- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- As if the Race to the Chase wasn't wild enough -- with at least eight drivers battling for six playoff spots, with NASCAR's most popular driver suddenly on the bubble, with the potential craziness of a night race at Bristol Motor Speedway looming on Saturday night -- Silly Season gets tossed into the mix.
Can you say Kurt Busch?
The 2004 Sprint Cup champion was doing his best to stay focused on getting underdog Furniture Row Racing into the 12-driver playoff that begins in four weeks without his future employment becoming a distraction. He was doing a pretty good job of it, too, moving to ninth in points with six top-10s in the past eight races.
Then, a report surfaced on Sunday night that Stewart-Haas Racing had made Busch an offer to join Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick in 2014. Then, SHR director of competition Greg Zipadelli said on Friday at BMS the organization was stepping up its effort to sign Busch.
All of a sudden, Busch, who has offers from Furniture Row and other teams as well, finds himself in the middle of a bidding war while he's trying to make the Chase. Ryan Newman, still in contention for a wild-card spot, also got dragged into the mix because Stewart said two months ago SHR wasn't going to four teams when announcing the driver of the No. 39 would not return after this season.
Drama, drama, drama.
Who handles it the best has the best chance to survive the next three weeks. Any little mistake, such as Busch hitting the wall during a mock qualifying run on Friday, can be costly.
Nerves will be frayed over the next three weeks, even if your future is set.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver 10 years running, admittedly feels the stress and is concerned after seeing his margin from falling outside the top 10 guaranteed a playoff spot shrink from 62 points to 20 over the past two weeks.
While he had fast cars in both races, a wreck not of his doing at Watkins Glen and a blown tire at Michigan -- both resulting in finishes of 30th or worse -- was a reminder of just how fragile his situation now is, how fragile it is for anybody on the bubble.
"I don't really know how we could describe the disappointment if we missed the Chase after being a strong enough team, I think, to be in there," Earnhardt told ESPN's Marty Smith. "We've had a faster car this year. We just don't have the consistency as far as putting races together and finishes together, and that's been a real frustration every year.
"And, man, just to miss the Chase would really, really be frustrating. Really be disappointing."
The pressure to make the Chase is real, greater in many ways than competing for the title. Organizations and sponsors count on the exposure and monetary benefits that come with being in the hunt.
Drivers and teams are having to decide whether to remain aggressive with strategy and go for wins or take a more conservative approach and go for top-5s and top-10s that could keep moving them forward.
"Our goal is to get in there by points right now, whether that's by wins or whatever," Logano said.
A bad finish, though, could be disastrous.
That makes this half-mile track in the mountains of Tennessee a real wild card. There could be mayhem, as there was a year ago with 13 cautions. There could be a calm race, as there was in 2011 with only five cautions, mostly for single-car incidents.
Nobody knows for sure if a second groove will develop or if this will turn into a parade around the top, as it has been in practice.
But for those on the bubble, there is no calm. Let's take a look at where they are:
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Seventh in points, 20 ahead of 11th place. Winless, so he's not eligible for the two wild cards. And he's starting 19th.
• Brad Keselowski -- Eighth in points, eight clear of 11th place. The reigning Cup champion is also winless and not eligible for the wild cards. It's not all his fault, though. He was docked 25 points for violations at Texas and another six after the No. 2 car failed postrace inspection at Dover.
• Kurt Busch -- Ninth in points, six clear of 11th. Also winless and not eligible for a wild card, but his average finish of 5.0 over the past three races is strong. And he's starting second, so he has a fast car at a track on which he's won five times.
• Greg Biffle -- 10th in points, four clear of 11th. But he has a win at Michigan, so he can slide just a tad and remain in wild-card contention. But only a tad, because only 17 points separate him and Joey Logano with a win.
• Kasey Kahne -- 11th in points, four behind 10th. But he's almost a lock for a wild card because of his two wins. Unless, that is, two of the drivers with one win get another.
• Martin Truex Jr. -- 12th in points, 10 behind 10th. He has a win but only a seven-point edge over Logano for the second wild card.
• Joey Logano -- 13th in points, 17 behind 10th. He also has a win and is hot, with four straight finishes of eighth or better, including the Michigan win. He qualified sixth, so he has speed.
• Jeff Gordon -- 14th in points, 26 behind 10th. He's winless, but the four-time champion was in worse shape a year ago when he was in 15th place, 77 behind 10th. A 32nd-place starting spot doesn't bode well, though.
• Ryan Newman -- 15th in points, 27 behind 10th. He has a win, and he's only 17 points behind Truex for the second wild-card spot.
They're all bunched up. One slip and the standings could shuffle once again.
So there's pressure.
Busch isn't showing it, though. He cracked a joke after qualifying and then joked again about his poor delivery when nobody laughed. While he would like to focus totally on making the Chase, having multiple teams court him is a confidence builder.
On the track, he has blinders on. The way his team pulled together after he hit the wall in practice showed no one is distracted.
"The guys know this is the time now," Busch said. "They are all shaking my hand saying, 'Thanks' and also saying, 'Let's do this again next year.' I'm like, 'Heck yeah! I'm right there with you.'
"We have to stay focused on the present as well as balance the future. It's a tough thing to do. You hope you can do it behind the scenes where it's not out there in the public."
But it is in the public. That Busch has handled it so well is an indication of how far he's come since his meltdown at Penske Racing at the end of 2011.
He's really in a no-lose situation: going from being a driver no team or sponsor really wanted two years ago to one many want.
He's also in position to make the Chase, and perhaps win a title.
Few would have guessed that before the season.
Yep, Bristol could be crazy.
The Race to the Chase is at a fever pitch as Bristol awaits, and the man of the hour is ... Kurt Busch? Yes, this NASCAR season might be crazier than ever.