Race for Chase tightens just in time for tight-fitting Bristol bullring

Updated: August 29, 2008, 12:03 PM ET

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

When the lights go on at Bristol, the animals come out to play.

Start Your Engines

If one had to choose which track down the stretch would turn the Chase standings upside down, the wide 2-mile Michigan International Speedway oval probably wouldn't have immediately come to mind.

Yet matters got infinitely more interesting Sunday in the Irish Hills with all seven drivers ranked sixth through 12th in points moving or changing position and 13th place turning into a tie, at the moment, between Clint Bowyer and David Ragan.

Only 103 points separate those two from eighth-place Kevin Harvick, so there's plenty of maneuvering all but guaranteed with three races remaining for Chase qualifying. And if you missed Michigan, chances are this weekend should be just as wild.

Bristol Motor Speedway, site of the Sharpie 500 (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN), is a decidedly different venue since a repaving last year, but it's still a half-mile bullring with 43 cars and 500 laps.

"I think everybody reads a lot more into it than there actually is," said Harvick, second at Bristol earlier this year in a 1-2-3 Richard Childress Racing sweep. "We go to a racetrack to race as hard as we can every time, and you have things happen at Daytona, you have things happen at Bristol, and I think there's a lot read into that question as far as, you know, being a tamer race at Bristol. That's almost funny to hear somebody say that because I don't know that there is a tame race at Bristol."

It's tamer as far as the options drivers have, with multiple grooves now handy for passing instead of the old standby -- one's bumpers. Of course, there are no guarantees that the horns won't come out with so much on the line.

Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson are looking to add to their multiple-win totals, chasing the 10 bonus points that will affect Chase seeding in less than a month. Bowyer and Ragan have obvious goals, as do drivers like Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin, who each lost three spots in the standings to fall to 11th and 12th, respectively.

"It's hard not to look at the standings and check where you stand against the cutoff, but you can't let that force you to race a certain way," Hamlin said. "If it makes you take less risks in terms of fuel mileage or things of that nature -- that makes sense -- but you have to race like you know how to race, no exceptions."

Jeff Gordon hasn't forgotten how to race, but recent performances have put him in a precarious position. His miserable 42nd-place finish at Michigan also dropped him three spots to ninth, 56 points ahead of Hamlin, leaving the four-time Cup champion nowhere near a lock to make the Chase.

Bristol, where he's won five times, has been one of his strongholds over the years, and he's going to have to find a form closer to that than the one he had at Michigan and the week prior at Watkins Glen (29th).

"Now we have to enter the next few races with a different mindset," the Hendrick Motorsports Chevy driver said. "Before, we were in a position where taking risks wasn't an option. We had a pretty comfortable margin on the transfer spot, and we didn't want to jeopardize that. We're not in that position anymore, so now we must go all out and see where we end up."

After Saturday night, there are only two more races to sort it all out.

Rocket Man

Carl Edwards: This nod could go to any of the three other Roush Fenway boys who finished in the top five at Michigan, with Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth moving farther off the Chase bubble and David Ragan climbing to within 26 points of the top 12.

But Edwards is still Jack Roush's best hope for a title, and races like Michigan make the No. 99 Ford look like the most likely candidate to take down Kyle Busch. All of Edwards' five wins this year have been on intermediate and larger tracks, and he won last year at Bristol and Dover, so it's hard to see where the hiccups might come the rest of the season. One thing is for sure, he won't be beaten between the ears.

"My psyche and mentality is pretty much fixed on I'm the greatest race car driver to ever live," Edwards said to the media after Sunday's win. "If you don't believe that, you don't belong in the race car."

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Standings

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Slippery Slope

Hamlin

Denny Hamlin: Can some of those magnets that Joe Gibbs Racing finds such creative uses for be used to zip Hamlin's lips after bad races? Even if the crew was worthier of the blame than the driver for the 39th-place day at Michigan, a still-young driver like Hamlin simply can't say "we don't deserve to be in the Chase." Bad, bad form.

Of course, he'll probably rebound right on cue at Bristol. The No. 11's pattern lately has been to alternate good and bad finishes, plus he was sixth at the bullring in March. So maybe the plan is to run top five Saturday night, get off that pesky 12th spot in points and have a cookout at the motor home. Mend some fences, Denny.

Going The Wrong Way

Ambrose

Marcos Ambrose: We're not picking on the likable Aussie, just pointing out how hard it is these days for the likes of teams such as the Wood Brothers to get traction in Sprint Cup. At Watkins Glen, Ambrose was the toast of the Ford camp, finishing third from a dead-last starting spot on the road course. At Michigan, he was around for all of 17 laps before retiring with engine failure and finishing last. Brutal.

"It's just hard. That's what's bad about this deal here," Ambrose said. "I was looking forward to getting a lot of laps under our belt here and getting comfortable, and making sure everything was together underneath me, and we were going to have a great day. It just didn't work out."

Showing Some Love For …

Vickers

Brian Vickers: A pole position, 21 laps led and a seventh-place finish at Michigan were among many signs this season that the Red Bull Toyota driver, 15th in points, is ready to make that final leap into Chase contention next year. Another sign? Seventh wasn't good enough.

"Obviously, last year we would have been ecstatic to have this finish. Now, we are disappointed -- or at least I am," Vickers said. "It's a double-edged sword -- we're happy about having a good points day and a solid run in the top five all day, but we're disappointed we didn't have a shot at the win at the end."