Before the Field Freezes: Speculating on the Top 35 and Previewing Bristol

Joe M.Correspondent IIMarch 22, 2009

BRISTOL, TN - MARCH 21:  Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Z-Line Designs Toyota  leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Nationwide Series Scotts Turf Builder 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 21, 2009 in Bristol, Tennessee.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

For all its faults, the deadline for the top 35 rule is today. Meaning after today's race at Bristol Motor Speedway, whenever rain cancels out qualifying, the starting order freeze and will be based on each teams' points after this critical five race juncture.

This could prove to be critical since rain typically washes out qualifying six-seven times a year most notably in Michigan and Pocono weekends with a few frustrating surprises mixed in between.

Those in the top 35 will be assured of making that weekend's race based on their earned points here, and those that don't will be go-or-go homers. Those that aren't in the top 43 will simply have to go home without ever even able to make their case.

Additionally, for the first time this season, if a driver is lucky enough to sneak into the top 35, he wouldn't have to qualify on time for the next race at Martinsville Speedway.

Darrell Waltrip wrote a good piece in 2008 on its importance that explains it much better than I.

With that's said, lets prognosticate on who those top 35 teams will be after today:


First, the Chase drivers are set:

Gordon/Bowyer/Kurt Busch/Edwards/Kenseth/Stewart/Kyle Busch/Harvick/Kahne/Biffle/Vickers/Reutimann


All appear to be vitual locks for me. Those that really have to run well are of course the bubble teams: Gilliland, Martin, Amirola, Hornish, Andretti, R. Gordon, Ambrose, Newman, Sorenson, Speed, Logano, Jr., and Menard.

It should be noted that today should not be seen as a doomsday for any of these drivers for they can get back into the top 35 at any point, or stay there in most cases. They could simply help their cause all the more by running well today.

  • I am not sure if Logano would be in based on Tony's 2008 points, but today on NASCAR Now Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree, and Michelle Manske all had this conversation and all agreed Logano would be in along with Gilliland and Menard. For Logano,"he just hasn't seen a lot of these tracks"
  • Three time defending Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson has never won at Bristol, going 0-14 along the way.

While some of the drivers on the above danger list may appear to be safe based on current point standings, specifically Jr and Sorenson based on their 24th and 27th positions, all it would take is a DNF by either and some bad luck by one of these up-and-comers and their supposed secured spot could really be in jeopardy.

At 120 points over Aric Amirola, Dale Jr's spot in the top 35 appears safe, however Jr. hasn't shown much at all this year except for a top ten at Las Vegas and last week's 11th place finish at Atlanta. The other two weeks were quite the opposite 27th at Davtona and 39th at Fontana. 

Should he actually finish at No. 24, driver rank, and should at Bristol, he'd be okay. But Thunder Valley is no longer a follow-the-leader predictable track having been been repaved and configured.

Additionally, Amirola in last year's race there filling in for Mark Martin, Jr's 2009 teammate, finished a surprising and career best 8th place. While Jr. was able to finish 5th, Amirola's short track skills were put on display when his future in the sport wasn't as secure as it is now. That isn't saying much even to this point.

This is the race that put Amirola on the map. Moreover, he doesn't have nearly the same experience or equipment that Jr has and was still able to finish so strong.

If you're wondering where each qualified for today? Jr. 34th and Amirola, 18th. Something to watch for?

All the other drivers, Newman, Gilliland et. al have to have good runs in order to keep their positions because again a DNF could be costly here today. One driver, Travis Kvapil, was able to survive another week on lack of sponsorship, by simply making the race by qualifying a respectable 17th.

Should he finish in the top 15, you have to wonder if a sponsor would come along to salvage his season which has been publicly put on notice if he doesn't get more dollars.

The answer is apparently not, as of the time of this writing, ESPN just announced he's out after Bristol. But this begs the question, what if he were to run really well? Isn't this being a bit premature? What if he got a top 10?

Back to the top 35:

  • Do we really want to see Gordon win an automatic pole each time qualifying is rained out should he finish in the points lead after today's race? That is exactly what would happen should he walk away with the lead after Bristol. His 45 race winless streak would be bound to end sooner than later if given this gift.
  • Think Jimmie Johnson and his seven wins last year and ten in 2007. Gordon has already shown he's "back" (and I use that term loosely since he never left), but to give a driver with his experience and past success a free pole, is just absurd. Think Kyle Busch is boring? Think follow the leader racing is boring? You'd get that in Gordon.
  • Last year at this time Michael Waltrip was 35th in points, Reutimann 34th, and McMurray 36th as a go-or-go-homers. At the same time, Jeremy Mayfield was 32nd. What a difference a year makes.

My pick for today's race? Kurt Busch, leader of the most surprising team so far this year.

Darkhorses: Allmendinger, Amirola, Reutimann