Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, TN: Saturday, Aug. 19th 7:45 pm
Erik Jones(77) started on the pole for the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The rookie from Byron, MI led the first three laps of the race. Chase Elliott(24) took the lead briefly as the young gun contingent dominated the front of the field.
Jones returned to the top spot on lap six and held it for the next 45 laps. Until Kyle Larson(42), last weeks winner at Michigan, passed Jones for the lead looking to go back-to-back. Larson led 70 of the 125 laps in Stage 1, but could not keep the top spot to the green and white checkered flag at the conclusion of the stage.
Kyle Busch(18) started 18th, but by the end of the first stage had worked his way to the front. Busch won the NASCAR Camping World UNOH 200 at Bristol Wednesday. He followed that up with a win in the NASCAR Xfinity Food City 300 on Friday. So Busch was looking for the weekend sweep at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Jones finished second in Stage 1, Larson third, Elliott fourth, and Matt Kenseth(20) placed fifth.
More of the same in Stage 2 as Busch and Jones swapped the lead six times. Jeffery Earnhardt(33) and Austin Dillon(3) tangled on lap 233 sending both to the garage and out of the race. The caution for the crash saved Dale Earnhardt Jr.(88) from going a lap down. It also gave driver’s an opportunity to pit if they wanted.
The scramble off pit road jumbled the standings. Kenseth scored the stage win with Jimmie Johnson(48) chasing him across the line. Kevin Harvick(4) finished third, Ryan Newman(31) fourth, and Jones fifth. Kyle Busch finished eighth.
The 250 lap run to the finish began with Jones back out front and he dominated the early portion of the final segment. A caution on lap 355, as Ty Dillon(13) hit the wall, brought everyone to pit road. The pit stops allowed teams to fuel their cars with enough Sunoco racing gasoline to finish the race. Tossing all fuel strategy out the window.
Jones exited the pits still in front. However, Kyle Busch took the lead away again just a few laps after the green flag restarted the race. Busch slowly pulled away and the triple header looked within his reach.
Another caution on lap 397, once more scrambled the running order. The restart with 100 laps to go had Jones in the lead, Kenseth in second, Kyle Busch third, and Harvick fourth. Jones sped away as Busch got boxed in behind Kenseth.
But, “It’s Bristol Baby” and the 34 car of Landon Cassill hit the wall in turn one. The race restarted with 80 laps to go. While Jones again jumped to the lead, this time Kyle Busch had a better restart and pulled up on the back of Jones car.
Rookie vs Veteran
Jones was not intimidated and pulled away from the M&M machine. Kenseth caught and passed Busch. Then Kenseth and Busch moved to the top groove and began to catch the 77 car. With 50 to go, Jones, Kenseth, and Busch were in a three-way scrap for the lead. Busch came out on top. Jones and Kenseth continued to fight until with 35 laps to go Jones put some separation between the two and took off after Busch.
With 20 laps to go, Busch got caught in lapped traffic and Jones closed the gap. With 10 to go, it looked like Jones might have a chance to catch the 18. Not to be for the rookie though as Busch pulled away to complete the sweep. Jones finished second, Denny Hamlin(11) third, Kenseth fourth, and the Ford of Kurt Busch(41) fifth.
Get Out the Broom
As the confetti dropped from the top of the front-stretch grandstands and the fireworks boomed over the speedway, Busch pulled into victory lane. Someone handed him a broom and he climbed atop the car to symbolically sweep away the competition. The guys fighting to get into the playoffs on points sighed a big relief. A Jones win would have shortened that list. Two races remain to sort out the 16 contenders for the title.
With his fourth-place finish, Kenseth moved off the bubble and into 15th place, 61 points above the cut line. Jamie McMurray(1) dropped to the final playoff spot, the bubble position, 58 points ahead of Clint Bowyer(14). Chase Elliott(24) still leads the non-winning potential playoff contenders 69 points above the cut line.
With just 11 points separating Elliott, Kenseth, and McMurray, a non-winner stealing a victory in the next two races will leave those three battling for two spots. While not mathematically eliminated, Bowyer is unlikely to make the post-season without a win.
Logano, Jones, Daniel Suarez(19), Trevor Bayne(6), and Dale Jr. all will need a win to advance. For Logano and Jones especially that will be a bitter pill to swallow.
Next week is the summer break for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Racing action resumes Sunday, September 3rd with the Bojangles’ Southern 500 from Darlington. The following Saturday the regular season ends at Richmond Raceway in the Federated Auto Parts 400.