With three races remaining until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, we take a look at the Top 12 in points heading into Saturday night’s Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway:
1. Tony Stewart (3,500 points)
Michigan on my mind: Stewart finished 17th at Michigan after an equipment mistake in final practice Saturday kept his car from being a contender for the win Sunday. The result didn’t really matter, however, as Stewart clinched a spot in the Chase by just starting the race. “It just shows that you can’t let your guard down, especially in something as simple as Happy Hour [final practice] like that,” Stewart said in a release. “We just had one little mistake and it got us behind going into [Sunday]. So, it just shows that you can’t relax and you can’t lose concentration. You have to stay on top of it.”
Career stats at Bristol: One win, five top-fives, seven top-10s, 16.4 average finish in 21 starts.
Hit the lights: Stewart isn’t likely to take it easy in the final three races before the Chase. Since the Chase points are resent to 5,000 and drivers are then seeded by their wins in the first 26 races, Stewart — with three victories and 30 bonus points — needs at least one more win to maintain his spot atop the standings, assuming Mark Martin (four wins) makes the Chase.
2. Jeff Gordon (3,216 points, -284)
Michigan on my mind: Gordon (above right) notched his second consecutive second-place finish at Michigan on Sunday and jumped one spot in the standings. He still has only one win on the season (Texas) and, like Stewart, will be trying hard to earn another one before the Chase begins. He’ll have a little work to do, however, when he starts 33rd Saturday.
Career stats at Bristol: Five wins, 14 top-fives, 20 top-10s, 11.3 average finish in 33 starts.
Hit the lights: Gordon is always a contender at Bristol, but he hasn’t won there since the August night race in 2002. The track and the Cup cars have changed since then and Gordon says his team has made some progress in getting the COT set up for the .533-mile track. “I love this track, and I love the changes they made to it a few years back,” Gordon said in a release. “But it’s still a tough short track where you are constantly battling for position or battling traffic — and you can easily get swept up in somebody else’s accident.”
3. Jimmie Johnson (3,197 points, -303)
Michigan on my mind: For the second consecutive time at Michigan, Jimmie Johnson (above left) ran out of fuel in the waning laps while leading the race. “We’ve won one race on fuel mileage ever, it is just not what we are good at,” Johnson said in a TV interview after he finished 33rd in the Carfax 400. “I think it is a little too risky for us to even try it. We got lucky once in Phoenix, outside of that, we always come up short. From inside the car, I did all I could.”
Career stats at Bristol: No wins, three top-fives, seven top-10s, 16.4 average finish in 15 starts.
Hit the lights: Johnson finished third at Bristol in March, which ties for his best career result at the track. He and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon can both clinch a Chase spot Saturday if they leave Bristol with a 391-point lead over 13th place. Johnson, who will start 21st Saturday, currently leads by 418 points and Gordon by 437.
4. Carl Edwards (2,995 points, -505)
Michigan on my mind: Edwards’ fourth-place finish at Michigan allowed him to jump two spots in the standings. It was his second consecutive top-five finish. Edwards is the only driver in the top five with no victories so far this season. By this time last season he had five.
Career stats at Bristol: Two wins, three top-fives, four top-10s, 13.9 average finish in 10 starts.
Hit the lights: For the second consecutive week, Edwards arrives at an event as the defending winner. His Bristol victory last season came courtesy of a wildly cheered bump-and-run on Kyle Busch with 30 laps to go. Edwards’ other Bristol win came in the Sharpie 500 night race in 2007. “We’re coming off of a great, great run at Michigan,” Edwards said in a team release. “We’re going to go to Bristol with the first goal being to finish the race. Our second goal will be to have the same success that we’ve had the last couple years in the night race there. I’m really confident at that racetrack. I enjoy racing there. I’m a little nervous about the double-file restart there though. It has the potential to cause a lot of stress for the guys that are points racing.”
5. Denny Hamlin (2,986 points, -514)
Michigan on my mind: Hamlin battled a loose-handling car for much of the race Sunday and finished a quiet 10th. “Tenth was good for points, you always want to win but to put the FedEx Office Toyota in a safer spot in the standings going into the Chase.” Hamlin said in a team release. “That is what matters, if you can’t bring it home first.
Career stats at Bristol: No wins, two top-fives, four top-10s, 12.6 average finish in seven starts.
Hit the lights: Hamlin hasn’t finished worse than sixth in his past three Bristol races. He finished second behind teammate Kyle Busch in March. He’ll have his work cut out for him Saturday night, however, after he nearly wrecked his car in qualifying and wound up with the 41st starting spot. He didn’t practice better than 17th in Friday’s two practices.
6. Kurt Busch (2,957 points, -543)
Michigan on my mind: Busch finished a disappointing 36th on Sunday after being involved in an accident with 80 laps to go in the Carfax 400. He dropped two spots in the standings but remains a comfortable 178 points ahead of 13th place.
Career stats at Bristol: Five wins, five top-fives, nine top-10s, 14.2 average finish in 17 starts.
Hit the lights: Busch last won at Bristol in the 2006 spring race, but he counts his first night-race win (his third overall Bristol victory) as his favorite. “That win in the night race at Bristol in [August] 2003 probably rates as my biggest career win to date,” Busch said in a release. “At least it does in my eyes. It is spectacular to win at Bristol at night. There’s just so much electricity and excitement in the air.” Busch, whose five victories match Jeff Gordon for most among active drivers, will start 13th Saturday.
7. Juan Pablo Montoya (2,887 points, -613)
Michigan on my mind: Montoya dodged a bullet Sunday when he recovered from a late-race flat tire that dropped him a lap down. A free pass on a late caution allowed him to get back on the lead lap and he finished 19th to maintain his place in the standings. It was Montoya’s first finish outside the top 15 since a 30th-place result at Dover on May 31.
Career stats at Bristol: No wins, no top-fives, one top-10, 18.4 average finish in five starts.
Hit the lights: Montoya earned his first and only top-10 finish (ninth) at Bristol in March. Like all the tracks on the NASCAR circuit, Montoya learns a great deal each time he visits Bristol. “The first time I went there [Bristol Motor Speedway] was before they redid the track. It was a handful,” Montoya said in a release. “It was really, really hard because you really had to be on the bottom. I think experience on the track paid a big thing. If you missed the bottom or they moved you up you would lose a lot of ground. Now I think it’s nicer. ... You see a lot more side-by-side racing and there’s a lot of different race lines. The racing is better. We normally run well there so I’m pretty excited and looking forward to it.”
8. Kasey Kahne (2,884 points, -616)
Michigan on my mind: Kahne qualified 10th at Michigan, but had to start at the rear of the field because of an engine change. He managed an 11th-place finish to hold on to his spot in the standings. “We got the best finish that we could,” Kahne said in a team release. “The pit crew did a great job. Considering we started 43rd, we had a lot of cars that we had to pass on a very slick race track and we were able to pass a lot of cars.”
Career stats at Bristol: No wins, two top-fives, four top-10s, 19.3 average finish in 11 starts.
Hit the lights: Kahne’s results at Bristol have been hit and miss. He finished 40th in this race last season because of an accident, but brought his No. 9 Dodge home fifth this year’s spring event. With only 105 points separating him from 13th place, he’ll likely need to avoid disaster and collect another top-10 finish Saturday to hold onto his spot in the standings .
9. Ryan Newman (2,845 points, -655)
Michigan on my mind: Newman battled an ill-handling No. 39 Chevy Sunday and settled for a 15th-place finish. Newman maintained his spot in the standings, but he is only 66 points ahead of 13th place. “It wasn’t an ideal day by any means, but this team shows each and every week that we’re not going to get down and we’re going to fight for a spot in the Chase for the Championship.,” Newman said in a release after Sunday’s race.
Career stats at Bristol: No wins, one top-five, eight top-10s, 19.2 average finish in 15 starts.
Hit the lights: Newman has had a busy week already at the Tennessee short track. He raced in the NASCAR Whelen Modified and Camping World Truck Series events on Wednesday. He finished 13th in Friday night’s Nationwide race and qualified ninth for Saturday’s Sprint Cup Sharpie 500. While Bristol isn’t one of his best tracks, Newman has finished in the top 10 in his last two starts at the track. Newman said he’ll need to balance caution with aggression on Saturday. “We have more things to consider in respect to the points and that doesn’t necessarily put pressure on you, it just means that you have to educate yourself about your surroundings in respect to the points,” Newman said in a team release. “We’re in a different situation but the way that I drive the car and the way that I race is the same.”
10. Greg Biffle (2,821 points, -679)
Michigan on my mind: Much like Jimmie Johnson, Biffle’s Michigan curse continues. For the second consecutive race on the two-mile oval, Biffle ran out of fuel on the final lap and he coasted in for a 20th-place finish. Fortunately, Biffle held his spot in the standings, but he is only 42 points ahead of 13th-place Brian Vickers.
Career stats at Bristol: No wins, four top-fives, seven top-10s, 12.1 average finish in 13 starts.
Hit the lights: During the spring race at Bristol, Biffle was running in the top 10 when his engine went sour on lap 326 of the 500-lap event. He wound up finishing 39th for his worst result at the track. Biffle, who qualified second Friday, knows how important it is to start up front. “It obviously takes a good race car to win at Bristol but it helps to qualify well,” Biffle said in a team release. “Sometimes it can be hard to pass and if the field gets backed up, it doesn’t take long for the leader to start lapping cars. If you have a bad qualifying run or have to start in the back for some other reason, it can be difficult even with a good car to get back through the field.”
11. Matt Kenseth (2,811 points, -689)
Michigan on my mind: Much like his competitors Sunday, Kenseth had to conserve gas and finished 14th in a car that ran in the top five most of the day. The result did help Kenseth improve one spot in the standings, but he’s only 32 points out of 13th.
Career stats at Bristol: Two wins, seven top-fives, 11 top-10s, 13.3 average finish in 19 starts.
Hit the lights: Kenseth has held onto a Chase spot courtesy of four consecutive top-15 finishes. He’ll need another Saturday to keep pace. Both of Kenseth’s Bristol Cup victories came in the August night event (2005, 2006) and he’s led 742 laps at the track — sixth-best among active drivers. “We’ve been a little off at Bristol since we switched to this car, really, and the configuration,” Kenseth said in a team release. “I think [teammate] Carl [Edwards] has maybe won three out of four of them with this car and this track, so we know the stuff is there. We just have to get our stuff running a little better.”
12. Mark Martin (2,791 points, -709)
Michigan on my mind: Martin won at Michigan in June because of great fuel mileage. On Sunday, he had a strong car all day and was racing just outside the top 10 when he ran out of gas on the final lap. His 31st-place result dropped him one spot in the standings and left him only 12 points ahead of 13th-place Brian Vickers, who won the Carfax 400.
Career stats at Bristol: Two wins, 15 top-fives, 22 top-10s, 12.7 average finish in 41 starts.
Hit the lights: Martin earned his second consecutive Bristol pole on Friday. He parlayed his spring pole into a sixth-place finish. On Saturday, Martin will join Richard Petty and Michael Waltrip as the only drivers with 1,000 NASCAR starts. The Sharpie 500 will be his 746th Cup start. He has also competed in 231 Nationwide Series events and 23 Camping World Truck Series races. “The 1,000th start is a huge accomplishment,” Martin’s Cup crew chief, Alan Gustafson, said in a team release. “But I would go farther to say that he’s the only guy that’s started 1,000 races and been competitive in all of them. There are not many people who can say they’ve done that.”
Note: Stats compiled from team releases, NASCAR media information and nascar.com
Photos: Getty Images