The race to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is hitting a fever pitch, with the pressure on for Saturday's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The points are extremely tight with just three races left in NASCAR's 26-race regular season. The 12 drivers who make the Chase will be the top 10 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings after the regular season ends two weeks from Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. Also making the Chase will be the two drivers in points positions 11-20 who have the most race victories in the regular season.
What's really unusual this time around is how the victories have fallen: Kasey Kahne, the 11th-place driver, has two race victories this season and is therefore a virtual lock to make the Chase. Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano, the 12th- and 13th-place drivers, respectively, have one race victory each, as does 15th-place Ryan Newman.
The drivers in points positions seven through nine right now -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch -- are all winless so far. Earnhardt is only 20 points ahead of 11th-place Kahne, while Keselowski is only eight points ahead of Kahne, and two points ahead of Busch. A bad night for any of the three at Bristol could easily drop them out of the top 10. And without race victories, being outside the top 10 could mean missing the Chase altogether.
The good news for Earnhardt, Keselowski and Busch is that Bristol is a good track for all three drivers: Busch has five Sprint Cup victories here, Keselowski two and Earnhardt one. Even though he hasn't won as often at Bristol as Keselowski or Busch, Earnhardt actually has a better average finish at Bristol (11.593) than the other two do.
Penske Racing teammates Logano and Keselowski come into Bristol hot right now. In his last four races, Logano has one victory and an average finish of 5.75. In his last three starts, Keselowski's average finish is 6.67.
"Bristol is absolutely coming at a good time," said Keselowski. "I like to think of Bristol as one of my better racetracks, probably in the top three. I took to it from the first time I drove out on the surface. It's a man's racetrack, and I like that about it. We need to get a win in these last three races before the Chase begins."
Logano is coming off a big victory at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday but right now is the odd man out, seven points behind Truex in the race for the second wild-card spot.
"Until we are locked into the Chase, then the pressure is still there," said Logano. "Even with a win, we are still just one bad race from pretty much being out of this thing. We just have to continue doing what we have been doing over the last few weeks. We just need to put together great races and get the most out of the Shell-Pennzoil Ford that we can. If that's a win, then great. If that's a top-five, then that is what we need to get. It's all about maximizing your day over these last three races."