So you're planning on sitting around Saturday night, maybe having a couple of cold ones and then hitting the town to check out the local wildlife. Allow me to give you some advice. Find a sports bar—that place with the nice scenery and the cheap hot wings—at about six p.m. Then make sure they have one or two or every TV in the place tuned to TNT and the Sharpie 500 NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"Why?" you ask. Well, for one, it's a good way to start the evening out...wings and a cold one, that is. Secondly, if you're new to NASCAR, or have yet to see something you like, this is the race for you. Finally, if you're already a fan, this is quite possibly your favorite race of the year (except the ones won by your driver), and the numbers bear that out—Bristol's night race is the most popular event of the entire season.
"So again, why?" I'll speak to the not-so-gearheadedly inclined on this, as you other folks already know the scoop. Bristol is a half-mile, high-banked, 500-lap, 43-car slugfest. The place itself looks like a huge football stadium, only with concrete for the running track and a field covered with car haulers. Over 100,000 screaming fans have waited months and even years for this event, and will jam the place to the gills. Think of Ohio State and Michigan up at Ann Arbor, or this year's Rose Bowl—that's the level of excitement that's generated for the night race in Happy Valley.
"Ok, I'm game, I like wings anyway. So what's the dealio, yo?" Put simply: it's all about the season. NASCAR has a playoff for its championship, called "The Chase." The top ten drivers and anyone else within 400 points of the leader after the Richmond race (in two weeks) all have a chance to win the title. As it stands now, there's only going to be ten drivers in The Chase this year, because the leader (Jimmie Johnson, #48 Lowe's car) is doing so well. In fact, only three drivers are within 400 points of him right now...but I digress. The Bristol start is critical because the top two racers—and only the top two racers—will guarantee themselves a shot at the championship. Numbers three to twelve will stay in the hunt, and the next six racers, though in dire straights, will at least hold onto a flicker of mathematical hope. Last week at Michigan, Jeff Burton (#31 Cingular car) had his engine fail early, dropping him from fourth to ninth in the standings. One bad race now and it's curtains for his Chase dreams. Ask Jeff Gordon (#24 Dupont car) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (#8 Budweiser car) about that—they didn't make it last year.
"Hmmm. So this is like having to win out to make the playoffs?" Yep. Simple. Do well and you're in. Have a bad night, and well...you're in trouble. But now that I've set the scene for what's at stake, it's time for the rest of the story. These are the races within the race, the little dramas that are really worth paying attention to...because if any of them turn out like I think they might, they'll have serious implications for the playoffs.
It all started back at Bristol's spring race. A little nudge here, a little rub there—it's all fun and games until someone gets spun out. In March, Matt Kenseth (#17 Dewalt car) got nudged out of the lead in the final few laps, then got nudged out of third by Jeff Gordon, so Kenseth spun Gordon, relegating him to a 21st-place finish. After the race, Gordon more than nudged Kenseth, who was coming to apologize; he just about leveled him. Needless to say, the Gordon-Kenseth feud was on.
Fast forward to July at Chicago. Kenseth was leading with less than ten laps to go, but Gordon was charging hard. With four to go, Gordon caught Kenseth in turn two. Matt slowed down or checked up or got loose or something, so Jeff gave him a little nudge and said "Hasta la bye-bye" as he drove onto victory around the spinning 17 car. Mind you, Kenseth would still have finished in the top 10...but he ran out of gas, had to pit, then crashed himself on rookie David Stremme (#40 Coors Light car) at the finish line, all but destroying a great race car. Oops. Last Sunday that same wrecked car, rebuilt a la Steve Austin (you know, Lee Majors, Six Million Dollar Man), won at Michigan, but Gordon was nipping at heels. Oh what fun that could have been.
Now, Kenseth is pretty well locked into second for The Chase. Gordon, on the other hand, has moved up into a tenuous sixth place in the points. He must finish well at Bristol to stay in.
Then there's this issue of the backflipping Carl Edwards (#99 Office Depot car), who in his second season has attained fan-favorite status for his smile, his positive attitude, and yes, his backflips off the car whenever he wins a race. Carl, you see, got slapped with a hefty $20,000 fine after he pulled a Cole Trickle last Saturday at Michigan's Busch Series race. Remember in Days of Thunder when Tom Cruise lost because he got spun out while leading late in the race (by his teammate, no less)? Well, that happened Saturday when Earnhardt, playing the part of Russ Wheeler, sent Edwards for a spin before coasting to victory. As in the movie, Edwards drove to pit road, had his tires changed, and drove back onto the track...then slammed into the side of Jr's car. Though not as dramatic or damaging as the scene in the movie, it was still an exceedingly dangerous—and stupid—move. Edwards is on the outside looking in, and has a slim chance of making The Chase..."slim" being the operative word. But, as also-ran teams do in other sports, smilin' Carl could play spoiler for others.
Speaking of stupid, let's not forget Tony "Smoke" Stewart (#20 Home Depot car). Edwards has a beef with the defending Nextel Cup champion that dates back a month to the Pocono race. Stewart got mad that rookie Clint Bowyer (#07 Jack Daniels car—don't drink and drive, kids) crowded him coming off turn three, and decided to show his feelings by making a hard left into the side of Bowyer's car...on the straightaway. What Tony didn't realize was that in teaching the rookie a "lesson in respect and patience," he also damaged Edwards' number 99 car, which was trying to pass the two combatants at the time. The damage was significant enough to pretty much ruin Carl's hopes of making The Chase this year. He finished 39th and Bowyer came in 41st (of 43), but Tony wound up seventh—and back in the playoff picture. Anyone with a head for poetic justice would do well to keep an eye on the Stewart-Edwards relationship this weekend...
So that's that. Consider yourself fully informed on the perfect storm that's brewing for this Saturday night in the bullring known as Bristol. And don't be discouraged by the calm leading up to the race, because things will pick up quickly. Find a good seat, order a cold one and some wingy-dings, pick someone to root for (maybe by the brand of drink you're enjoying), and get ready for some fun. A rub here, a squeeze there (no, not the waitress!), contact on the tight pit road...at the first hint of trouble, the thing will be on. With all that's at stake, and with memories of races past (did I mention Gordon/Stewart or Stewart/Kenseth at Daytona, or Ryan Newman/Stewart at New Hampshire, or, well, perhaps you get the point), you can bet that Saturday night's Nextel Cup race at Bristol will be one that makes you a fan...or proves once and for all that you have no hope of ever riding shotgun with the second most popular spectator sport in the country.
Oh, and me? I'm rooting for the 24 car, hands down. It's a new season, after all, and the chase is on...