by Micah Roberts
After the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series first visited Bristol Motor Speedway in week five, Kyle Busch had gained his second win of the young season and looked to be picking up where he left off in 2008 that saw him win eight races and dominate the season prior to his disastrous Chase run.
However, things have gone seriously south for the young, brash Las Vegan. Ever since that Bristol win in week five, Busch has plummeted in points like a heavy rock in the depths of Lake Mead. Following week five where Busch was fourth in points with two wins and three top-5 finishes.
Since then Busch has only one more win and two top-5 finishes heading into race 24 of the season this week at Bristol. He currently finds himself outside looking into the Chase in 15th position, 70 points out of the 12th and final position. Last season at this juncture he was leading the entire series in points and had eight win along with 14 top-5 finishes.
My, how things have changed and there really isn’t any explanation for the drop off. Busch continues to dominate the Nationwide Series with consistent abandon week after week while leading the points in that series.
70 points is a lot of points to come back from in order to make the chase, but it isn’t the biggest deficit in Chase history with three races remaining. In 2005, Matt Kenseth came back to make the Chase while being 100 points behind.
Busch has the benefit in the final three races before judgment day of racing on tracks he’s done well at beginning this week at Bristol where he won in week five. In the next race, the Series visits Atlanta where he won last season in the spring and then had one of his best finishes of the chase in fall with a fifth there.
In the final Race to the Chase at Richmond, Busch should also have an advantage because it’s the sight of his last win coming in early May in week 10. He needed a better performance at Michigan last week, but of all the drivers sitting 12th through 15th, Busch looks to have the best chance of making the NASCAR’s version of the playoffs despite being so far back.
This weeks race at Bristol starts this run off with it’s new brand of Bristol racing which resembles a shorter Dover now. Since changing the most unique fast short track in the world, Bristol racing isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still under the lights with almost 200,000 fans hovering above the track, so the excitement level is still sure to be there.
In four weeks, the Chase will be set and three of the current contenders will be left out. Just who might those drivers be? Here are some notes on the contenders and how they may do for the next three races based on a mix of how they are currently going, how they have done on the tracks this year and beyond, and how they reacted under pressure in the past.
7) Juan Pablo Montoya - 2887 pts: He ended his streak of nine straight top-12 finishes last week, but has been a model of consistency all season. He is sitting nice right now and should be real good at the short tracks of Richmond and Bristol where he had top-10 finishes there in the spring.
8) Kasey Kahne - 2884 pts: Of all the drivers currently in the Chase, he is a good candidate to make it despite being in eighth. Kahne has melted under pressure down the stretch in two of his three Chase runs over his career including last season. He’s only made the chase once in his five years on tour. Earlier this year at Richmond, where he has to perform well at, he had a 29th.
9) Ryan Newman - 2845 pts: He has been up and down all year, but his downs haven’t too bad. His best run of the season came in the spring when the series visited Bristol and Richmond where he ran well during a ten race stretch where he had five top-5 finishes along with three other top-10’s. Newman should be good to in making it.
10) Greg Biffle - 2821 pts: He needed a much better run at Michigan to increase his chances of making because now he’s only got Atlanta where he runs very well at. He didn’t run well at Bristol and Richmond in the spring. He should be in, but he’s cutting in close.
11) Matt Kenseth - 2811 pts: Following his back to back wins to start the season at Daytona and California, he has been worse than mediocre and is fortunate to be where he’s at right now. He actually moved a position because of Martin’s poor run last week, but he is not safe at all. He has always run well on these tracks coming up, but this isn’t the same team as in past years. He has never missed the Chase, but is a top candidate to miss it this year.
12) Mark Martin - 2791 pts: He should run very well at all three tracks coming up, but that was supposed to be the case last week at Michigan where he had a great car. He should never be in this position considering how dominant he’s been, but because he’s finished 31st of worse in seven of the 23 races thus far, he’s an all or nothing case. America would like to hope he’s in; who can’t root for a 50 year old to win his first title ever?
13) Brian Vickers - 2779 (-12 pts behind) He’s sitting a nice place right now and wiped off 84 points of deficit with his win last week. His biggest climb will come at Richmond and Bristol where he has been beat up in the past. He may contend for the Atlanta win, but if he doesn’t get top-10’s or close, he’ll be hard pressed to make it. One positive is that he ran well at Richmond in May where his 15th place was his best run there since his rookie season.
14) Clint Bowyer - 2733 (-58 pts behind) This guy knows how to play the game and just happens to run well at all the tracks coming up, especially Richmond and Bristol. He ran a solid eighth last week and likely will run similarly the same in the next three which will likely get him in. He was in the same position last season and ran down Kahne and beat him out in a very cool and calm demeanor it takes to make it when outside looking in.
15) Kyle Busch 2721 (-70 points behind) The good news is that he won at Bristol and Richmond in the spring, the bad news is that he’s only had one top-5 finish since winning at Richmond in May, a span of 13 races. This will be the most compelling and dramatically story for the next three weeks because we have a chance to see a great talent dig deep and race his way in, or we have a chance to see a great talent melt down and go crazy in front of the camera. His chances are slim of making it, but if anyone can do it, it is Kyle. He just needs to get his head straight and focus.
I’ll go against history and wisdom and look for Busch and Bowyer to make it with Kenseth and Kahne falling out.
This weeks race at Bristol takes on extra special piece of fun because of the double-file restarts which was not in place when the ran therein March. Look for the best Bristol race there since they made such a drastic change to the track two years ago.
TOP 5 Bristol Finish Prediction:
1) #18 Kyle Busch (7/1)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
3) #39 Ryan Newman (20/1)
4) #14 Tony Stewart (7/1)
5) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)