By Jared Turner
Few if any NASCAR events are more of an institution than the annual fall night race at Bristol Motor Speedway, a place where the old idiom “rubbing’s racing” is more of a reality than just a cool catchphrase.
Bristol night races through the years have taken some pretty bizarre twists and turns, with aggression being generally accepted if not expected.
Want to go for broke? Well, Bristol — a .533-mile high-banked oval — is just the place to do it, especially if you’re one of the drivers still needing a win to earn a spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
“I think you get a little bit desperate,” said Joey Logano, one of several high-profile drivers in danger of missing the post-season. “You’ve got to win. There is no second option, so the intensity is very, very high. You have to be on point all the time. Every change has to be a good one. Every lap has to be a good one. Every moment becomes more and more important on the racetrack, and that’s OK. That’s where you find out what you’re made out of, so I’m alright with that.”
With just Bristol, Darlington and Richmond left on the regular season schedule, time is running short for those drivers needing a victory to punch their ticket to the playoffs. Another such driver is Clint Bowyer, who would be the first driver out if the playoffs commenced today.
Bowyer finished second at Bristol in the spring, so optimism is understandably high for him heading into the weekend at the track nicknamed The Last Great Colosseum, among other things.
“There’s no better atmosphere,” Bowyer said. “The fans are so close to you that you feel that environment. Those fans like Bristol. I’m telling you: Driver intros, you’re walking down there and the feeling that comes over you before you get in that car is just something you don’t feel anywhere else. It’s because of the closeness of the fans to you. They’re all breathing down on you and expecting big things out of you, and you can’t wait to go out there and get in that Colosseum and go to battle.”
Like Logano, Bowyer is willing to do pretty much whatever it takes in the next three races to race his way into the playoffs and enter the season’s final 10 races in the hunt for the series championship.
“You always have to take chances,” Bowyer said. “That’s the hard thing. When the pressure cooker is turned up and the situation is where it is right now, you can afford to take chances, you need to be able to take those chances to enable you to get those stage points if you’re out — make a gain to try to get them.
“But there’s also a catch-22 to every decision there, so you just have to lay it all out, focus on the task at hand, whether that’s a stage win or the second stage or the finish at the end — focus on that and let the rest take care of itself.”
While Bowyer, Logano and others — including NASCAR’s 14-time most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. — find themselves in an almost must-win situation at Bristol, others can just enjoy the race for what it is: One of the coolest stops on the Monster Energy Series schedule.
“Bristol is probably my favorite racetrack,” said Kyle Larson, a three-time winner in 2017. “I always look forward to going there. Traffic is intense. A lot of these tracks you go to, you can kind of ride a little bit throughout the middle portion of the race, but Bristol you are on edge the whole time racing hard, and it makes it a lot of fun.”