For the Chase bubble boys, Bristol is crunch time in more than one way
Figuratively and literally, it’s crunch time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Figuratively, because the field for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup will be set three weeks from Saturday night, with the final five spots still up for grabs.
Literally, because Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race will doubtless see a lot of torn-up race cars strewn around the 0.533-mle Bristol Motor Speedway short track.
Combine the two factors and it’s safe to say tensions are high with drivers one the edge of the Chase cutoff. Every driver knows what he has to do, but knowing it and doing it are two very different things, especially at a track as unpredictable as Bristol is.
“I think we have to be aggressive,” said Austin Dillon, who comes into Bristol 13th in points. “Anytime you play defense and you start playing that game it seems to hurt you.”
Compared with other drivers, Dillon is in relatively good shape. Although he is winless on the season, he would make the Chase if it started right now.
Heading into Bristol, there are 11 drivers who have won races and are in the top 30 in points, the two conditions required to make the Chase. Those 11, along with the five winless drivers with the most points, are Chase eligible heading into Saturday night’s race.
Dillon is ranked No. 3 among the five winless drivers inside the Chase bubble, so he at least has a small cushion.
“Four (races) to go, just got to look at it, finish in the top 10 and I think we are solid. Four races, four top 10’s, that would be a great goal,” said Dillon. “We have a little leeway right there, top 15, but I think top 10 (finishes) would take us home.”
Less secure is Kyle Larson who, right now, is the last driver inside the Chase bubble. If Pocono winner Chris Buescher can crack the top 30 in points — he’s 31st now, 3 points out of 30th — Larson would be the first guy out.
“It would be nice to get a win, but if we don’t get a win we are going to have to be top five probably these next four races to have a shot at making it,” said Larson. “… Buescher is probably going to end up in the top 30. I know I’m in the Chase right now, but I haven’t viewed it that way since he won.”
And Buescher’s walking a tightrope, too. He obviously wants a good finish at Bristol but can ill-afford getting caught up in a wreck.
“It’s time to go out there and get every point we can get every time we’re out on track, and from there we’ll just let it play itself out,” said Buescher. “At this point we’ve gotten ourselves in a little bit of a hole just from some speedway racing and a couple of other things and now we’re digging out of it. The only way to do that is to go out here and be competitive.”
For Trevor Bayne, the first driver on the wrong side of the Chase bubble, his strategy is simple: Just win, baby.
“For myself and my team we come to Bristol and say, ‘You know what? We need to win this race,’” said Bayne. “We put the effort in and we go at it as if we’ve got to win and you’ve got to do it in a way where you’re not making mistakes.”
True, all of it.
But what’s also true is that not all the Chase bubble drivers will be able to execute over the next four races. Some will make it to NASCAR’s playoff round, while others inevitably will come up short.
“That’s a lot of pressure, but it’s what we’re here for,” said Bayne. “We want to win. We aren’t here to drive around in circles and collect a paycheck, we’re here to win races.”