News & Media

Bristol looms large for wild-card hopeful Busch

August 24, 2012, David Caraviello,

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- For Kyle Busch, the setting and the scenario could not be a more perfect match. Needing a victory potentially to squeeze his way into the final Chase for the Sprint Cup wild-card spot, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver competes this weekend at a Bristol Motor Speedway where he's won five times. Clearly, the opportunity is there for him, right on that 0.5-mile ribbon of concrete.

But to call it must-win? Not quite.

Busch at Bristol

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"We've got three weeks, man," Busch said. "Chill out."

Perhaps easier said than done, given the situation. Busch trails Ryan Newman by 11 points for the final wild-card berth with three races remaining until the championship field is set Sept. 8 at another short track, 0.75-mile Richmond International Raceway. In between, there's a Labor Day weekend event at 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway. Busch has won 10 times on those tracks combined, including an event at Richmond this spring that stands as his lone victory of the season.

But it's little Bristol that stands out as Busch's best track, a place where he once won four times in a span of five races, where he won the first race with the current Sprint Cup chassis in 2007, where a year later he led 415 of 500 laps before ending up second, where he's won four times in a Nationwide car. Among active drivers, only Brad Keselowski -- who has won the past two events here -- has a better average finish. Only Jeff Gordon, a five-time Bristol winner who's been at this much longer than Busch, has more laps led on the World's Fastest Half-Mile.

One more win would give Busch the advantage over Newman in race victories, an edge that could prove insurmountable with so few weeks remaining in the regular season. But chances to win have been rare this year for the No. 18 team, which saw a golden opportunity get away two weeks ago when Busch slid while leading on the final lap at Watkins Glen. The week before that, it was a brake rotor failure at Pocono. Last week, it was the wrong right-rear shock at Michigan.

"We've been really fast," Busch said. "We've had fast race cars, which I've been excited about. [Crew chief] Dave [Rogers] and the guys have done a really nice job of putting together some good stuff. It's just stupid things keep happening."

Some clarity might come to the Chase picture at Bristol, where the top seven drivers in the standings can secure spots in the playoff. Greg Biffle can clinch Saturday night with a finish of 28th or better, while Matt Kenseth needs to finish eighth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. sixth, and Jimmie Johnson at least second if leading the most laps. Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer also can clinch but aren't in control of their destinies. They need to be 97 points ahead of the 11th-place driver to officially punch their tickets to the Chase.

The wild-card situation, though, remains subject to upheaval. Two-time Bristol winner Carl Edwards, 12th in the points but without a victory this season, can move into the lead for the second wild-card position with a win. Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano, each with one race win this season, would jump into the second wild-card position with another triumph. And, suddenly, Kasey Kahne is pushing Denny Hamlin for that 10th points spot, now only 33 behind the last Chase position determined by the standings.

"We are just going for the win," said Edwards, who won consecutive night races here in 2007 and '08. "Trying to put ourselves in position. ... We've been running well enough to be up there. If we can run in the top three or four each week, I think we'll be able to get that win. We just have to keep running well."

Newman finished eighth last weekend at Michigan to maintain his tenuous hold on the second wild-card position, and he did it despite suffering flu-like conditions. He said at Bristol that he's still fighting the same bug and received intravenous fluids in the care center on Friday morning. "Struggling with it a little bit," he said. "But I think of all the medicine I've gotten, there's nothing better than adrenalin, and adrenalin helps carry you through a lot. ... But I'm managing. It's not the best, I don't feel the greatest. But in the car I don't feel like I'm giving anything up."

The focus, as it so often is as Bristol, will be on the driver in that No. 18 car, who finished 32nd here in June after getting caught up in a wreck. "I would certainly like to think that we can make the Chase, and we have the opportunity to do so," Busch said. "But that's all we can do. We can't sit here and tell you how great or how well we deserve to be in the Chase or anything else. It's either going to come or it's not."

Adding a wrinkle to that quest is the surface at Bristol, where the upper groove was ground down to try and promote more aggression on the race track. After practice Friday, Busch gave his succinct assessment of the change: "Terrible," he said. Then again, that might be a good sign for a driver who's won at Bristol under less-than-comfortable conditions before.

"He did also win the first COT race here and said the car was terrible," Biffle pointed out, although Busch used slightly different terminology. So maybe Busch has everybody right where he wants them after all.