For the moment, Kurt Busch is safe. For the moment he is ninth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings, and if the regular season were to end today he'd gain an automatic berth into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Unfortunately for Busch and several others who teeter on the edge of an ever-thinning Chase bubble, the postseason doesn't begin today, but instead there are still three races left before it commences.
The first of the last three tests before the field is reset, Bristol, is perhaps the most unpredictable. The drivers will not only be fighting for position on track during the Saturday's IRWIN Tools Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), many of them will be fighting for their lives… their playoff lives.
With only 21 points separating eighth-place driver Brad Keselowski and 13th-place driver Joey Logano the Chase bubble is a very precarious place to be right now. Jeff Gordon, who has yet to win in 2013, is nine points behind Logano, with Indy-race winner Ryan Newman another marker further back.
A poor showing this weekend at Bristol for Busch could spell doom for his chances to make the Chase, as he'd probably drop out of the top 10. Without a win this season, falling out of the top 10 would even knock him out of contention for a Wild Card spot, reserved for the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points with the most wins.
Busch has three options: 1. Win one of the next three races and remain in the top 10 after the 26th race at Richmond; 2. Come up empty in the next three races but still hang on to a top-10 spot; 3. Go winless over the next three races and fall out of the top 10 and out of the Chase.
Obviously, Busch and everyone at Furniture Row Racing would prefer the first option.
"It's a tremendous feeling to be in the Chase mix, but we have to remain focused in these next three races," Busch said. "A lot of things can happen and we just have to worry about what we do and not what others do."
Busch has visited Victory Lane at each of the three tracks remaining before the Chase field is set -- Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond. Between the three of them, his best chance at winning is at Bristol.
In 25 races at Bristol, the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet has captured the checkered flag five times (versus three times at Atlanta and once at Richmond), most recently in March 2006. He did, however, post his first of 24 NASCAR Sprint cup wins in the March 2002 race, followed by a season sweep the next year and a victory in the March 2004 race.
He finished fourth in the Bristol race earlier this season, and only has one other top-10 finish at a short track in 2013 (ninth at Richmond in April).
His average finishing position of 13.4 at Bristol is also better than Atlanta (17.2) and Richmond (17.9). He has won more races and led more laps (841) at Bristol than any other track on the circuit. His career-high 14 top-10 finishes at the track is tied with Pocono.
The close racing and high banks at the .533-mile track nestled in the mountains of northeast Tennessee, however, provide a level of uncertainty and risk that puts drivers on the edge of their seat in anticipation of the unpredictable.
"The biggest thing is just staying out of trouble. Bristol, trouble can happen at any corner," said Busch last weekend at Michigan. "There's gonna be 500 laps that we have to perform there next week where we have to protect our car and still finish well."
Staff Report - NASCAR Wire Service