The 2020 Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, September 19, was the site of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff’s Round of 16 finale. Following an eventful 500-mile battle under the lights at Thunder Valley, with a number of competitors vying for transfer spots to the Round of 12 in the Playoffs, four competitors had their title hopes for this season eliminated. While some were left disappointed, others were left with relief feelings of transferring to the second round. Among those left satisfied included Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer, all of whom were three of 12 competitors who will continue to battle for the title entering the second round of the Playoffs.
For Almirola, he came into Saturday night’s race at Bristol with a four-point cushion above the top-12 cutline after finishing ninth and eighth during the first two races of this year’s Playoffs at Darlington Raceway and at Richmond Raceway, respectively.
Starting in 10th place in his No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang, Almirola dealt with early loose-handling conditions. Under caution past the Lap 30 mark, he pitted for fresh tires and adjustments and was able to drive up to as high as sixth place on the ensuing restart. During a long green flag run, Almirola fell back to the top 15 and went on to conclude the first stage on Lap 125 in 18th place.
Restarting in 17th place for the second stage, Almirola was able to fight his way back inside the top 10, where he spent throughout the stage. Racing in ninth place by Lap 236 and gaining a spot on pit road, he went on to conclude the second stage in seventh place as he earned a handful of stage points.
Restarting in seventh place for the final stage, he made his way into the top five with less than 100 laps remaining. With approximately 92 laps remaining, the caution flew for a multi-car wreck and Almirola was one of six competitors left on the lead lap. Hitting pit road for the final time under caution, Almirola restarted in sixth place and was able to drive his way up to fifth place with 50 laps remaining. For the remainder of the race, Almirola retained fifth place on the track as his top-five result was more than enough for him to transfer into the second round of the Playoffs.
Almirola’s career-high sixth top-five result at Thunder Valley not only extended his momentum and surge in competing for the title, but it also extended the Floridian’s consistent stretch since June as he claimed his 14th top-10 result since June at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“Yes, we’re moving on to round two in the Playoffs and keeping our championship hopes alive,” Almirola said in a post-race statement on Twitter. “We had a top five tonight at Bristol, which was a great run for us. We missed it a bit to start. [Crew chief Mike] Buga [Bugarewicz] and the guys just kept fighting and kept adjusting. I was scrapping in the car to get everything I could get. We drove back into the top 10 after falling behind and then, was able to make some more adjustments and drive up into the top five and finish fifth. Really proud of everybody on this race team. Excited to be going on to round two in the Playoffs. Thank you to Smithfield, Ford,…everybody that makes this deal go round. It felt so good to have 30,000 fans back in the stands tonight. That was really nice tonight. Looking forward to Vegas, kicking off round two in the Playoffs and seeing if we can’t go get some more.”
Since this year’s Playoffs began at Darlington Raceway, Kurt Busch came into the postseason with a game plan and a competitive approach to contend for this year’s championship since he won his first and only title in 2004. After finishing eighth and 13th during the first two Playoff races, Busch and his No. 1 Monster Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team were also four points above the top-12 cutline.
Lining up in 13th place, the Las Vegas, Nevada, native dropped back inside the top 20 during the early portions of the race. He was scored in 17th place by Lap 30 and under caution. Restarting in 16th place on the ensuing restart and after pitting while addressing loose-handling conditions to his race car, Busch methodically made his way towards the front and was able to crack the top 10 as the long run under green progressed. By the time the first time concluded on Lap 125, Busch was scored in sixth place as he collected valuable stage points.
Restarting inside the top 10 for the second stage, Busch was able to carve his way into the top five despite battling loose-handling conditions to his car. He kept himself well inside the top five throughout the stage and he brought the No. 1 car home in fifth place when the second stage concluded, thus collecting more stage points.
Lined up in fifth place for the final stage, Busch quickly fell back to 10th place while reporting a vibration to his No. 1 car. He surrendered his track position to make an unscheduled pit stop with approximately 175 laps remaining. Nearly twenty-five laps later and by the time he returned to the track, he was scored in 26th place, three laps behind the leaders and on the bubble zone in vying for a transfer spot to the Playoffs. For the remainder of the race, Busch gained one of his laps back, but he was unable to make up the lost time and positions from the vibration issues. When the checkered flag flew, Busch finished in 15th place, two laps behind the leaders. His result, nonetheless, was enough for him to transfer into the second round of the Playoffs.
Though Kurt Busch has yet to score his first victory of this season, his 15th-place result marked his third consecutive top-15 result to start the Playoffs as he sets his focus on the second round of the Playoffs, beginning next weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, his home track.
“It was a good day, we had a loose wheel and we battled after that, but our stage points are what really helped the Monster Energy Chevy tonight.” Busch said. “That gave us the cushion we needed to absorb the problem that we had. All-in-all we advanced and that’s what we expected to do and that is what we have to continue to do. We will do it through teamwork and execution. The next round we have a mile-and-a-half [Talladega] Superspeedway and then the [Charlotte] Roval. We’ve just got to be on our toes, keep adjusting and adapt to all the things that are coming our way in the next round.”
For Bowyer, his results during the first two races of this year’s Playoffs have been like his 26-race regular-season stretch, where they have been consistent. Having finished 10th at Darlington and Richmond, the Emporia, Kansas, native started the night at Bristol holding sole possession of the 12th and final transfer spot to the Round of 12 by a mere three points over William Byron.
Starting in 11th place in his No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Cummins Ford Mustang, Bowyer was scored in 10th place through the first 30 laps of the race while under caution. Throughout the stage and under a long green flag run, the handling of Bowyer’s car went away as he was fighting loose conditions. Losing spots on the track, he went on to conclude the stage in 19th place.
Restarting in 16th place for the second stage, Bowyer kept himself inside the top 20 throughout the stage. By then, however, he was scored outside of the top-12 cutline and was in jeopardy of not advancing to the second round of the Playoffs. Then, in the closing laps of the stage, good fortune came for Bowyer and his No. 14 team when William Byron, whom Bowyer was battling for a transfer spot in the Playoff standings, wrecked. Pitting under caution and finishing in eighth place in the second stage while also collecting a handful of stage points, Bowyer moved back inside the top-12 cutline.
Scored in eighth place for the final stage, Bowyer began to make his way into the top five. With approximately 80 laps remaining, he was one of six competitors scored on the lead lap following an on-track incident. Restarting in second place on the ensuing restart, Bowyer dropped back to sixth place as he battled with teammate Aric Almirola for position. Knowing he needed to race cautiously for the remainder of the event, Bowyer brought the No. 14 car home in sixth place and was able to race his way into the second round of the Playoffs.
Bowyer’s accomplishment allowed three of Stewart-Haas Racing’s four-car lineup to transfer into the Round of 12 in the Playoffs. For Bowyer, notching three consecutive top-10 results to start the Playoffs gave him an extra sense of boost to conclude this season on a high note with his racing plans for next still currently undetermined.
“I was struggling, way too loose pretty much all night,” Bowyer said in a post-race conference on Zoom. “I saw [Byron’s wreck]. That’s a shame for William. He had a good run going. It’s short track racing. You don’t have time to think about points and all that stuff. There’s nothing you can do. You attack the race track one hundred percent every lap, especially at a bull ring like this. I love these short tracks. Obviously, [I] was hoping to be a little bit better, but at the end of the day, we did what we came here to do. That was to advance. You come here to win the race, but proud of [teammate] Kevin Harvick and everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing for winning the race here, taking care of business with the Nos. 10 and 14. We’ll move on and live to see another round here in the Playoffs.”
With their accomplishments, Almirola, Kurt Busch and Bowyer join Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch as the 12 competitors who will continue to compete for this year’s Cup title in the Round of 12 in the Playoffs.
Almirola, Kurt Busch and Bowyer, along with their fellow competitors, will return for the next scheduled NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, September 27, at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.