With three races to go before the regular season concludes, the pressure is on for many drivers in their efforts to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Saturday night's race at Bristol Motor Speedway will be a pivotal one in determining who might make it into the playoffs and who might not. After Bristol, the Sprint Cup Series moves on to Atlanta (Sept. 1) before the Chase cut-off race at Richmond (Sept. 7).
Just 20 points separate seventh-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. from 11th-place Kasey Kahne, and 27 points divide 10th-place Greg Biffle from 15th-place Ryan Newman.
Kahne and Martin Truex Jr., who is 12th in points, currently hold the two wild card spots. Kahne won the spring race at Bristol in March and then scored his second victory of the season earlier this month at Pocono. Truex's win came in June at Sonoma.
"I don't like not being in the top-10, but I feel a lot more secure," Kahne said. "Our chances are a lot better because of the Pocono win. It was a big win. It was really good and helped our team out. These next couple of tracks are good tracks for us, so we want to race our way back in. We want to get those bonus points to start the Chase."
Kahne will attempt to become the first driver to score a season-sweep at Bristol since Kyle Busch last did it in 2009. A third win for Kahne this year would assure him at least a wild card for the Chase.
"The Bristol night race is always one of the better races of the year," he said. "It's one of the races I look forward to just because of the time of the season it is. I like racing there at night. It's hot. It seems like tempers kind of get out of control there at times on the night race, probably because it's hot and you're racing under the lights. We won the first one, and we ran really well there the last few times we've been at Bristol, so I'm looking forward to trying to get another win and sweeping the season there."
Joey Logano put himself in the Chase hunt after winning last Sunday's race at Michigan. Logano jumped from 16th to 13th in points. He also climbed to third in the wild card rankings.
With Tony Stewart having missed the past two races due to his fractured right leg, his teammate, Newman, has advanced to fourth-place in the wild card battle. Newman won last month's race at Indianapolis. Stewart-Haas Racing announced earlier this week that Stewart will miss the remainder of the season and Mark Martin will substitute for him in the No. 14 Chevrolet, beginning at Bristol.
Kurt Busch's third-place finish at Michigan was crucial in his hopes of qualifying for the Chase. Busch, who is driving the No. 78 Chevrolet for Furniture Row Racing this season, moved up two spots to ninth in points. He's only two points ahead of Biffle.
"This is tremendous," Busch said. "Jumping in with the Furniture Row guys last year, running six races together, got a lot of the bugs worked out. It allowed us to discover things about ourselves, some weaknesses on the team. Each section through this season, like every six races, we can lump them together and say that we've improved every time we've gone through a chunk of six races at a time.
"Now here we are. We're 23 races in, got three to go to get in the Chase. It's an amazing feeling to be in position right now, have a group of guys from Denver, Colorado, in the Chase right now. That's what we have to do, make sure when the door closes, the music stops, that we got a place."
Busch, his younger brother, Kyle, and Jeff Gordon lead all active drivers with five victories each at Bristol. Kyle started off this week of racing here with a win in Wednesday's Camping World Truck Series event.
Gordon, who is 14th in the point standings and sixth in the wild card rankings, has yet to win a race this season. His last victory at Bristol came in August 2002.
"I love this race, and I love this track," Gordon said. "This is one of the few tracks that when I get here, I usually make it a point to walk the track on Thursday night and soak it all in."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, also has not won this season. Earnhardt has struggled in the past two races and dropped from fifth to seventh in points. He finished 30th at Watkins Glen and then 36th at Michigan.
"I think we'll be all right," Earnhardt said of his Chase hopes. "We're not an 11th-place team. We're a top-5 team. We're consistent. We're more consistent than most. We've just got to shake this, whatever is going on. It's something different every time. We've got good speed and we've just got to keep our head up and keep working hard and things will be all right."
Jimmie Johnson, who presently holds a 41-point lead, is the only driver who has clinched a spot in the Chase. Clint Bowyer (second in points), Carl Edwards (third) and Kevin Harvick (fourth) can secure their playoff spots at Bristol. Anyone 97 points or more ahead of the 11th-place driver will clinch a top-10 spot in the Chase.
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the IRWIN Tools Night Race.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, Aug. 24. Race: IRWIN Tools Night Race. Site: Bristol International Speedway. Track: 0.533-mile oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m. ET. Laps: 500. Miles: 266.5. 2012 Winner: Denny Hamlin. Television: ABC. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.