NASCAR centerpiece: Paybacks with interest
Take it from a driver who knows. “I would not doubt for one second that at some point some kind of payback scenario will affect how the Chase unfolds,” Brad Keselowski said last week. “It’s something to watch out for any given week.”
And especially this week, with the Sprint Cup series visiting the close quarters of Bristol Motor Speedway. The high-banked Tennessee half-mile produces so much contact that it’s hard to tell the accidents from the on-purposes. In other words: There’s no better place for a driver bent on revenge to bend some sheet metal. And given the high number of driver feuds this season, Saturday night’s race could end up threatening the all-time Sprint Cup record for caution flags (it’s 22, if you’re counting). Here are some drivers to watch with particular interest any time they get near each other.
Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski
After a couple of memorable dust-ups, these two are on probation for the rest of the season. Any further shenanigans could result in a loss of points or even suspensions. But as their last-lap exchange in the Gateway Nationwide race proved, neither of these intensely competitive drivers will give the other an inch, no matter how closely they’re being watched. To add to the drama, each driver has plenty at stake: Edwards is fighting for a Chase berth in the Cup series while Keselowski is out of contention, but Keselowski holds the Nationwide series points lead with Edwards a distant second. And although the pair kept it clean while battling each other for the win in last Saturday’s Carfax 250 Nationwide race (Keselowski prevailed), that was at spacious Michigan International Speedway. Things tend to get much more up close and personal at Bristol.
Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson
Johnson can pinpoint the exact moment that this feud began: Lap 294 of New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 on June 27. Johnson was leading when Busch, the runner-up, ran him up the track with a shove. “That’s the first time in nine years racing with him that I have experienced that,” Johnson said. “It definitely changed the way that I’ll race with him moving on.” In fact, it immediately changed Johnson’s approach: He knocked Busch’s No. 2 Dodge aside five laps later and took the win. And while Busch, who ended up third, expressed no anger after that exchange – “a great short track battle,” he called it – he sounded a different tune after the No. 48’s front bumper sent him for a ride at Pocono: “Jimmie Johnson drove straight through us.”
Jeff Gordon and (fill in the blank)
Gordon has had run-ins with a long list of drivers this season, including Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and his own teammate, Johnson. It’s been a strange year for the No. 24 driver; Gordon sits a comfortable second in points and is a virtual lock for the Chase. But he’s also winless and has endured the frustration of seeing several late leads evaporate – including Martinsville, where he led at lap 500 but slipped to third after the race went into overtime. That day Gordon wrecked Matt Kenseth after Kenseth had nudged Gordon out of the lead. Those two have also traded paint at Bristol in the past, so add the No. 17 to the list of cars to watch around Gordon.
Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick (or Ryan Newman)
The 20-year-old Logano had a heated post-race exchange with Harvick at Pocono in June after a late bumping incident, and a similar encounter with Ryan Newman last Sunday at Michigan. Afterward Newman claimed he was “just trying to teach the little kid how to drive.” Will Bristol be part of the lesson plan?
Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch
It’s easy to write this “feud” off. Their only notable confrontation happened three months ago, when they got together late in the All-Star Race. That was a non-points event, meaning a win was the only incentive. Bristol is different. It’s the first of just three points races left before the Chase. Two teammates in contention for a title wouldn’t risk wrecking each other here, would they? Under the circumstances, they just might. Both Busch and Hamlin are in good shape for Chase berths, so at this point the only real incentive for either is to try to improve his seeding. The only way to do that is to win. So if both are up front near the end, expect them to take an all-or-nothing approach. Just like at the All-Star Race.
ONE TO WATCH: Kurt Busch
WHY HE MATTERS: Among active drivers, tied for lead in career Cup wins at Bristol (five).
WHAT HE SAYS: “We’ve got some good tracks coming up. We’ll be fine.”
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: He’d better be fine; blown engine at Michigan plunged him from fourth in points to 10th.
NEXT RACE IRWIN TOOLS NIGHT RACE Bristol Motor Speedway
THE LOWDOWN Hey, wait. Bristol is supposed to be the race that shakes up the standings – not Michigan. But nine of the top 13 drivers changed spots after last Sunday’s Carfax 400 – and several of the shifts were major. Tony Stewart continued his summer surge, jumping from eighth to fourth. Denny Hamlin gained three spots. Jeff Burton lost three. But Kurt Busch took the biggest hit, dropping six spots. Still, Busch is better off than Mark Martin, who slipped off the bubble after finishing 28th. That should all add up to even more white knuckles than usual on Saturday night.
2009 Kyle Busch
2008 Carl Edwards
2007 Carl Edwards
2006 Matt Kenseth
2005 Matt Kenseth
TRACK: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.), .533-mile high-banked paved oval
RACE LENGTH: 500 laps, 266.5 miles
FIRST RACE: 1961
SERIES: NASCAR Sprint Cup
Quote of note
“It’s a lot of fun to come to the racetrack right now.” – Points leader Kevin Harvick, who clinched a Chase berth with a win at Michigan.
Where to watch
Saturday’s pre-race show on ABC starts at 6:30 p.m. EDT, followed by the race at 7:30.
UP TO SPEED
Here’s an eyebrow-raising stat: Among the current top 20 in Sprint Cup points, the driver who has completed the highest percentage of laps at the rock-’em, sock-’em Bristol Motor Speedway during his career is Juan Pablo Montoya: 99.6 percent (see chart). Contrast that with Kasey Kahne, who has completed just 83.2 percent. Among drivers currently holding Chase berths, Jimmie Johnson has the highest percentage of laps completed at Bristol (98.1 percent), Jeff Burton has the lowest (87.3 percent), and bubble boy Clint Bowyer (88.2 percent) appears to have the greatest cause for concern.
The stand-alone race for the Camping World Truck series at Darlington last Saturday night lived up to its name: Too Tough To Tame 200. Fifteen of the 36 starters failed to finish the race, won by Todd Bodine.
Brad Keselowski’s win in last Saturday’s Nationwide race at Michigan International Speedway was the first for the Dodge Challenger model. The Challenger, along with the Ford Mustang, are part of the Nationwide series’ “next-generation” roll-out. The new cars made their debut at Daytona in July and will also be used at Richmond and Charlotte before NASCAR makes the full-time switch next season.
Percentage of laps completed (LC) at Bristol
POINTS RANK DRIVER LC (PCT.)
1 Kevin Harvick 97.7%
2 Jeff Gordon 96.4%
3 Denny Hamlin 93.6%
4 Tony Stewart 95.7%
5 Jimmie Johnson 98.1%
6 Jeff Burton 87.3%
7 Carl Edwards 97.2%
8 Kyle Busch 97.7%
9 Matt Kenseth 97.3%
10 Kurt Busch 93.8%
11 Greg Biffle 97.6%
12 Clint Bowyer 88.2%
13 Mark Martin 94.3%
14 Ryan Newman 94.7%
15 Jamie McMurray 96.6%
16 Kasey Kahne 83.2%
17 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 98.6%
18 David Reutimann 84.4%
19 Juan Pablo Montoya 99.6%
20 Martin Truex Jr. 95.4%