At Bristol Motor Speedway, the unpredictability is the only element that’s predictable.
Saturday night’s IRWIN Tools Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC, Performance Racing Network radio, SiriusXM radio) just might be the biggest remaining unknown with the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ just three races away.
Bristol’s tall concrete banks well may determine who does or doesn’t qualify for the postseason.
The racing will be close, pressure-packed and physical. Who doesn’t remember Dale Earnhardt “rattling” Terry Labonte’s cage or Tony Stewart’s thrown helmet that bounced off Matt Kenseth’s windshield?
A few drivers – like five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who has already clinched a Chase berth – know Bristol’s twists and turns won’t end their championship hopes.
Others – not so much.
Drivers ranked seventh through 11th – Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Kasey Kahne – are separated by just 20 points. Last year’s Bristol night race saw 20 cars finish all 500 laps. Among those finishing off the lead lap was Carl Edwards, who needed a solid finish to close crucial ground on the points leaders.
He didn’t get it and ultimately failed to reach the Chase.
Saturday’s race could be huge for what’s now become a crowded field of four current Chase Wild Card hopefuls scoring victories in 2013. Although Tony Stewart remains eligible by virtue of a top-20 points position, Stewart-Haas Racing has pronounced its injured driver out for the remainder of the year.
Spring Bristol winner Kasey Kahne, attempting to become the first to score a sweep since Kyle Busch in 2009, would virtually lock up one Wild Card spot with his third victory of the year. That might be moot since Kahne is just four points out of the top 10.
The same could be said for Martin Truex Jr., 10 points out of the top 10. Truex finished 12th at Bristol in March and 11th a year ago. The New Jersey native has only two top-five finishes at the track but they are good ones – third in the spring of 2012 and second in the 2011 night race.
Neither Michigan winner Joey Logano nor Indianapolis winner Ryan Newman has been able to score a Bristol victory. Logano’s No. 22 Penske Racing Ford, however, is owned by Roger Penske. Penske Racing is No. 2 in the Bristol win column with 10 trips to Victory Lane – most recently in spring of 2012 with reigning series champion Brad Keselowski.