NASCAR: Hottest Topics at the Irwin Tools Night Race in Bristol
Saturday night racing under the lights is traditionally a NASCAR fan favorite, but when it is at Bristol Motor Speedway with a major unknown looming over the third race from the Chase, drama can't be far behind.
Winning is all that matters for those trying to secure the wild-card slots. Drivers in the top 10 of the standings look for the coveted bonus points that come with wins to better their ranking in the Chase.
The track, known as "The Fastest Half-Mile," has undergone some reconfiguration in the turns with the hope that a tighter racing groove equates to better racing. The effect on racing is yet to be determined.
It is game on for some drivers and the level of aggression is being ratcheted up with each race. Points racing is not an option this late in the season.
This slideshow will highlight some of the hottest topics on tap for the Irwin Tools Night Race. It's Bristol Baby!
Changes to the Track Surface
Modified race shows top groove in turns
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In 2007, the BMS track was reconfigured with progressive banking that led to declining attendance with the lack of action-packed racing fans wanted. Drivers tended to like the lack of accidents.
Immediately following the spring race, the top groove of the track was milled down in the turns so the level of incline is the same as the middle part of the track.
It is supposed to make for tighter racing and more trading paint with the participants, thus happier fans. We may have a no-win situation if the attendance remains down because it is actually the economy keeping fans away.
During the NCWTS race with the track changes, the winner, Timothy Peters, led all 204 laps and the initial green-flag run of 81 or so laps was the longest ever in that series at Bristol.
It remains to be seen exactly what kind of racing we will see with the Cup cars.
Is "Bad Brad" the Sleeper for the Championship?
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Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Dodge for Penske Motorsports, looks to be a thorn in the side of the strongest contenders for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
Keselowski has three wins this season, as do Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, but the driver who is fifth in the point standings would be second seed in the Chase as of now.
The pilot of the No. 2 is on a mission to rattle Johnson in his quest for a sixth title. He and his crew chief Paul Wolfe snookered the No. 48 team with a four-second gain in a pit stop at Michigan.
Keselowski is aggressive, but he is a smart driver who is a force to contend with under the guidance of Wolfe, who makes great calls from the pit box.
The 28-year-old has seven consecutive top-10 finishes. In four of the last five races he finished in the top five, and he finished as runner-up in the last two races at Watkins Glen and Michigan.
"Bad Brad" has won the last two races at Bristol and is looking to be the first to win three in a row at the Irwin Tools Night Race.
"Wild Card" Chances Dwindling
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Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 5 for Hendrick Motorsports, currently holds the top spot for the two wild-card berths in the Chase by virtue of his two wins. He is 11th in the point standings heading to Bristol.
The second slot would be filled, at this point, by Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 for Stewart-Haas Racing, with his one win and 13th place in the standings.
The wait continues for other drivers who have yet to win a race this season like Carl Edwards, the driver who is 12th in points.
Who Gets a Hat?
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When a driver clinches his spot in the Chase, they receive a commemorative black and yellow hat with the 2012 logo emblazoned on it. Heading to Bristol, no hats have been given out.
Regardless of how other drivers finish, Greg Biffle will clinch with a finish of 28th and no laps led, a finish of 29th with at least one lap led and 30th with the most laps led.
Matt Kenseth gets a hat with eighth place and no laps led, ninth with one lap led and 10th with the most laps led.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. clinches with a sixth place finish and no laps led, seventh with one lap led and eighth with the most laps led.
Jimmie Johnson will be handed a hat with a win or second-place finish with the most laps led.
The magic number is 97 to clinch a spot in the 10-driver Chase lineup. Any driver 97 points ahead of the driver in 11th place leaving Bristol will be locked in.
Milestone for Jimmie Johnson
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Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson has some pretty amazing statistics to his credit and he may hit one more at Bristol.
Johnson needs to lead 21 laps to reach a total of 1,000 laps led for the sixth consecutive year. Only four drivers have led 1,000 or more laps in six or more consecutive years.
Richard Petty achieved it for 12 straight years, Cale Yarborough eight straight years, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt hit the mark for seven straight years each.
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Danica Patrick has struggled with everything from wrecks to flying shoes this season with both the NASCAR Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series.
This week, she will be doing double-duty when she returns to her No. 10 Cup car in an effort to just finish 500 laps on the fast concrete track. It is a good rehearsal for her upcoming race at Dover.
Patrick will run in seven of the remaining 13 Cup races this season. Her three finishes so far have been 38th, 31st and 30th.
In an article by Bob Pockrass of Sporting News, Tony Stewart was quoted as saying, "I wish everybody would just get off her back and let her go race and let her learn."
The fact is she will be monitored for her performance in the Cup car and it will be used as an indicator for her performance when she goes to Cup full-time in the top series for 2013 as scheduled.
Even though her 10-race stint in the No. 10 is strictly to gain seat time and try to finish races, it is still worthy of media attention since she is the only female in the series and a high-profile driver.
Patrick will race in the Cup series at Bristol, Atlanta, Chicago, Dover, Kansas, Texas and Phoenix after Bristol.