Several NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers face extra pressure entering Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
With three races left in the regular season, only 12 drivers have locked up spots in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup. That means three opportunities for drivers who haven’t gone to Victory Lane to get a win and in turn secure a berth in NASCAR’s playoff.
If no first-time winner emerges in the upcoming trio of races, however, the final four Chase spots will go to the four highest points drivers who don’t have a win.
Currently, those four drivers are Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle. Well-within striking distance of Biffle are Kasey Kahne (-9), Austin Dillon (-22) and Kyle Larson (-24).
It seems unlikely, based on the 20-point gap from Larson back to the next driver, Marcos Ambrose, that anyone behind Larson will make the Chase based on points.
Recent trends also suggest that Bowyer, who sits 12 points ahead of Biffle, is a fairly safe bet if the last four Chase positions are set based on points.
All this means four drivers are in all likelihood essentially racing for one final playoff spot, assuming that drivers who have already won this season capture the next three races.
Bristol, a fast, high-banked .533-mile oval where things can go wrong in a hurry, is perhaps the best opportunity in the final three regular-season races for a driver outside the Chase to move in — or at least make a significant dent toward that end.
"I think that we have three solid races we are going to give ourselves that opportunity," Dillon, who along with Larson is looking to reach the Chase as a Sprint Cup rookie, said on Friday at Bristol. "Atlanta, I’m really looking forward to that (next) weekend. We tested there. This is a good track, too. I enjoy this track. I’ve ran well here the last three or four times I’ve been here. I just hope we can find what we found the last few times, and that is a good car during the race under race conditions. I haven’t had a ton of speed here leading up to that point. … We will see how it goes."
Dillon and Larson are looking to become the first rookie to make the Chase since Denny Hamlin in 2006.
"I hope we can put our Dow Chevrolet in the Chase, and I think you will see some really good tracks for us during that time," said Dillon, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress. "If I could hit the reset button as a rookie right now, there are so many more things I would do differently up to this point. It would be nice to have that, but you don’t so you go out and try to finish the season strong. Moving forward next year, I wouldn’t want to be in this situation. Hopefully, we have a win or are farther up in points."
Biffle, while in a better position than Dillon, is keenly aware that he is on the Chase bubble, and that given the small points spread back to his closest pursuers, even a mediocre finish at Bristol could ultimately be the difference between making or not making the 16-driver Chase Grid.
"Certainly all Bristol races are rough, so to speak, and this is a tough place — a really, really tough place — and I think we come in here, you’ve got to really be on offense and defense," Biffle said. "You come in here and run as hard as you can. We’re here to win and we feel like we run in the top 10 about every time we’re at Bristol and that’s the position you need to be in in order to put yourself in a position to win. That’s what the 99 team (teammate Carl Edwards) did in the spring. We ran in that position and they got track position and were able to pull out a win, so that’s important and that’s what we’re gonna be trying to do.
"At the same time, everybody wants to finish the race. You take chances and passes and all the things you can do, but at the same time we know we’re on that bubble in points. I feel it’s gonna take a win still to get in this thing, and that’s what we’re going for."
Kahne, the driver with the best mathematical chance of catching Biffle, won last year’s spring race at Bristol and finished a close second to Kenseth in the fall race at Thunder Valley.
Needless to say, the Hendrick Motorsports driver sees a huge opportunity to make up ground on Saturday night.
"Every time we race at Bristol, I look forward to it," Kahne said. "We’ve ran really well here for a while now. We’ve gone back to a tire that we ran on in 2013 that seemed to really suit us pretty well. Didn’t like the tire we had earlier in the year here, near as much.
"The falloff and things were much different than what they had been, so I’m excited about what we’ve got this weekend and really looking forward to it. It’s a track we can definitely run up front at."
Larson, meanwhile, faces perhaps the tallest order of all on Saturday night after wrecking his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in the opening round of Friday qualifying.
After suffering damage to his car, Larson was able to get back on track, but he’ll start 40th on the 43-car grid.
"We were really good in practice," said the rookie driver, who paced the first of Friday’s two practices. "I just got loose through the corner and thought I could save it, and probably should have just bailed. We got the wall. … Normally we would have practice the next day, but on Saturday night races we don’t, so we kind of have to guess on everything and hope it’s good."