At Bristol Motor Speedway, the unpredictability is the only element that’s predictable.
Saturday night’s IRWIN Tools Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC, Performance Racing Network radio, SiriusXM radio) just might be the biggest remaining unknown with the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ just three races away.
Bristol’s tall concrete banks well may determine who does or doesn’t qualify for the postseason.
The racing will be close, pressure-packed and physical. Who doesn’t remember Dale Earnhardt “rattling” Terry Labonte’s cage or Tony Stewart’s thrown helmet that bounced off Matt Kenseth’s windshield?
Others – not so much.
Drivers ranked seventh through 11th – Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Kasey Kahne – are separated by just 20 points. Last year’s Bristol night race saw 20 cars finish all 500 laps. Among those finishing off the lead lap was Carl Edwards, who needed a solid finish to close crucial ground on the points leaders.
He didn’t get it and ultimately failed to reach the Chase.
Saturday’s race could be huge for what’s now become a crowded field of four current Chase Wild Card hopefuls scoring victories in 2013. Although Tony Stewart remains eligible by virtue of a top-20 points position, Stewart-Haas Racing has pronounced its injured driver out for the remainder of the year.
Spring Bristol winner Kasey Kahne, attempting to become the first to score a sweep since Kyle Busch in 2009, would virtually lock up one Wild Card spot with his third victory of the year. That might be moot since Kahne is just four points out of the top 10.
The same could be said for Martin Truex Jr., 10 points out of the top 10. Truex finished 12th at Bristol in March and 11th a year ago. The New Jersey native has only two top-five finishes at the track but they are good ones – third in the spring of 2012 and second in the 2011 night race.
Neither Michigan winner Joey Logano nor Indianapolis winner Ryan Newman has been able to score a Bristol victory. Logano’s No. 22 Penske Racing Ford, however, is owned by Roger Penske. Penske Racing is No. 2 in the Bristol win column with 10 trips to Victory Lane – most recently in spring of 2012 with reigning series champion Brad Keselowski.
No owner whose driver failed to reach the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ has ever qualified for postseason riches.
The 2013 season could prove to be the exception to the rule – and in a most unexpected manner.
Both could make the Chase as top-10 finishers in the regular season. Kahne and Truex are four and 10 points, respectively, behind 10th-place Greg Biffle.
Should they advance, the door would open for two teams which have undergone massive changes in the past few days. The No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet stands third in owner Wild Card standings having scored the same number of points – 653 – as the No. 56 team.
Three-time champion Tony Stewart is finished for the season as he recuperates from a broken leg suffered earlier this month in an Iowa sprint car accident. His replacement for 12 of the remaining 13 races is Mark Martin who, teamed with Michael Waltrip and Brian Vickers, has given the No. 55 MWR Toyota a shot at a Chase owner Wild Card.
The No. 55 is sixth in owner Wild Card standings on the strength of now-regular driver Vickers’ victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The irony is that Martin will battle to keep his new team ahead of his old organization, as well as the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford of Joey Logano and No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet of Ryan Newman.
It’s just another reason why the Race for the Chase truly won’t be over until the checkered flag falls on Sept. 7 in Richmond.
Chase Clinches: One Down, 11 To Go – And A Bunch Might Come At Bristol
Jimmie Johnson has stood alone for two weeks as the only driver to clinch a spot in the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Already guaranteed a top-10 spot – and the three bonus points per win that go with it – Johnson will enter the Chase with at least 2,012 points. After race No. 26 at Richmond, all 12 Chase drivers will have their points reset to 2,000, but only the top 10 will have three points added to their total for each victory over the first 26 races. Johnson currently has four victories (both Daytona events, Martinsville and Pocono).
In terms of Chase clinches, expect a few drivers to join Johnson this weekend at Bristol.
Three drivers can clinch a top-10 spot: Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick. The magic number for a top-10 clinch is 97 points; leaving Bristol, anyone 97 points ahead of 11th will clinch a top-10 spot.
A number of drivers can clinch at least a Wild Card spot this weekend. Because they own multiple wins this season, after this weekend, a few drivers could fall out of the top 10 yet still be guaranteed a Wild Card spot after race No. 26. The Wild Card spots go to the two drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins, provided they are in the top 20.
Matt Kenseth, who has four wins but has yet to clinch a top-20 spot, can clinch at least a Wild Card this weekend (a win would guarantee it). The same goes for Kyle Busch (three wins) and Kasey Kahne (two wins).
Bristol’s Dominant Trio Must Rise Yet Again
Saturday night’s Irwin Tools Night Race may not be the last stand for three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions. But if Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski can’t rise to the occasion here; then where?
They are among Bristol Motor Speedway’s most successful competitors.
Gordon and Busch have each won five times at the .533-mile concrete oval. Keselowski counts two victories in the past four races with a third-place finish in March’s event thrown in for good measure.
This is a week for Keselowski and Busch to consolidate recent gains. For Gordon, it’s an opportunity to regroup after several disappointing races.
Keselowski (eighth) and Busch (ninth) are eight and six points, respectively, ahead of 11th. Gordon is 14th – 26 points outside the top 10.
Gordon’s recent statistics are best among the trio: second-best series Driver Rating (100.6), second-fastest Average Green Flag Speed (114.863 mph) and series-high 6,974 laps among the top 15 over the last 17 Bristol races.
A year ago, Gordon found himself in a similar situation – 16th in points – but with finishes of third, third and second in the final three races of the regular season qualified for the Chase.
"We have a good stretch of tracks ahead and we have to do everything possible to make the most of these races," he said.
Kahne Motivated By Late-Season Pressures
Having an insurance policy lessens the immediate pressure.
And if you’re Kasey Kahne with two victories – one of them this spring at Bristol Motor Speedway – this isn’t a week to stress over “will I or won’t I” make the Chase. Kahne and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet are better than 50/50 proposition to make NASCAR’s postseason. They currently hold the first Wild Card entry and stand 11th, four points outside the top 10.
“I’ve (gone) through it; I kind of enjoy it. I kind of enjoy the pressure, like to have to be perfect that weekend, things like that.” said Kahne, who’s finished in the top three six times but has suffered three, accident-caused DNFs.
A year ago, Kahne overcame a difficult early season to make the Chase. He came on strong finishing fourth in the final standings. Kahne sees no reason this can’t happen again – especially if he can keep his Chevrolet SS out of harm’s way.
“It’s a tough part of the season,” he said. “But it’s kind of what we’re all here for, too, to step up when times are tough. I know we have a really strong team. I think we’ll be in a really good spot, must to put those final 10 (races) together. That’s what it’s all about.”
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Etc.
Two top-five milestones are on tap this weekend. Carl Edwards continues to hunt for his 100th career top-five finish, which would make him the 36th driver to reach 100 top fives and tie him with Geoff Bodine on the all-time list. After a fifth-place finish at Michigan, Clint Bowyer is on the verge of scoring his 50th career top five. He would be the 69th driver to do so. … Ryan Truex will make his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut, driving the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet at Bristol. Truex, brother of Martin Truex Jr., has made 35 career NASCAR Nationwide starts and three NASCAR Camping World Truck starts in his NASCAR career. He was also the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion in 2009-10.