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Fight For Chase Spots Continues Under Lights At New-Look Bristol

It’s down to three races in NASCAR’s “Race to the Chase,” and the pressure is on some big name drivers Saturday night at Bristol if they are going to get into NASCAR’s “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.”

Engine issues knocked three former Brickyard 400 winners out of contention last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, including three-time Sprint Cup champion and two-time Brickyard 400 winner Tony Stewart, four-time Cup champion and four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon and five-time Cup champion and four-time Brickyard winner Jimmie Johnson. All three drivers were using engines built by Hendrick Motorsports.

Johnson entered the Michigan race leading the Cup standings, but his 27th-place finish dropped him to fourth, 28 points behind current leader Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing. Stewart’s engine issue sent him to the garage area for repairs, and his 32nd-place finish dropped him to ninth in the standings, 34 points ahead of the Chase cutoff position.

Only the top-10 drivers in the Cup standings after the 400-lap race Sept. 8 at Richmond International Raceway automatically advance into the 12-driver, 10-race playoff format for the 2012 Sprint Cup title. The final two positions go to the drivers with the most victories in positions 11-20. Even if Stewart drops out of the top 10, he would probably make the Chase because he is currently tied with Johnson and Brad Keselowski for most wins this season with three victories apiece.

The same cannot be said for Gordon, whose 28th-place finish dropped him to 16th in the standings. With just one victory, Gordon would have to win two of the final three “Race to the Chase” contests – Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond – to get one of the two wild-card positions.

Gordon has five wins, 15 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes in 39 career starts at Bristol but has not wheeled a car into victory lane at BMS since this race in 2002. He was third last August and 35th this past March.

Changes have been made to the .533-mile, high-banked Bristol Motor Speedway to remove the top groove on the short track after previous changes to the configuration drastically changed the style of racing at this storied facility. That should bring back some more “beatin’ and bangin’” to Saturday night’s contest.

"It's about wins for us now, and we have three good tracks for us - Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond - to try and get another victory,” Gordon said. “I love what's been done because I typically run a groove off the wall - I don't run that top groove. Our car works much better further down, so I don't think it will affect us. The fans want to see excitement, bumper-to-bumper action and the drivers getting upset with one another. Eliminating that groove might help. I respect the fact that (Speedway Motorsports Chairman) Bruton (Smith) is being proactive. I applaud him for putting that effort into it and the money behind it, as well, and I think it's going to really pay off."

The two wild-card positions are held by Kasey Kahne, 11th in points with two wins, and Ryan Newman of South Bend, Ind., 13th in points with one victory. Kyle Busch is third in the running for one of the two wild-card positions, followed by Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, 2011 Brickyard 400 winner Paul Menard, 2010 Brickyard winner Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton.

Kahne, who is no stranger to racing in Indianapolis from his days as a top competitor in the United States Auto Club (USAC), is in pretty good position to make the Chase but realizes the new surface will change the nature of the race.

“The new surface is a real wild card for everyone,” Kahne said. “If the top lane is really slippery, it will be tough to race up there. I don’t think anyone knows until we get cars on the track. But we were really fast at Bristol in March, so I’m excited to race there again. It’s always a fun place to be.”

Kahne has never won at Bristol and has three top-five and six top-10 finishes in 17 starts. He was 11th last August and 37th this past March.

Newman is the second wild card, but his grip on that position is tenuous, with just one victory. That increases the importance of Saturday night’s “Bristol Stomp.” He is another driver that has never won at Bristol and has just one top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 21 starts. He finished eighth last August and was 12th on the old configuration at Bristol this past March.

“I just hope they didn’t screw up the racetrack,” Newman said. “The racing was different than what we had there in the past because of the tire to me, not because of the racetrack. I hope that the racing is good. I hope they didn’t take the racing away. The beating, banging and crashing is not the racing that I like. That’s what some of the fans enjoy, but that’s not the racing I like. I like being able to run side-by-side. The problem we had the tire just didn’t allow us to be able to fall off so the first five laps of the run were like the last five 120 later. You had what you had. Your car didn’t fall off, your balance didn’t change, and everybody was virtually the same speed.

“We passed and we raced side-by-side, but it made it difficult to see the guy coming from 10th on new tires to pass the guys that were in the top five. It just didn’t happen the way it used to. To me, the tires are the biggest issue when it comes to a place like that.”

Just one month ago, Menard thought he was in prime position to race his way into the Chase. But the son of long-time Indianapolis 500 team owner John Menard is seeing the Chase slip away from him. He hopes to catch up to the Chase at Bristol.

“It’s a big rhythm track,” Menard said. “It reminds me a lot of this quarter-mile track in Rockford, Ill. where we used to race. It has that progressive banking and you kind of run up the hill a little bit. You have to find your rhythm and just click off laps. You know you’ve found it when you understand your car and how it is going to react. Then you just sit back, try to drive smooth and do the same thing over and over again.”

Menard has no wins, one top-five and two top-10 finishes in 10 Bristol starts. He was 30th in August 2011 and 10th in March 2012.

McMurray is another driver who entered the 2012 season hoping to make the Chase for the first time in his career. He won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2010 but still did not make the 12-driver field for the Chase, leading NASCAR to adopt the wild-card format to put more emphasis on race winners.

He has no wins, three top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 19 starts. He was fifth last August and seventh back in March at Bristol.

“I think it will be an interesting weekend,” McMurray said. “With the changes to the track surface since the first race this year, we will have to make the most of our practice sessions and try to get a good qualifying effort for our Bass Pro Shops Chevy. Track position is going to be crucial. I am excited to get back and see how we are at Bristol. We had a really good run and a top-10 finish in March, so hopefully we can be just a little bit better this trip. I always enjoy racing under the lights, and Bristol is just such a unique venue, and always a lot of energy with the fans there.”

There are three former Brickyard 400 winners in the top 10 in points, including Johnson in fourth place, 2003 winner Kevin Harvick eighth and Stewart ninth. Earlier this week, Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing team switched crew chiefs by moving Shane Wilson out of that position and reuniting Harvick with Gil Martin in hopes of solidifying his effort to make the Chase. Harvick has yet to win a race in 2012.

Harvick drove to victory at Bristol in March 2005 for his only victory, one of nine top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 23 starts. He was 22nd last August and 11th this past March.

“I have always liked racing at Bristol,” Harvick said. “I’ve got a good record at this track, but to be honest, I have no clue what to expect when we head back. There have been so many changes made to the track over the last year I wish they wouldn’t have made, so who knows what we might happen when we go back there this weekend.”

Stewart is another driver whose racing style fits in well with Bristol’s “beatin’ and bangin’” personality. But he cautions the new Goodyear tire that will be used for this race may create an unknown for the drivers and teams.

“I’m not exactly sure 100 percent what tire they’re bringing back, but Goodyear ran through a lot of combinations trying to find something that would be a little bit different, a little bit better for the drivers,” Stewart said. “I’m pretty excited about the effort they’ve put forward, and we’ll wait and see what tire they bring.”

Stewart has one win, six top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 27 starts. He was 28th in August 2011 and 14th in March.

Despite last week’s engine failure, Johnson remains safe in the standings but is another driver who is eager to see how this weekend plays out on the reconfigured surface.

“I don’t know what to expect,” Johnson said. “We have had grinding done at some tracks, and we bought into a theory that it would do something; then it did the complete opposite. I don’t know what to expect until I really get on the track. I heard that where they ground the track was slick, we will just have to see over all the laps and once we get into the race what really happens there. Bristol went out on a limb here. It’s not about the drivers; it’s about the fans. We will see if they make everybody happy.”

Johnson drove to victory at Bristol in March 2010 for his only win, one of his six top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 21 starts. He was fourth in this contest last August and ninth in March.

And Saturday night marks the return of former Indianapolis 500 veteran and IZOD IndyCar Series regular Danica Patrick for her first Sprint Cup race since the Coke Zero 400 on July 7 at Daytona. Patrick led 20 laps in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race last Saturday at Montreal before mechanical issues hampered her Chevrolet for JR Motorsports. She is behind the wheel of the No. 10 Go Daddy Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing Saturday night after driving the No. 7 Go Daddy Chevrolet for JR Motorsports in Friday night’s Nationwide race.

“I’m looking forward to going to Bristol,” Patrick said. “I’ve look forward to going there every single time. It’s been a track that I enjoy because of the banking in the corners. It’s going to be more challenging now without the top line. It’s going to make it a little more bump-and-go kind of racing, which could still be fun, as long as I’m the one bumping (laughs). I’m looking forward going there with the Cup car because every time I run the Cup car I feel like the Nationwide car stuff goes better, so hopefully we can get our first really great result on a short-track.”

This is Patrick’s first Cup race at Bristol, but 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Patrick has competed in two previous Nationwide Series races at Bristol with a 33rd-place finish in March 2011 and 19th in March 2012.

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