Bristol II: Series round 24 preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Bristol Chase 'Bubble' Battle Moves On To Bristol Three events remain in the "Race to the Chase" which means 12th place or better looks pretty good right now. ... But not that good. Only the top 12 ...

Bristol II: Series round 24 preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Bristol

Chase 'Bubble' Battle Moves On To Bristol

Three events remain in the "Race to the Chase" which means 12th place or better looks pretty good right now. ... But not that good.

Only the top 12 drivers in points following the Sept. 11 event at Richmond International Raceway qualify for the "Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup." Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Hamburger Helper Chevrolet) comes into Saturday's race at Bristol Motor Speedway -- the IRWIN Tools Night Race -- holding down 12th. But his security has a limited shelf life; he's only 35 points ahead of 13th-place Mark Martin (No. 5 CARQUEST Auto Parts/ Chevrolet).

Interesting stuff, this "bubble shootout" between drivers from Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, respectively.

The same 1-2 organizational order is going on atop the series standings, although points leader Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) of RCR has a much more substantial lead, 293 points, over Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) of the Hendrick camp. Actually, Bowyer has more than Martin to worry about.

Only 129 points separate Bowyer from 17th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet). In between are 14th-place Ryan Newman (No. 39 Wix Filters Chevrolet), 15th-place Jamie McMurray (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet) and 16th-place Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Ford). From 12th-15th is even tighter, with only a 105-point separation.

Bowyer was able to leap-frog Martin in the points at Michigan. Bowyer finished 13th; Martin finished 28th, hampered by a couple of relatively minor incidents (contact with the wall and running into the back of Scott Speed's Toyota) that nonetheless "messed up" his ride.

"We'll keep digging," said Martin, last year's series runner-up. "I don't know [what my Chase chances are] ... every race is a new race."

With Bowyer's ascension at Michigan, all three Richard Childress Racing drivers are in the top 12. In between Harvick and Bowyer is Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) in seventh place. Bowyer qualified third this past weekend at Michigan International Speedway. He called that effort a confidence-booster for his team -- and a message-sender to his rivals.

"We're not out of this thing," Bowyer said. "I feel like our cars are running good enough to be a part of [the Chase] because they have all year long. We've just had some wild and crazy things happen and we've just got to keep that from happening [further].

"We've got to keep from beating ourselves and if we can do that, if we can get the finish like we've run all year and like we deserve, I see no reason why we can't be a part of [the Chase]. ... Obviously, these are important times for us, the situation we're in racing for this Chase spot. ... I think we can be a part of this Chase and make three chances for RCR to have a shot at the championship, instead of just two."

As for Bowyer's chances at Bristol, well, the outlook isn't all that encouraging. In nice races there he has an average finish of 18th. His Bristol Driver Rating is a so-so 79.9. Martin has two wins at BMS, both in the annual summertime evening spectacular, both a while ago -- in 1993 and '98. His average finish at BMS: 12.9. His Driver Rating at BMS: 89.9.

At Bristol, Close Quarters Close Finishes

A most amazing statistic about recent action at Bristol Motor Speedway: After cars have raced around, bumping and banging for 500 laps, four of the last five BMS races -- and eight of the last 10 -- have had margins of victory under one second.

Last year's night race, won by Kyle Busch (No. 18 Doublemint Toyota) over Mark Martin had a margin of victory of .098 seconds, the second-closest MOV at Bristol since the advent of electronic scoring in May of 1993.

Busch has finished either first or second five times during the 10-race span.

Bonus Points Loom Large, As Chase Approaches; Johnson, Hamlin Have Upper Hand

With three races to go before the Chase begins, potential "seedings" are starting to sort out. For rivals hoping to finally unseat our-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) from the head table at the season-ending awards ceremony, there's an ominous signpost dead-ahead. Johnson currently holds the potential top seed, thanks to his five victories this season.

Prior to the Chase, the 12 drivers who qualify have their point totals re-set to 5,000, whereupon 10 bonus points are tacked on for each pre-Chase race win. Those adjusted point totals establish Chase seedings.

Actually, both Johnson and Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota) share a potential Chase starting total of 5,050; Johnson currently gets the prospective top seed "honor" via the traditional next-best-results tiebreak.

Kevin Harvick's victory this past Sunday at Michigan gives him the potential third seed and a Chase starting total of 5,030.

Harvick is the only driver this far to clinch a Chase berth. Clinch scenarios for this weekend: any driver with a 391-point lead over 13th after Bristol will clinch a Chase berth.

Currently, six of the top 12 drivers in points are winless, a surprising number -- and a surprising group considering their history in the sport. That group: four-time champion Jeff Gordon, currently second in the standings; fourth-place and two-time series champion Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet); sixth place

Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford); seventh-place Jeff Burton; 9th-place Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford), another former series champion; and 12th-place Clint Bowyer.

Three former series champions, all winless after 23 races this season. Just one more indication on how tough it is to win races these days -- at a time when winning is more important than at any other time in the sport's history.

Harvick says he's relishing his current position leading the points. Now, he added, his focus is clear leading into the Chase.

"We're going to go and race hard; we're going to try to gain 30 more bonus points," Harvick said. "For sure now, whether it's engines, parts, pieces, over the next three weeks, we'll try to get a little bit better.

"We're going to enjoy it and we're going to hopefully be ready for the last 10 weeks."

Added Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite-Vortex Dodge), 10th in points but currently the potential fourth seed, thanks to two victories thus far: "The only points that are important now are [bonus] points. I would say guys are going for wins ... going for broke."

Is Johnson's Slump Really A Slump?

View Jimmie Johnson's current six race "slump" however you'd like. Fellow competitors (and Johnson detractors) might look at this number -- 21.3 -- as an optimism spark. That's Johnson's average finish over the last six races. He has just one top-10 finish (a 10th-place run at Pocono) over that span. Otherwise, it's been rough: a 31st at Daytona, 25th at Chicagoland, 22nd at Indianapolis, 28th at Watkins Glen and 12th at Michigan.

That average finish over the last six races ranks 24th in the series.

Could it be a sign that his four-season stranglehold on the NASCAR CSprint up Series championship will be soon over?

Johnson supporters, though, should look at this: 96.0.

That's Johnson's Driver Rating over the last six races, which is eighth-best over that span. In other words, lots of bad luck has plagued the four-time titlist.

His other numbers over the "slump" impress as well: an Average Running Position of 12.7, 204 Laps Led, 98 Fastest Laps Run and a Pass Differential (passes minus times passed) of plus-23.

Now, Johnson rolls to Bristol, a track that used to give him fits -- until recently.

Coming into this season, Johnson has failed to win at six different tracks. One of those was Bristol. He checked that one off the list with an impressive win in March, where he led 84 laps and posted a Driver Rating of 132.4.

Despite some ragged overall statistics, his March win at Bristol was actually a rather predictable one. The statistics coming into that race suggested that something clicked at the short track for Johnson. Over the last three races there, Johnson has an average finish of 4.0, a Driver Rating of 124.2, an Average Running Position of 3.8, 279 Laps Led, a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 96.1%, 159 Fastest Laps Run and a Pass Differential of plus-41.

PASSING THOUGHT: Since the Bristol repave of 2007, competition has skyrocketed. In the final race at the "old" Bristol -- March 25, 2007 -- there were 991 total green flag passes. Last March, there were 2,427. Same goes for passing up front. In that March race of 2007, there were 10 green flag passes for the lead.

Saturday Marks The 100th NASCAR Sprint Cup Race At Bristol Motor Speedway

The original owners of Bristol Motor Speedway, Larry Carrier and Carl Moore, opened the famous half-mile's gates in 1961, introducing NASCAR's top series to area. At the time the speedway was named Bristol International Speedway, and was vastly different from the current facility.

In the original concept the track was a perfect half-mile as opposed to the .533-mile oval it is today. Also the track originally was a lot flatter and was an asphalt surface unlike today's which boasts high banks and is a concrete surface.

Also, the original concept for the speedway only had concrete bleachers that held 20,000 fans where as today the grandstands seat 160,000 fans.

What hasn't changed over the first 99 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Bristol is the action and competitive drama. ...

In 1961, NASCAR held its first event at Bristol Motor Speedway and Fred Lorenzen sat on the pole and Jack Smith won the race after dominating most of the event leading 243 laps.

The '60s had many different winners but the two drivers capturing the most victories at Bristol during the decade were Fred Lorenzen with three wins and David Pearson with four.

The 1970s could aptly be named the decade of Cale Yarborough at Bristol Motor Speedway because he dominated the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winning eight events. In 1976 and '77 he swept both events those seasons becoming the first driver to win four consecutive races at Bristol.

As the 1970s ended and the 1980s rolled around, a new driver ruled at Bristol Motor Speedway, Darrell Waltrip, with owner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson. The two men ended up becoming the winningest duo in Bristol Motor Speedway history. Waltrip leads all drivers in the series in wins at Bristol with 12.

He also became the first and only driver to win six consecutive races at Bristol (1982-'84). In the late 1980s and early 1990s two men, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace took the wheel and steered it to many great on-track battles and victories. Both drivers have nice wins at Bristol Motor Speedway. Earnhardt and Wallace became known for their mastery at Bristol and there relentless will to win at the famous half mile.

In the late 1990s and into the new millennium Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch have been two of the main men to beat at Bristol. They are tied for the most wins at Bristol (five) amongst active drivers. Gordon also has the most poles amongst active drivers at Bristol with five.

And finally, in recent years, Kyle Busch has emerged as perhaps the premier Bristol competitor. He has won three of the last seven NASCAR Sprint Cup events there, including last year's season sweep.

Ninety-nine down, one more race to go, to a most significant milestone for one of the most storied tracks in NASCAR history.

Fast Facts

The Race: IRWIN Tools Night Race
The Place: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tenn. (.533-mile oval)

The Date: Saturday, Aug. 21
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 500 laps / 266.5 miles

TV: ABC, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128.

2009 Polesitter: Mark Martin
2009 Winner: Kyle Busch

Schedule Prior To Race Day:
Friday -- Practice, 12-2 p.m. and 2:45- 3:30 p.m. Qualifying, 5:40 p.m.

-source: nascar

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