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Saturday, September 3, 2011
Updated: September 4, 3:08 AM ET
Summer Showdown, added spice

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski never need much incentive to use their bumpers and fenders in the first place. But give them $3 million to beat and bang about in one race, and, well …

"You know they're going to be pushing the envelope," said Jeff Gordon, the last man to win a big bonus for victories in selected races on the Cup tour.

Paul Menard
Paul Menard was the first driver to qualify for the Sprint Summer Showdown with his surprise win at Indianapolis.

Adjusted for inflation, the Sprint Summer Showdown payoff may not be much more than the $1 million Gordon collected for the No Bull 5 in 1997.

But the $3 million is more meaningful to Busch, Keselowski, Marcos Ambrose and Paul Menard, all of whom are eligible by virtue of winning selected races during the summer, and any of whom can win the $3 million by winning Sunday night's AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

The bonus would be split three ways, among the winning driver, a charity and a fan.

So the winning driver would get big public relations results, and endear himself to a fan such as the one Busch is running for -- "a young lady who's been unemployed for about six months, unfortunately, and her husband just got laid off recently," Busch said.

Menard, upset winner of the Brickyard 400 in July, and Ambrose, winner of the road race at Watkins Glen in August, must be counted as severe underdogs here.

Keselowski won twice and Busch once during the summer qualifying stretch toward this bonus race. And Busch and Keselowski, with four and three wins respectively this season, are the hot drivers coming in, and the likeliest to let the $3 million intensify their usual mischief.

They've also got enough cushions in the standings to run wild.

"It really doesn't make a difference for Kyle or myself, who are locked into the Chase," said Keselowski, who isn't exactly locked in but is very close as a wild card with his three wins.

"It should be interesting to see how that plays out."

There was some deadpan in Keselowski's tone about himself and Busch.

So Bad Brad and Rowdy can treat this almost like the All-Star race -- all-out, no worries, checkers or wreckers.

"It does sort of have that All-Star feel," Busch said.

Except that "The All-Star race pays a million," said Jimmie Johnson, who isn't eligible for this bonus but is a very interested observer. "This is three times that."

Ambrose
Marcos Ambrose is eligible for the Sprint Summer Showdown bonus via his road-course win at Watkins Glen last month.

"So you can expect that to create some fireworks if this race comes down to one of those guys at the end," Gordon said.

"If they are within a bumper's distance of one another," Johnson continued, "meaning two of the guys who are eligible, or if the guy in second is eligible and the leader is not, if they can reach 'em [with the bumper at the end], I'm sure they will. Three million dollars is a lot of cash."

And to all that, add "this place," Gordon said of the 1.5-mile oval here with the worn-out pavement. "It's big, it's fast, and, boy, is it slick. The tires have grip for basically one lap, and after that you are sliding all the way to the fence."

Recent history here has favored drivers who don't mind being sideways, don't mind scraping the wall multiple times, and just love to hang on and let the car slide.

In the past two years here, Kurt Busch has won twice, Tony Stewart once and Kasey Kahne once.

But, "Things change in this sport," Keselowski said, adding more subtlety about just how hot he has been lately. "I don't think that it's always fair to look at stats and draw conclusions [at a given track]. It's good that we run the races."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.