By this point in NASCAR's 75-year history, technology has advanced to the point that it's straightforward enough to construct a lighting system at a racetrack and hold a night race. But that doesn't mean that they have the Night Race -- that distinction has, and likely will always be, reserved for just one place.
NASCAR's most iconic night race has come to be at Bristol Motor Speedway, something that this half-mile track has earned through years of electric moments when the sun goes down and the lights come on. Where Dale Earnhardt once rattled Terry Labonte's cage (twice), Jeff Gordon put the bump 'n run on Rusty Wallace, Kevin Harvick wanted to rip someone's head off and Dale Earnhardt Jr. declared, "It's Bristol, Baby," the NASCAR Cup Series will settle the playoffs Round of 16 in the Bass Pro Shops Night Race.
Adding to the intensity of Bristol is that since 2020, this has served as the first elimination race of the playoffs -- meaning that at the end of the night, the lights will go out on four drivers' hopes of winning the 2023 championship.
How to watch the NASCAR playoffs at Bristol
Date: Sat., Sept. 16
Location: Bristol Motor Speedway -- Bristol, Tenn.
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: USA Network
Stream: fubo (try for free)
What to watch
The 2022 edition of the Bristol Night Race lived up to the race's standards of chaos and carnage, but it did so in a way that was somewhat unexpected and quite problematic for NASCAR. Last year's race was marred by a rash of both tire failures and mechanical failures, as the Next Gen car struggled to withstand the demands of Bristol's high speeds and high bankings in its first go-round on the track's standard concrete configuration.
Curiously, each issue that arose seemed to be specific to a manufacturer. The primary victims of the tire failures were the Fords, with Ryan Blaney, Austin Cindric and Brad Keselowski among those affected. The Toyotas, meanwhile, were plagued by durability issues and mechanical failures: Martin Truex Jr., Bubba Wallace and Ty Gibbs all suffered power steering failures, while a blown engine ended the playoff run of then-Toyota driver Kyle Busch.
For their part, Goodyear has brought a new right side tire to this race following a test in June, featuring a compound designed for greater wear and fall-off over the course of a green flag run. And while no car part is truly foolproof, a proper notebook for the Next Gen car at Bristol combined with nearly two full years' worth of sample size for the car overall should mean greater durability and less possibility of a driver being eliminated from the playoffs because a part on their car betrayed them.
News of the week
- NASCAR following a month-long suspension he served for liking a racially insensitive meme on his Instagram account, rendering him eligible to return to all NASCAR activity. Gragson will compete this weekend in the ASA STARS National Tour Glass City 200 at Toledo Speedway driving for Rette Jones Racing.
- Trackhouse Racing has officially signed Chicago winner Shane van Gisbergen to a 2024 developmental program, signaling the three-time V8 Supercars champion's move to the United States and stock car racing. Van Gisbergen will compete in a limited schedule throughout the NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series as well as late model and "other" races.
- NASCAR has announced some procedural changes for the upcoming playoff race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, namely that competition cautions will once again be thrown at the end of stages after not being thrown on all other road courses this season. NASCAR has also moved the track's restart zone to the final chicane before the start/finish line.
- Last week at Kansas Speedway, the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing pit crew executed an 8.45-second pit stop for driver Chase Briscoe. The 8.45-second stop set a new record for the fastest pit stop in the history of NASCAR.
- Richard Childress Racing has reportedly swapped most of the pit crew members between Austin Dillon's No. 3 team and Kyle Busch's No. 8 team starting this weekend. The teams will swap tire carriers, tire changers and jackmen while the fuelers will remain the same.
Driver to watch
Many racing purists are quick to balk at comparisons between NASCAR and stick-and-ball sports, especially when it comes to the very idea of having a playoff system that determine a champion -- and, in some's minds, invalidates an entire season's worth of good results over isolated bad performances. But like a No. 1 seed that gets completely smoked and shut out when it counts, regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. is in danger of an unprecedented playoff meltdown.
After a crash on lap four at Kansas compounded a pedestrian performance at Darlington, Truex enters Saturday night's elimination race seven points below the cut line despite being one of the best drivers of the 2023 season and entering the playoffs tied for the No. 1 seed armed with stacks of playoff points. Should Truex not get his head back above water, he would become the very first regular-season champion to be eliminated in the Round of 16 since the current playoff format was introduced in 2014.
Granted, Truex can avoid that indiginity by staying out of trouble and getting a somewhat solid finish. But it's not that simple, especially given that Bristol is one of Truex's weaker tracks.
Despite his very first NASCAR win coming in a Busch Series race at Bristol back in 2004, Truex has just four top 10s at Bristol in his Cup career (not counting the Dirt configuration), and he hasn't had a top five at Bristol since he finished third back in 2012. For context on how long that's been: His last Bristol top five came two generations of car ago (The Car of Tomorrow that ran from 2007 to 2012 in various forms), driving for Michael Waltrip Racing (a team that no longer exists) and at a point in his career where he only had a single Cup victory to his name.
Truex's reputation as a driver and past precedent suggest he should be able to make it out of his points hole and get a clean slate for himself in the Round of 12. But that won't be an easy task, nor should anyone expect it to be.
Pick to win
Brad Keselowski (+800) -- Last year's Bristol Night Race was Brad Keselowski's to lose, and he didn't lose it so much as it got lost for him. Keselowski led 109 laps and seemingly had the race in control when a cut tire with 87 laps to go took him out of it and forced him to settle for going to Victory Lane as Chris Buescher's car owner.
It wound up being a proud night for RFK Racing as a company, but Keselowski has surely had Bristol circled on his calendar as he continues to try to end a winless streak of more than two years. Bristol has been kind to Keselowski, who has three career wins at this racetrack, and should smile on him again this weekend.