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Irvin Tools Night Race Preview

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While the final 10-race Chase for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Championship is supposed to be the most thrilling portion on the season, I think most fans agree that the Race to the Chase were seeing right now is far more intense, simply because there are so many interchangeable variables and storylines each week involving several drivers rather than just the final two or three in the final weeks of the season.

There are only three weeks remaining until the Chase starts and only 12 drivers will make it -- Jimmie Johnson is only driver to clinch, but right now we have 14 legitimate drivers all vying for the final 11 spots, and each week something happens to drastically change the stage. Drivers with no wins who are inside the top-10 with no wins, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch are feeling the pressure of trying to continually run well, while drivers outside the top-10 like Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman have an interesting dilemma in front of them.

Truex Jr., sits in 12th position and would get the wild card based on his one win if the season ended today, but he’s got Logano breathing down his neck -- only seven points behind -- and a win in his back pocket that he captured last week at Michigan. Newman is only 17 points behind and also has a win. If either of those drivers can win one in the final three races, they’ll likely secure one of the wild card spots with two wins on the season. But in going for the win, there is a risk. Go all out and sometimes things can turn for the worse, such as wrecking and sliding down in points.

As for Gordon, he slid another position in the standings to 14th and if he doesn’t win at least one race, he’ll have to make up at least 27 points over the next three to pass Greg Biffle who sits in 10th with one win. Gordon’s in a situation where he has to be as aggressive as ever and go all out and let things fall where they may. He raced himself into the Chase last season with a succession of brilliant finishes in the final three races before the Chase with a third-place and two runner-up finishes. After finishing second at Pocono a few weeks ago, he’s come up with poor finishes of 36th at Watkins Glen and 17th at Michigan and he‘ll need something similar to last season, and maybe even better, to have a chance. 

This Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway’s half-mile fast track should turn up the heat on all the drivers competing for their playoff lives. In addition to already feeling the heat from the standings, they’ll also feel the wrath from irritated drivers who have to spend 500 laps tightly bunched up with one another. With so many drivers competing for every position they can, there are bound to be plenty of hurt feelings when they are wronged by a fellow driver, and that’s when the real drama begins, because the anticipation of seeing the retaliation is what makes Bristol so fun for the fans.
Keselowski can take a major step forward in getting his name off the hunted list in the standings by getting his first win of the season. The 2012 Sprint Cup Champion has been at his best at Bristol, winning races in 2011 and 2012, as well as finishing third in the spring race this season. He isn’t too happy about going winless thus far, and has the type of attitude that won’t allow for him to simply race for points. Especially not at Bristol, where he has kind of a territorial thing going right now thinking he’s the best.

We’ve seen drivers go on major runs over a few consecutive years at Bristol and gobble up wins, and then they just kind of stop all of a sudden. Keselowski, although not winning the last two races there, looks to be the current King of Bristol right now. He is one of 12 drivers, and the last, in NASCAR history to win back-to-back races at Bristol. 

He took over that crown from Kyle Busch, who won five times at Bristol over a nine race stretch from 2007-11, but hasn’t won there in his last four starts. He did, however, finish one spot ahead of Keselowski in the spring with a runner-up finish, right behind Kasey Kahne. He also has won back-to-back at Bristol, except he's done it twice, joining greats like Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers to do so.

Kurt Busch had his Bristol crown taken away from his brother. From 2002-06, the older Busch won five times at Bristol. He is a very interesting look this week, not only because of finishing fourth in the spring, but because of the roll his team is currently on. He’s charged up the standings into ninth-place, and while he doesn’t have a win this season, he’s coming very close on all types of tracks. Since June 23 at Sonoma, Busch has six top-10 finishes in eight starts that include five finishes of sixth or better. He has finished third in two of last three starts coming into this week.

Earnhardt Jr. has only one win at Bristol over his career (2004), but over the past 20 races there, no one has been more consistent, as he‘s averaged a 9.3 finish position. He finished sixth in the spring and is hanging on loosely to the No. 7 position in points.
Matt Kenseth is a two-time winner and had a nice run going in the spring -- leading 88 laps -- before getting involved in an accident with Jeff Gordon with 98 laps to go. He should be ready to go for a good run and compete for his fifth win of the season, which would set him up nice with more bonus Chase points than Johnson who has four wins as well.          

Top-5 Finish Prediction

1) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
3) #78 Kurt Busch (12/1)
4) #5 Kasey Kahne (8/1)
5) #20 Matt Kenseth (10/1)


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