Monday, August 22, 2011

Storylines for IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol

Kyle Busch rules Bristol with 5 wins, 4 in last 5 races
Call it a Crown Jewel, call it a spectacle, call it a fan favorite. Whatever the moniker, the annual Bristol Motor Speedway night race has grown in prestige for all kinds of reasons.

Forever a must-see-live for all NASCAR fans, the IRWIN Tools Night Race combines hard, tight racing under the lights in a coliseum setting. But this season there are two wrinkles that ratchet up the anticipation – the Wild Card and the Sprint Summer Showdown Presented by HTC EVO 3D.

After race No. 26 at Richmond, the top-10 drivers are locked into the 12-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field. Spots 11 and 12 – the Wild Cards – go to drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins, provided they are in the top 20. A precious three races remain for Wild Card opportunities.

Bristol’s also the final race for drivers to become eligible for the Sprint Summer Showdown. The winners of Indianapolis (Paul Menard), Pocono (Brad Keselowski), Watkins Glen (Marcos Ambrose), Michigan (Kyle Busch) and Bristol become eligible for the $3 million prize. If one of the eligible drivers wins at Atlanta, a million dollars goes to the driver, the driver’s charity and one lucky fan.


Busch Comes “Home” With Some Security
Obviously, Las Vegas Motor Speedway is Las Vegas-native Kyle Busch’s home. But really, shouldn’t Bristol be substituted in this category?

Busch has won the last five NASCAR national series races at Bristol, including his three-series sweep last August. In all, he has 11 wins at Bristol – including five in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, which is tied with Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch for most among active drivers.

He's the only driver with a 100+ average Driver Rating (108.1) and one of two drivers with an average finish over the last 13 races less than 10 (8.7).

Why not another victory? He adds momentum to his past history, winning last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway and clinching the first Chase berth of the season. With his Michigan win, Busch locked up at least a Wild Card spot.

He also became eligible for the $3 million Sprint Summer Showdown sweepstakes. Another win at Bristol would help limit the competition at Atlanta.

And finally, it’s only a matter of time until Busch clinches a top 10 spot. Once he does, every “regular season” win means three bonus points to his Chase total. After Richmond, each Chase drivers’ points total gets reset to 2,000, but only the top 10 get three bonus points added for each victory over the first 26 races.

Busch Brothers Wage A Little Sibling Rivalry
A subplot from Kyle Busch’s Michigan win: It was his 23rd NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, matching his brother Kurt’s win total.

A friendly rivalry could be in the future, though Kyle made this post-race point: Kurt still has one up on him, a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

Others Can Clinch At Bristol
Jimmie Johnson can clinch a Chase spot this week (Getty)
This weekend’s magic number: 97.

Leaving Bristol, any driver with a 97-point lead over 11th place will clinch a Chase spot.

The top eight drivers are all mathematically able to reach the 97-point mark (including Kyle Busch, who already locked up at least a Wild Card spot, but could clinch a top-10 spot this weekend).

The top eight: Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.

Edwards is of special interest in the above list. He can clinch despite a 36th-place finish at Michigan. Coming into the race, Edwards was in a points-tie with Busch for the points lead. His finish combined with Busch’s win now has Edwards 39 points off the lead.

Tough Guy Keselowski Continues Roll
What Brad Keselowski is accomplishing right now defies logic.

Just a month ago, he was 23rd in points, and looking like a driver who wasted a Kansas win and the adjoining Wild Card potential.

Just three weeks ago, he broke his ankle in a testing accident, further solidifying the thought that his Chase hopes had crashed.

But now? Now he looks like not only a Chase hopeful, but a legit championship contender.

His last three finishes look like this; a win at Pocono, a runner-up at Watkins Glen and a third at Michigan.

Keselowski has rocketed up to 12th in points, 52 points outside the top 10.

On the other hand, his teammate Kurt Busch has fallen. Over the last four races, he has dropped from third to eighth in the points.

Wild Card Watch Hits High Banks
Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin remain in spots one and two in the Wild Card hunt.

Keselowski’s two wins – at Kansas and Pocono – put him a near-lock for the Chase. Hamlin has one win (at Michigan in June) and the tie-breaker (points position).

Others with a win inside the top 20: Paul Menard in 18th and David Ragan in 20th. Marcos Ambrose and Regan Smith also have victories, but are outside the top 20.

Who Will Land Final Sprint Summer Showdown Spot?
Bristol’s the last chance for drivers to land a coveted spot among those eligible for the $3 million. Best bets for Saturday night’s winner often come from the pre-race Driver Rating rundown. Here it is: Kyle Busch (108.1), Greg Biffle (99.4), Jeff Gordon (97.6), Matt Kenseth (97.5) and Kurt Busch (96.8).

Bubble Boys Looking For Win – And Some Security
Tony Stewart in 10th and Clint Bowyer in 11th are the bubble boys, and share something in common. They’re among six drivers who won in 2010 who remain winless in 2011.

Stewart holds a 24-point lead over Bowyer for the coveted top-10 spot.

Bowyer has five top 10s in 11 starts at Bristol. Stewart has eight top 10s in 25 Bristol starts, including a win in the 2001 night race.

Bristol Milestone Watch
Some interesting Bristol-specific milestones to watch this weekend…

In March, Busch tied Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch for most wins among active drivers with five. Another win would be halfway to Darrell Waltrip's record 12 victories at the track. While 80 of the 101 races have been won from top-10 starting positions, Busch's best starting position on a day he's won is 12th in March…Mark Martin goes for a record 10th Coors Light Pole at the track, snapping a tie with Cale Yarborough.

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