of 16 came from NASCAR's smaller teams: Michael McDowell (Front Row Motorsports), Tyler Reddick (Richard Childress Racing) and Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing).
Speeding Ticket: Bristol Dirt. It's not as if this track's debut on soil was a total disaster this spring. But why is NASCAR taking a race away from one of its best paved ovals to do it? If you want to keep the dirt experiment here, that's fine. Just put three Bristol dates on the schedule in 2023 to ensure we still get this type of nail-biter twice a year.
The Elliott-Harvick scuffle wasn't the only crazy Bristol ending. Check out this finish from the NASCAR Xfinity Series race Friday night where winner AJ Allmendinger and second-place Austin Cindric crashed across the line. They were racing for the regular season title, too.
And how about the Camping World Truck Series? Chandler Smith wins his first race after another incident of teammate bullying: he and Kyle Busch Motorsports' John Hunter Nemechek muscled Sheldon Creed out of the lead.
I'll say it again… can there be Bristol three times a year?