Chastain watches his mirrors in the playoff eliminator

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Ross Chastain, the driver with a growing list of enemies, heads into the first eliminator of the NASCAR playoffs in a fairly comfortable position over the cut line.

It’s Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe and Kevin Harvick trying to avoid Saturday night’s retirement at Bristol Motor Speedway.

And yet Chastain can’t relax, even in ninth place in the field of 16 riders. The bottom four overall are eliminated when the checkered flag falls on the Tennessee Short Track, and Chastain cannot guarantee that he will not be beaten below that cutline. He’s upset so many fellow riders this year that any payback coming his way could come at a most inopportune time.

“I can’t speak for what other people are thinking,” Chastain said ahead of Friday’s practice and qualifying session in Bristol. “All I know is that I hit the wall nice and hard at Pocono.”

At Pocono, Denny Hamlin refused to give Chastain an inch of track space on a late restart due to previous incidents between the two. Hamlin had already declared with Chastain, “I’ve reached my climax,” before his aggressive retaliation forced Chastain into the wall.

Since then, Busch has made “chastained” a verb to refer to when a driver is met by the eighth-generation Florida watermelon farmer who had a breakthrough in his inaugural season with Trackhouse Racing. Anti-Chastain sentiment has been building and it wasn’t helped last week when tough racing between Chastain, Harvick and Bubba Wallace resulted in Harvick crashing and ending the first DNF series of three races of Harvick’s career.

Chastain acknowledged that he “didn’t take off on time, didn’t give him enough room and pushed him against the wall” and that Harvick’s fall “was still my fault.”

Chastain even apologized to the 2014 NASCAR champion, who goes into last in the field of 16 drivers Saturday night because of Harvick’s terrible first two playoff races. Harvick is essentially in a must-win situation on Saturday night to advance to the second round.

With non-playoff drivers Erik Jones and Wallace winning the first two playoff races, only Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell locked himself into the second round via points. And Bristol, a 0.533-mile bullring, has a long history of brawls and hot tempers after the checkered flag.

“Look at Bristol in recent years, it’s been wild finishes and there’s a lot at stake and there’s a lot of points,” said Joey Logano, who is fourth on Saturday night.

NASCAR introduced a new next-gen car this season that has leveled the competition, but Bristol was covered in dirt in the spring when the Cup Series first hit the track. Saturday night’s race takes place on the traditional concrete surface.

“I think Bristol has the most entertaining races of any circuit we visit, period. I don’t think there is a better track than this, but I also think everyone’s expectations are unrealistic as to what you can possibly get out of it,” added Logano. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s dirt or concrete, it’s been quite intense lately and the end of the races ended with fireworks for many.

“Well, I don’t know why you would expect anything else.”

ELLIOTT ON THE SCHEDULE

NASCAR released its 2023 schedules this week with plenty of feedback from its participants, particularly 2020 Cup Champion Chase Elliott.

Elliott called for a tighter schedule, more night racing, and opposed NASCAR continuing its season into November and competing against the NFL.

“I have a firm belief that less is more in terms of timing and when we could end our season to get the most out of our TV ratings,” Elliott said Friday. “I mean, 36 (race)? 45? 50? I guess it doesn’t matter how many races we have, but I see no reason to face NFL Football when that starts. In my opinion, this is not a fight that we will ever win.”

He also took offense at only Daytona in the summer, Bristol in the playoffs and a race in Atlanta to be held at night. Elliott suggested that spectators in attendance would enjoy more racing under lights.

“There’s a lot of Sunday afternoons that we get to be in really hot environments, which is fine, I’m fine with that, but if I were a fan sitting in the stands I wouldn’t be one,” Elliott said. “You know, three or four hours in August? I much prefer to do that at night.”

NASCAR finally left no gap in the cup schedule to allow active drivers to miss a race to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans as part of NASCAR’s special project to compete in the race. The Le Mans project lies with Hendrick Motorsports, so many have assumed Elliott or teammate Kyle Larson would be part of an all-star line-up of three drivers.

Elliott said he would never skip a race to go to Le Mans, which will be held the same weekend that NASCAR is scheduled to be in Sonoma, California.

“I’m not interested in it, and that’s because there’s no competition in the class,” Elliott said. NASCAR’s entry does not count for points or position and is an exhibition event at Le Mans.

“I want to go and compete and that’s the part I enjoy, seeing where you’re going up against other competitors and where I need to be better and challenge and push myself. If there are no other cars in the class, that would take a lot of the fun out of me. We can’t anyway, but I don’t have much interest in how it is now. Not this one.”

BITS AND PIECES

Joey Logano will start his 500th Cup series on Saturday night. Logano is 32 years old and made his cup debut at the age of 18. … Austin Dillon said Richard Childress Racing gave the pit crew of his No. 3 Chevrolet five-year contracts to build continuity and improve team culture at RCR. … Petty GMS Motorsports will be using pit crews from Joe Gibbs Racing next season. The No. 42 team began using JGR crews at Kansas Speedway last weekend; Both GMS cars will use Gibbs crews next season.

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