Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup -- The Countdown: 3 races to go Short-track battle crucial; vets Martin, Jarrett have history in their favor DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Aug. 24 2004) -- The race track residing in "Thunder Valley" always has an...
Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup -- The Countdown: 3 races to go
Short-track battle crucial; vets Martin, Jarrett have history in their favor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Aug. 24 2004) -- The race track residing in "Thunder Valley" always has an electric atmosphere, especially at night.
Now it's time to crank up the amperage.
Bristol Motor Speedway is the official name of the half-mile high-banked oval that has evolved into one of the showplaces on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule. The track's annual summertime night race has likewise evolved -- into one of the series' showcases.
A great event is about to become greater, juiced by its placement on the schedule and the resulting relevance to the "Chase for NASCAR NEXTEL Cup." Counting Saturday night's Sharpie 500, only three races remain before the 10-race championship showdown begins at the Sept. 19 New Hampshire event. The battle is on to qualify for that showdown, creating the NASCAR "bubble" separating the NASCAR Top 10 from those clamoring to join that group.
This week, the bubble has a standing-room-only crowd waiting to get in. It's a group trying to make up lost ground in a limited amount of time. This week, they'll try to do so in a limited amount of space. Bristol is one of two half-mile tracks on the schedule. That configuration can get claustrophobic when 43 cars start rolling.
Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) has a slippery grip on 10th coming into Bristol; only 70 points separate Kahne from 15th-place Jamie McMurray (No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge).
When examining the Bristol outlook for those immediately behind Kahne, veterans Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford) and Dale Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford) appear to have an edge, as they try to resurrect their respective championship hopes in the proverbial "11th hour."
Martin, arguably the greatest active NASCAR driver who has never won the premier series championship, has mounted a serious charge. He finished second at Michigan International Speedway this past Sunday, following up on a third-place finish the week before at the Watkins Glen road-course race. Martin comes into Bristol 12th in points, a scant 33 behind Kahne. He also comes in with two career victories and 20 top-10 finishes at BMS. On the downside, his last top-10 run there came in the 2000 season's night race.
"Bristol is an intense race track to say the least," Martin said. "Forty-three cars is a lot for a track that size, and driving around that place is like trying to fly a jet fighter airplane around the inside of a basketball arena, so it gets really wild when you have 42 other guys trying to do the same thing. You just have to hope that you have a good car and that you can stay out of all the trouble and sometimes that's hoping for a lot."
Fourteenth-place Jarrett, the 1999 premier series champion, started this season as a staunch opponent of the new "Chase" format. In recent weeks, with that format keeping his title hopes alive, he has good-naturedly admitted to an altered viewpoint. Whatever his stance, one thing is clear: Jarrett's 15 top-10 runs at Bristol -- including an August 1997 victory -- could help him advance this week.
After all, he's only 58 points out of 10th place. He, like Martin, has three races remaining to close the gap.
"Obviously the best-case scenario for going into Bristol is having a good race car that allows you to run up front," Jarrett said. "Then usually you can have a pretty good weekend because you don't have to drive every single lap crazy back in the middle of the pack. Regardless, it's always an entertaining race and if nothing else, this race to get into the championship chase will probably make it even more so for the fans."
There actually is plenty of potential for movement beyond the bubble-chasers. As much as 156 points can change within one race, based on the difference of a first-place finish leading the most laps (190 points) as opposed to a 43rd-place finish (34 points). All of the spots in the top 15 are separated by less than 156 points, meaning all of those positions conceivably can change hands at Bristol.
Gordon closes in on clinching Chase berth ...Series point leader Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), by virtue of his 468-point lead over 11th-place Jeremy Mayfield, will secure one of the 10 positions in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup if he starts in each of the next three races. 400-point cut-off coming into play? ... After 26 races, the top-10 drivers in points qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. But....so will any drivers outside the top 10 who are within 400 points of the standings' leader.
Several weeks ago, it looked certain that the cut-off would be irrelevant this season.
Suddenly, things have changed.
Eleventh-place Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) is 468 points behind first-place Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) -- or 68 points away from inclusion into the Chase. Martin is 95 points from inclusion.
The cut-off is alive and well.