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It may be too much to call this Saturday’s IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway a must-win for Jeff Gordon, but the four-time NASCAR champion definitely needs a top finish to have a realistic chance of making this year’s “Chase for the Championship.”
Similar to last year, Gordon has serious ground to make up at Bristol.
He is currently 14th in the driver standings, 26 points outside the top 10. It’s actually not as big a deficit as he faced a year ago when Gordon was 16th in points, but in position for a wild-card spot. He trailed wild-card leader Ryan Newman by 33 points heading into Bristol, but rallied with finishes of third at Bristol, second at Atlanta and second at Richmond to beat both Newman and Kyle Busch for the final Chase spot.
The 42-year-old driver insists he’s going to race this weekend with the same approach he always brings.
“Our mindset hasn’t changed going into this weekend,” said Gordon, a five-time Bristol winner. “We’re still going to work hard all weekend to have a fast race car, hopefully qualify well and lead some laps and be in position to battle for the win at the end of the night. That’s our plan of attack every weekend.
“We have a good stretch of tracks ahead and we have to do everything possible to make the most of these races.”
Gordon isn’t the only champion on the Chase bubble.
Defending series champion Brad Keselowski is eighth in the standings, only eight points ahead of 11th-place. Kurt Busch is ninth in the standings, six points ahead of the cut-off spot.
Like Gordon, they are among the most successful drivers at Bristol.
Keselowski has won two of the last four races on the .533-mile short track and Busch is tied with his younger brother Kyle and Gordon with five Bristol wins for the most among active drivers.
A win by either one of them would place them in a prime spot for a wild-card if they would fall out of the top 10 in points. The prospects would appear to be good for Keselowski as the Penske Racing organization has been fast recently on differnet types of tracks.
Two weeks ago, Keselowski won a Nationwide Series race on the Watkins Glen road course and followed it up with a runner-up finish in the Sprint Cup race. Last weekend, his teammate Joey Logano had the dominant car at Michigan.
For his part, Keselowski sees Bristol as an opportunity to win his way into the Chase.
“Bristol is absolutely coming at a good time,” he said. “I like to think of Bristol as one of my better racetracks, probably in the top three. I took to it from the first time I drove out on the surface. It’s a man’s racetrack and I like that about it.
“We need to get a win in these last three races before the Chase begins. We know what we can do in the Miller Lite Ford at Bristol, but past success doesn’t guarantee anything for the future. We need to have a focused weekend from the time we roll off the truck.”
Busch comes into Bristol with three straight top-10 finishes including a third last week at Michigan. The biggest thing which separates him from Gordon this season is only two DNF’s for Busch compared to six for Gordon.
A bad finish at Bristol can doom a driver’s Chase hopes as Carl Edwards can attest.
Last year, Edwards came into Bristol ranked 12th in the points. A finish of 22nd at Bristol, one lap off the pace, followed by an engine failure at Atlanta the following week left Edwards ended his run at the Chase.
This year, the driver of the No. 99 Ford is on solid ground, third in the points behind Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer.
Johnson, the five-time champion, qualified for the Chase two weeks ago at Watkins Glen. Despite a blown motor and 40th-place finish at Michigan, Johnson sitill holds a commanding 41-point lead in the championship standings.
Bowyer, Edwards and Kevin Harvick can all clinch Chase spots with strong finishes. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne can basically assure themselves wild-card entries into the Chase with a Bristol win.
It’s also a big weekend for the Truex family.
Martin Truex Jr., currently holding the last wild-card spot, can help his cause tremendously. Recent history seems to be on his side with two top-five finishes in his last four Bristol races.
His younger brother, Ryan, will make his Sprint Cup Series debut this weekend in the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. The younger Truex, a back-to-back champion in the K&N Pro Series, has 35 Nationwide Series starts with a best finish of second at Dover.