gettyimages-1341198151.jpg
Getty Images

There are many races throughout NASCAR, from the Cup Series all the way down to the regional and local levels, that are held at nighttime. But only one gets the distinction of being referred to simply as "The Night Race".

In 1978, Bristol Motor Speedway installed lights for an annual night race in the latter half of the year, and the race quickly became one of the most notorious in all of stock car racing. For whatever reason, whether it be the bright bulbs lining the speedway or the phase of the moon in the night sky, the Bristol Night Race brought out the rowdiest racing that NASCAR had to offer.

Dale Earnhardt rattlin' Terry Labonte's cage once across the finish line in 1995, and then again in 1999. Jeff Gordon knocking Rusty Wallace out of the way. Miffed and quotable drivers galore from Ward Burton ("I wish I had sumthin' I coulda shot through the winduh!") to Kevin Harvick ("I'm ready to rip somebody's frickin' head off!")

Now, the Night Race at Bristol has become the elimination race for the Round of 16, a distinction it's held since it moved from late August to mid-September in 2020. The high stakes and high pressure have only served to elevate the tension and physicality that this race provides, as was seen last year, when Kyle Larson capitalized on an on-track dispute between Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott to take the win before Harvick confronted his young foe in Elliott.

How to watch the NASCAR playoffs at Bristol

  • Date: Saturday, Sept. 17
  • Location: Bristol Motor Speedway -- Bristol, TN
  • Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
  • TV: USA Network
  • Stream: fuboTV (try for free)

What to watch

The Playoff Picture

Because the opening two races of the playoffs have been won by non-playoff drivers -- Erik Jones at Darlington and Bubba Wallace at Kansas -- Very few playoff drivers are truly safe entering this weekend's elimination race. The only driver currently assured a spot in the Round of 12 is Christopher Bell, who is currently 58 points above the cut line.

Theoretically, most drivers over 25 points above the cutoff line should be safe. But only 13 points in all separate 10th-place Daniel Suarez from 15th-place Chase Briscoe. Tyler Reddick and Austin Cindric, currently tied for the final spot in the Round of 12, have only a two-point advantage over Kyle Busch and just three points over Austin Dillon.

The only driver in an absolute must-win scenario is Kevin Harvick, who is 35 points below the cut line after a fire at Darlington and a crash at Kansas, but this is a position Harvick has been in before. In 2015, Harvick responded to a similar scenario by winning a playoff elimination race at Dover, keeping him in the playoff hunt on his way to an eventual second-place finish in the championship standings.

  1. #20 - Christopher Bell (+58, clinched spot in Round of 12)
  2. #24 - William Byron (+48)
  3. #11 - Denny Hamlin (+47)
  4. #22 - Joey Logano (+40)
  5. #12 - Ryan Blaney (+36)
  6. #48 - Alex Bowman (+30)
  7. #9 - Chase Elliott (+28)
  8. #5 - Kyle Larson (+27)
  9. #1 - Ross Chastain (+26)
  10. #99 - Daniel Suarez (+6)
  11. #8 - Tyler Reddick (+2)
  12. #2 - Austin Cindric (R) (+2)
  13. #18 - Kyle Busch (-2)
  14. #3 - Austin Dillon (-3)
  15. #14 - Chase Briscoe (-9)
  16. #4 - Kevin Harvick (-35)

The quest for 19

In addition to the implications that it had for both the driver's and owner's playoff standings, Bubba Wallace's Kansas win also made him the 18th different driver to win in 28 races so far this season. That's the most different winners ever through 28 races to start a season in NASCAR history, and it also creates a scenario where the 2022 season could tie or break the NASCAR record for most different winners in a season.

The modern era record for most different winners in a season was set in 2001, when 19 different drivers visited Victory Lane between Michael Waltrip's season-opening win in the Daytona 500 and Robby Gordon's season-ending win at New Hampshire. The 2022 season will tie that record if just one more driver goes to the Winner's Circle, and there remain several worthy candidates with still eight races left to run.

Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. seem due for a win, as has been the case all season, but neither has won at Bristol in their careers. Brad Keselowski has won Bristol three times, most recently in June of 2020, but hasn't had a top five finish all season. His teammate Chris Buescher, though, contended for the win in the last short track race at Richmond and was fifth at this track in 2016.

If you want a true sleeper to become the 19th different winner this season, though, consider Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: His record at Bristol is outstanding, as he has three runner-up finishes (Twice on concrete, once on dirt) to go with five top five and seven top 10 finishes. Not only that, but Stenhouse finished second at another concrete track at Dover in the spring.

Scores to settle

Don't forget what the history of the Bristol Night Race has been: This is as close to a cage match as you'll get in NASCAR, and Bristol is the ideal place for feuds among drivers to come to the forefront and for payback to be dished out.

With that in mind, it's important to keep track of exactly who's mad at who and who should be worried about a certain driver getting to their bumper.

  • Ross Chastain has the absolute biggest target on his back based on his body of work all season long. Denny Hamlin definitely got even with him at Pocono, but can the same be said about Kyle Busch or Austin Dillon? What about Martin Truex Jr.? A.J. Allmendinger?
  • After getting run into the wall by Christopher Bell at Darlington, Daniel Suarez made it very clear in post-race that he was going to get his payback, and Bell himself acknowledged last week that he'd have to "watch his back" around Suarez.
  • William Byron still hasn't gotten even with Joey Logano after Logano put the bump-and-run on him at Darlington in May. Reading between the lines during playoff media day, it doesn't seem like Byron has forgotten or let bygones be bygones.

When it comes to drivers who have put them in the wall or cost them a chance to win, race car drivers have notoriously long memories. It's going to be interesting to see just who decides to use the chrome horn on someone they've been meaning to use it against.

Pick to win

(Odds via Caesars Sportsbook)

Kyle Busch (+700): There's a line of conventional thought in auto racing that "lame duck" drivers don't win championships. That's about to be tested by Kyle Busch, who announced this week that he will leave Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the 2022 season to join Richard Childress Racing for 2023 and beyond.

Whatever implications his imminent departure has for his championship chances, this weekend marks an ideal track for Busch to respond to what the past week has now created. Busch is one of the greatest drivers to ever race at Bristol, with nine Cup wins including the track's dirt race this past spring. Another win in the Bristol Night Race would add to Busch's legacy in the No. 18, and give his season the sort of life it lacked throughout his contract dispute and the ensuing rumor circus.