Only three races stand between NASCAR's best and the Chase for the Sprint Cup, with The World's Fastest Half-Mile in Bristol up first Saturday.
Less than a week removed from Jeff Gordon's triumph in Michigan, the savvy veteran and a host others have already claimed their spots. NASCAR's Twitter account details the new additions to the Chase:
Five more clinch their spots. If Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Almirola, Kurt Busch and Allmendinger start next 3 races, they make the Chase. #NASCAR— NASCAR (@NASCAR) August 17, 2014
The Irwin Tools Night Race is one of the more entertaining races of the year thanks to a short track that leaves even the very best susceptible to mistakes on the difficult course. With so much on the line for drivers who have yet to qualify, daring maneuvers and strategies are a sure thing.
Let's take a look at the race info and a few key drivers to dial in on Saturday.
Where: Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee
When: Saturday, Aug. 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Live Steam: ABC.com
Radio: Performance Racing Network
Drivers to Watch
The defending champion is always one to keep an eye on, but Matt Kenseth just so happens to come equipped with other layers of intrigue Saturday.
A back-to-back win at the Bristol night race would work wonders for Kenseth, not because he is in an overly concerning situation, but because it is one that could seriously deteriorate over the course of the last three races should he falter.
After all, he still has yet to claim a checkered flag this season. The three-time champion at the track says it happens to be one of his favorite courses, per Jared Turner of Fox Sports:
"I enjoy coming to Bristol. Anything can happen. The last few races we've had really fast cars here. We were fortunate enough to win one of them and wrecked in the other two. So I'm hoping this is our turn to win one, because it's been every other race. I like racing here."
He went on to add that he understands the precarious situation he finds himself in thanks his goose egg in the win column:
"I never feel like you're a lock for anything until you're really a lock for something," the 2003 Sprint Cup champion said. "Until it's mathematically impossible to be out, I never feel like you're in. We want to win. We've been doing the best we can do every week.
Kenseth registered his 14th top-10 finish about two weeks ago at Watkins Glen, but has placed 38th in two of his last three. He tends to be consistent in the quality of his outcomes, so a return to form may very well be in the cards beginning Saturday.
He certainly needs it with other winless drivers such as Greg Biffle breathing down his neck.
After a win in Michigan to give him three on the season and 16 top-10 finishes, Gordon is far and away the favorite as things approach NASCAR's version of the playoffs.
The pursuit for Sprint Cup No. 5 this time around features a strong crew chief, a great support team and an even better car. Fox Sports' Larry McReynolds put it best:
I kind of think Jeff Gordon's team is the best team in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series right now -- period.
The driver and team simply aren't making any mistakes. They only have three finishes outside the top 15. We say it all the time, but that is what makes a championship. None of those three finishes were because of the way they performed. They are simply that solid right now, no matter the type of racetrack.
Case in point—Gordon led 68 laps last week after seizing pole No. 76 of his career and setting a track record in the process, which was not even the highest total by any driver on the day. But he turned it on late when it mattered most, a strong trait that will only best utilize the assets around him down the stretch.
Momentum is a very real thing for a driver such as Gordon. He may have a position secured in the Chase, but slotting is very much up for grabs as other three-race winners such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson have enough clout to hop him.
Win No. 6 at Bristol would be great, but even a flirtation with contention and a strong finish will be enough to both keep Gordon where he wants to be and retain his current form.
Let's roll with another defending champion, although Carl Edwards is of a different variety as he won the earlier race in Bristol this season back in March.
Edwards' name continues to be in the spotlight with the news that he will make the jump to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015, which parlayed into a positive factoid about his future from ESPN Stats & Info:
Carl Edwards will drive #19 for JGR in 2015. #19 cars have won 3 Cup Series races. 2 by Jeremy Mayfield (2004-05), 1 by John Rostek in 1960— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 19, 2014
As of right now, though, Edwards needs a repeat performance in order to perhaps jump the aforementioned Johnson on the grid. That sounds like the top goal at this point in time before he makes the jump to JGR, as captured by Alan Cavanna of NASCAR.com:
"We're competitors for the rest of this season. I'm going to try and make it as tough as I can on you guys," Edwards says— Alan Cavanna (@CopaCavanna) August 19, 2014
With two wins to his name and five appearances in the top five, Edwards needs a patch of successful consistency to make the leap—he placed fifth at Watkins Glen, but that was his lone top-10 finish in his last seven races.
Now back in familiar confines, confidence is a sure thing for Edwards. But it must translate to the track.
All statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.