Only three races remain in the regular season for drivers to grab a spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Thirteen drivers are guaranteed a berth thanks to winning at least one race over the opening 23, leaving three spots available through the point standings. Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth – all winless – occupy those positions going into Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"One of the challenges of Bristol is that you need to have your car handling better than everyone else later in the race, with the way it’s been lately with the VHT on the bottom lane," said Kenseth, a four-time Bristol winner.
"The race was two-wide for a while to start in April and then as the VHT gets packed in, if it gets hot enough, it’s important to be up toward the front for those last 100-200 laps. Earlier in the race, there’s a little more movement in the pack back and forth where you can pass a little bit better. It seems like how Bristol has been lately, though, is that it gets packed up on top and then goes back to how it’s been, where you have to be good up top and still have good track position."
Several drivers are on the outside looking in with time running out including Clint Bowyer. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver trails Kenseth by 31 points, McMurray by 52 and Elliott by 62. He's not won a Cup Series race at Bristol but did score an Xfinity Series win at the Tennessee half-mile. He owns seven top-five finishes and 11 top 10s in 23 Bristol races in his 11 full Cup Series seasons.
Although the clock is ticking, Bowyer says he doesn’t feel any extra pressure.
"There’s always pressure," he said. "There’s pressure in the Daytona 500 to go out there, perform and try to win that race. It’s no different now. You still focus on the task at hand. You focus on unloading a fast racecar, making good downforce, making good horsepower, knowing it’s gonna take that on this racetrack. And you focus on the adjustments, the balance of your car, so you can go out and qualify well. That enables you to gain those stage points as we go through the race and then work hard to get a finish.
"It’s the task at hand week-in and week-out, that you have to focus on. You can’t worry about those points. You have to go out and do your job week-in and week-out and, if you do that, with the way we’re running, we can get in two different ways. I think we could win and I think we can point our way in. Both of those are doable right now for us."
Joey Logano is also hoping for a Bristol win Saturday night to secure his spot in the playoffs. His encumbered Richmond win in April does not count toward a playoff spot and the Team Penske driver will need to repeat his 2015 Bristol win to get in.
"Speed has been an issue," Logano said. "At Indy (where he finished fourth last month), we had decent speed and we were in a position to possibly win that race with the right race strategy, cautions going the right way and all that.
"We’ve won at Richmond this year. Bristol’s one of our best tracks that we always run up front at."
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth
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