Sprint Cup Race No. 23: Bristol preview and prediction

Can Kasey Kahne make it into the Sprint Cup Top-16 Chase spots with a win at Bristol? Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Can Kasey Kahne make it into the Sprint Cup Top-16 Chase spots with a win at Bristol? Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports /

The NASCAR regular season is drawing to a close with just three events left after this weekend’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway and just a few precious Chase spots up for grabs.

Ten drivers have already clinched a spot in the 2016 Chase while two others are on the verge of locking in their place based on a win this season, so with just four races left before the cutoff, four spots remain unclaimed as NASCAR heads to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend.

Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick Kurt Busch, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. are in. Tony Stewart has a victory to his credit, but he missed the first eight races and needs to keep his spot in the top-30 in points to make it. He is currently 26th with a 94 point cushion so all he needs is to stay out of major trouble to clinch. However, things aren’t so black and white for the final member of the checkered flag gang.

Chris Buescher, the surprise winner at Pocono after leading just 12 laps, has an uphill battle in order to be one of the 16 finalists for the Chase.

In 22 races for Front Row Motorsports, one of the small teams in Sprint Cup, Buescher has crashed out four times, has been on the lead lap at the end of a race just five times and finished 25th or worse in 16 of those 22 starts. He heads to Bristol just three points out of David Ragan in 30th, but a couple of bad races could dash his hopes.

Buescher aside, a lot is on the line for those fighting to stay in the hunt for the Round of 16 and it will make for interesting viewing over the next four weeks.

“Obviously any time you can win it’s a boost for the entire team,” said Denny Hamlin, who is seventh in the Chase standings driving a Toyota. “I think after Sonoma, we wanted to win on a road course really bad. We were able to get that done at Watkins Glen and now we have turned our focus to the rest of the regular season, trying to build momentum for the Chase. We have some really good tracks coming up for our FedEx team and the goal is to get another win to help our seeding in the Chase.”

Ryan Newman, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray have the inside track to the final four spots if Buescher makes it, if not, Kyle Larson would be in if the season ended today. So when the Sprint Cup cars hit the half-mile track for the first time for the first time Friday morning, those in the hunt will be looking for every advantage they can get.

Called “The Last Great Coliseum,” Bristol is one of the most iconic and well-known tracks on the NASCAR circuit and most look forward to racing there. It is short track racing at its finest.

“The Bristol night race is one that has always been circled on everybody’s list as a race that they want to win,” said Harvick, four points behind leader Brad Keselowski in the No.2 Ford. “I think when you look at Bristol, it’s probably become harder than it used to be to pass, just for the fact that you run up against the wall. Plus, you add that short-track element. It’s hot and it’s frustrating, as well, just because it’s hard to pass and you know that you have to make time. It usually ends up that you have guys who run into each other and then we all get mad. It can definitely be a place where the tempers flare.”

“There is nowhere else in the country, at any racetrack, where you have the atmosphere like you have at Bristol,” Stewart says. He pilots the No. 14 Chevrolet. “To have that many people surrounding a racetrack of that size, you just don’t get that anywhere else. You can’t duplicate that atmosphere. When stuff is going on, you see the fans. If you take the lead, you can see the fans the next lap cheering you on. That’s something we don’t always get at a lot of these tracks. At Bristol, (the fans) are right on top of you. We get to share those moments with the fans.”

Ryan Newman has finished 12th or better in seven of his last ten starts and has top-10 finishes in his last three at Bristol. Currently 11th in the Chase standings, a win would lock him in the Round of 16.

Kasey Kahne sits just outside the top-16 mostly due to his cold streak of having one top-10 in his last eight outings and none in his last six. He not only needs a good finish, taking the checkers would lock him up as the second Hendrick Motorsports to make the Chase. Jimmie Johnson is already in with a pair of victories while teammate Chase Elliott sits in 12th, 52 points ahead of Kahne.