They are the top seven drivers in the Nextel Cup standings heading into
Saturday night's Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, and they have little to
fear. Sure, Bristol is unforgiving, but each appears set to earn a spot in
the Chase for the Nextel Cup unless the wheels completely fall off.
Stewart, in fact, doesn't even need to show up for the next three
races, having clinched a berth in the Chase already. And Johnson simply
needs to start the next three races to secure his spot.
The rest of the top seven are looking good, though things aren't
quite as secure for the likes of Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards or Jamie
McMurray. While that means they'll be on pins and needles all weekend, it's also good news for Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, Elliott Sadler, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth.
Those five need the drivers at the back end of the top 10 to have
problems. Otherwise, they'll head home from Richmond, Va., on Sept. 10 cursing the opportunities that got away.
Jarrett is just 51 points out of 10th, with Gordon seven points
behind him and teammate Sadler just eight points behind Gordon.
Harvick, who swept the Busch and Cup races here in April, is just 82 behind, with Kenseth needing plenty of help to make up a 104-point deficit.
Gordon, though, knows the weekend is a crapshoot.
"Qualifying up front and staying up front during the race is the
best way to avoid trouble, but it's still a game of Russian roulette," says
Gordon, who has five wins in 25 Bristol starts. "There are so many cars
fighting for the same piece of real estate that it's easy to get caught up
in someone else's accident."
If a driver ever needed to avoid the bullets heading his way, it's
Gordon. Second in points after Darlington in May, he hasn't posted a top-five finish in 13 races since leaving South Carolina.
Although tough luck has bitten Gordon on several occasions, he's also
had a hard time getting his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to his liking.
Then again, he takes solace in the fact that Stewart struggled early this
year and has been nearly unbeatable of late.
"The season has gone in cycles," Gordon says. "Guys that ran really
strong at the beginning of the year maybe haven't run as strong in the
middle. Tony Stewart, who has been phenomenal recently, wasn't that
spectacular earlier this year.
"There's no reason that cycle can't come to us as well, and I'm sure
that there are teams out there that would prefer not to find out if that
cycle comes our way."
Jarrett, obviously, doesn't want to see fortune swing Gordon's way.
While he's said all year that his team isn't yet as strong as those in the
top 10, he's stayed in the thick of things by finishing races.
Now he just hopes to regain some momentum after finishing 34th, two laps down, at Michigan last week.
"More than anything," Jarrett says, "we need a good finish to get
this team's confidence back."
There will be plenty of beating and banging this weekend, but Jarrett
says that will have nothing to do with the Chase being close at hand. It's
just the nature of the beast at Bristol.
California Speedway and Richmond wind up the 26 races that lead up to the Chase, and Jarrett says that spending too much time thinking about how to approach them can be counterproductive.
"You can't overanalyze the next three races and go in thinking that
we have to avoid a DNF or getting wrecked," Jarrett says. "We go to try and
win or to get the best finish possible if we aren't in contention to win.
You just can't go to Bristol and plan to tiptoe around that track because
there are just too many unknowns.
"If you want to tiptoe, you're going to find yourself getting lapped
before long because the leaders can come in such a hurry. There are certain situations that you may find yourself able to be a little bit more cautious, but for the most part, it's going hard every single lap."
That might be some welcomed good news for teammate Sadler, who has found himself trying too hard of late. Bristol, though, is the site of his first Cup win, and it's a track where he traditionally feels comfortable.
Fifth in this race a year ago, Sadler was second at Bristol in April.
"I said [after wrecking at Michigan] that I'm afraid my worst
nightmare has come true," Sadler said. "We're almost in a spot where we can't dig
ourselves out, but this team doesn't believe we're out of this yet. We just know we've got our work cut out for us.
"Right now, I couldn't care less about New Hampshire. It's Bristol,
California and Richmond - that's it. We're going to bring the best stuff
we've got these last three races starting with this weekend. We're bringing
back the car we won the pole and finished second with in the spring. It's
hard to say whether you want to be going to Bristol with the situation we're in right now. It's a place where you're forced into a lot of situations that you don't necessarily want to be in. There's absolutely no give and take and anything can happen there, so it's a well-earned top-five if you can get one."
Even though he's ninth in points, Edwards isn't resting easy. Bristol
has been a struggle for him in his two Nextel Cup starts, with a 33rd-place
effort last August and a 26th in April.
"We had some bad luck there earlier this year, and I think I'm going
back to the track a lot smarter than I was several months ago," Edwards
says. "I love the track and I have run well there. We just need to do
everything we can to control as many of the variables as we can and have a good, solid race."
That, of course, is much easier said than done - which is why a
number of drivers won't be able to exhale until Bristol is happily in the
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.