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NASCAR Bristol Weekend Preview

By Reid Spencer

NASCAR Wire Service

Closely bunched NASCAR Cup Playoff field fights for survival at Bristol

This is it.

This is the last chance for NASCAR Cup Series drivers to stake a claim on one of the 11 available spots in the Playoffs’ Round of 12.

With non-Playoff drivers Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace having won the postseason opener at Darlington and the second Round of 16 race at Kansas, respectively, only one driver has clinched a berth in the Round of 12 entering Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The one driver who won’t have to worry about falling below the cut line is Christopher Bell, who finished fifth at Darlington and clinched a Round of 12 spot with a third-place run at Kansas.

The other 15 drivers—no matter how large a margin above the cut line they might enjoy—will come to the .533-mile with varying degrees of anxiety.

That’s no idle assertion. Thanks to early accidents, Playoff drivers have finished last at both Darlington (Chase Elliott) and Kansas (Kevin Harvick). In the latter race, in fact, Playoff drivers occupied the bottom two positions, with pole winner Tyler Reddick the second retiree behind Harvick.

For Harvick, at least, there’s clarity. Last in the standings and 35 points behind Reddick and Austin Cindric in 11th place, Harvick realistically must win on Saturday night to advance.

Harvick, who has a victory and a second-place finish at Bristol in his last three starts there, is at his best with his back to the wall. In 2014, the first year of the current elimination format, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won at Martinsville to advance to the Championship 4 Round and followed that with a victory at Phoenix to claim the title.

That history gives Harvick a valuable arrow in his quiver.

“Experience,” said Harvick, who has three career wins at Thunder Valley. “I think experience goes a long way as you go down this road.

“Obviously, it’s different than the regular season because there’s so much on the line, but our guys have been through that battle. Plus, we don’t have anything to lose.”

Contrast Harvick’s situation with that of Kyle Busch, who trails Reddick and Cindric by two points. An eight-time winne