The NASCAR Sprint Cup series is back in the house of ESPN tonight, as the Motor Speedway in Bristol, CT hosts its second race of the season. This is the first of three more races that go until NASCAR effectively hits the re-set button on the standings, when only the Top 10 points leaders, plus two wild-card drivers will be eligible for the championship in the last ten races of the year (though the entire Sprint Cup field remains eligible to win the week-by-week races and the accompanying purses). The Irwin Tools Night Race starts at 7 PM ET on Saturday night and will be televised by ABC.
Brad Keselowski won the earlier race in Bristol and a victory here would be his fourth of 2012, which would be the most of the field. He’s currently tied with Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart at three apiece and when the standings re-set takes place its wins, not total points that will put you at the top. Hence, Greg Biffle’s victory last week was crucial not because it put Biffle back atop the points standings, but as his second win of the year, put him in closer striking distance of the top for when the postseason begins.
The focus of the racing world though, remains the jousting for the second wild-card spot. The drivers who finish outside the Top 10 are first ranked based on outright wins, with total points being used as the tiebreaker. That makes Kasey Kahne, the only non-Top 10 driver with two wins and sitting in 11th in points, secure. It means Carl Edwards, ranked 12th, but with no wins, has only three chances to finish at the head of the pack.
But since we’re in Bristol, the focus should be on Kyle Busch. In 14th place, he’s 11 points behind Ryan Newman and each has won a single race. While any of Jeff Gordon, Marcus Ambrose or Joey Logano could win a second race and nullify significant points deficits, only Busch has a realistic chance to catch Newman purely on points and to all but lock up a wild-card with a win himself. And given that Busch has won an astonishing five of the last eleven races held at Bristol Motor Speedway, we clearly should not bet against him on Saturday night.
The playoff joust provides drama enough, but according to TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR expert, my brother Bill, the structure of Bristol Motor Speedway can make things even more interesting. “They reconfigured the track to go back to the old way,” Bill informed by phone as he drove his long-haul rig through central Wyoming this morning. “The drivers are banging on each other and you have to bump and run to pass.” When I asked why a track would switch to such an approach, Bill said the strategies of the bump-and-run make for a more exciting race, even if they do increased the odds of a crash. “And if a driver has a grudge against a rival, this is the kind of place they do something about it,” he added.
Whether the track is open or close-quartered, one thing holds true over the last several years. Kyle Busch is more at home in the home of ESPN than anyone this side of Chris Berman.