A surprisingly strong start to the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs for Joe Gibbs Racing — two races, two wins and two drivers locked into the second round — has put Hendrick Motorsports in a precarious position headed into the first elimination race.
Alex Bowman and William Byron both start Saturday night's race at Bristol Motor Speedway below the cutline to advance, and reigning series champion Chase Elliott isn't breathing any easier than those two Hendrick teammates. Elliott is only 19 points to the good, which means a poor finish could make for a fast ending to his attempt to become the first Cup Series champion to repeat since Jimmie Johnson, who retired after last season, won five straight titles from 2005 to 2010 in the Hendrick No. 48 Chevrolet.
Four drivers will be cut from the playoffs' 16-man field after the race, and only three drivers have secured spots in the second round: Hendrick's Kyle Larson via points after starting the postseason as the No. 1 seed, and JGR's Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., the winners the past two weekends at South Carolina's Darlington Raceway and Virginia's Richmond Raceway.
But the field is at least tight — only 30 points separate Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick in sixth from Richard Childress Racing's Tyler Reddick in 14th — and Bristol is the kind of track that can totally shake up the standings. The .533-mile concrete bullring in northeast Tennessee can be a beast, with progressive banking that goes from 24 to 28 degrees on a racing surface just 40 feet wide.
It's tight quarters, traffic can often be an impediment, and a lack of patience or loss of tempers can easily alter the outcome. Byron called Bristol a playoff track with "the most opportunity for mistakes and the biggest opportunity for success."
"There's not much difference between the good cars and the bad ones," Byron explained. "It's a very tough place to get around. It's just the most unpredictable race of the (first) round."
Bowman is 13th in the standings, the first driver below the cutline but technically tied with Chip Ganassi Racing's Kurt Busch for 12th. Bowman has won a career-high three races this season, which at the start of the playoffs tied him with Truex and Team Penske's Ryan Blaney for second to Larson's five points victories in 2021.
However, Bowman has not been good enough through the first two playoff races. He was sixth at Bristol in the spring, but that race was run on a temporary dirt surface and delayed a day by dangerous rain and flooding. Still, Bowman said he's confident at Bristol and has faith in the No. 48 team.
"I don't think there's a sense of urgency, (but) I don't think we expected to be in this situation," Bowman said. "We know we need to go execute and go have a good day. We know it's not going to be easy by any means.
"But we also know that if something goes wrong and we don't make it to the next round, there are still more opportunities for us to win races this year."
The challenge is even bigger for Michael McDowell. It would take an upset not unlike his stunning victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 for the 36-year-old Front Row Motorsports driver to advance out of the first round.
McDowell's shock victory to win NASCAR's season-opening version of the Super Bowl earned him his first career playoff berth, but his team is an underdog and it has looked that way so far.
A crash to open the playoffs at Darlington and three speeding penalties and a 24th-place finish at Richmond have McDowell last in the standings and in need of another improbable victory to advance. He likes Bristol, but in 21 career starts his average finish is 30th; he was 10th on the dirt this spring and 14th on the concrete last September.
"Overall, this season has been great. It's been a career year for me and a career year for Front Row," McDowell said. "We have more speed and more potential in our race cars and more top 10s and more top fives than we've ever had, so on the overall scale it's been a great year."
"What's so disappointing about it for me and for all of our guys is that it's been mistakes," McDowell said. "I'm very disappointed in myself and I'm very disappointed on how these first two rounds of the playoffs have gone."
After back-to-back wins by Hamlin and Truex for JGR, one of their teammates, two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch is the 21-5 favorite to win at Bristol, per FanDuel's odds. Busch has eight Bristol victories in his Cup Series career.
Bubba Wallace will have a new crew chief starting at Bristol as 23XI Racing has made the early move to push Mike Wheeler into competition director for the one-car organization that will add a second in 2022 with Kurt Busch behind the wheel.
Wheeler was always going to be the competition director for the first-year team owned by JGR driver Hamlin and basketball legend Michael Jordan, but Wheeler also spent this season atop the box for Wallace's No. 23 Toyota. Now he'll get an early start on that role as Bootie Barker takes over as Wallace's crew chief.