Just as Watkins Glen had two weeks ago, the Irwin tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway turned the race to the chase for the championship on its head.
Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon were able to use a strong trouble-free night to improve their chase chances; while Martin Truex and Brad Keselowski were among those who saw their playoff; chances take a serious hit in Thunder Valley.
For the second week in a row, the big winner on the night was Joey Logano. Although he didn’t win at Bristol, his 5th place finish (Logano’s 7th of the year) along with the misfortune of those ahead of him going into the race allowed Logano to gain three spots in the points standings to 10th, four points ahead of his Penske racing teammate Brad Keselowski. Though Logano would prefer to be in the top 10 after Richmond, he does have one win and that means even if he falls out of the top 10 he would be in position for a wild card assuming he ranks in the top two for wins among drivers outside the top 10.
It was a rough night for the defending Sprint cup champion, a multi-car wreck on lap 451 relegated Keselowski to a 30th place finish and dropped him 3 places in points to 11th right behind his Penske teammate Joey Logano as both battle for a spot in the Sprint Cup chase. Unlike his teammate, Keselowski doesn’t have a win to fall back on meaning should that hold in the last two regular season races he must crack the top 10 to defend his Sprint Cup title.
He still has plenty of work to do, but Jeff Gordon drastically improved his chase chances with a 7th place finish Saturday night. Although he only gained one spot in the standings Gordon’s top 10 finishes pulled him with 11 points of 10th place Joey Logano, while it certainly won’t be easy to make the chase the four time champ has put himself within striking distance.
One of the drivers Gordon will have to pass is Kurt Busch and unfortunately despite having another race winning car an in race issue (in this case a loose wheel) cost Busch the opportunity to win a race or post a solid finish, either of which would have helped Busch’s playoff chances. After a 31st place effort in the Irwin Tools Night Race Busch once again finds himself on the outside of the NASCAR Post Season although despite being in 12 the elder Busch brother is just 6 points out of 10th. With just two races, remaining Busch must avoid any mistake, which could cost him another solid finish for a team that has had fast cars all season.
Looking at the wild card standings after Bristol, with Logano moving into the top 10 Martin Truex and Ryan Newman were able to maintain their wild card spots with a win each and despite dropping to 14th and 15th in points with finishes of 35th and 21st respectively.
At the top of the Sprint Cup standings, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer joined Jimmie Johnson as drivers who are locked into the chase. Bowyer’s 14th place finish put him 118 ahead of 10th and any driver who left Bristol with an advantage of 97 points or more over 10th would be locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
With his win in the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, his series high 5th win of 2013, Matt Kenseth also locked himself into the chase by guaranteeing himself at least a wild card spot as no one can surpass his win total with just two races remaining before the chase cut off.
Finally Jimmie Johnson was lucky that he had already clinched a chase spot and that his point total doesn’t matter as he was also among the big names involved in a crash at Bristol on Saturday which relegated him to a 36th place finish and his second sub 30th finish in a row after blowing a motor at Michigan. Again, while it has no impact on his chase qualification status, it is a point of concern for the 48 team as the post season approaches and the team that was dominating the Sprint Cup series in the first half of the season has lost their momentum. Sure Johnson will have an advantage come chase time with four wins and his history but if you’re Johnson or the 48 team you’d like to have something positive to build on going into the Post Season.