- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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BRISTOL, Tenn. -- For some, simply walking into Bristol Motor Speedway inspires awe, and that applies to some of the Nationwide Series drivers participating in Friday night's Food City 250.
Others won't have time for awe, as they'll be too busy worrying about trying to strengthen their grip atop the championship standings. Clint Bowyer has endured a handful of tough runs of late, but a trip to the .533-mile, high-banked oval where he won in March might be just what he needs to get back on track.
Bowyer's lead is down to just 113 points over defending series champion Carl Edwards, who was 254 points back after last month's race at Chicagoland. Brad Keselowski is just 19 points behind Edwards and 132 behind Bowyer in the tightest Nationwide Series points race with 10 races to go since 2003.
The top five drivers were separated by just 135 points in '03, and Brian Vickers rallied from fifth to take the title that season while driving for Hendrick Motorsports. Bowyer's goal is to avoid opening the door any further for Edwards and Keselowski.
Bristol, where Bowyer has a win and three top-5s in seven starts, seems like the perfect place to return to form. Rain stopped March's race 129 laps short of the scheduled distance, but Bowyer was in front when it counted.
"We've given up some points over the last few weeks, so we need get back to business and work on padding our points lead," Bowyer said.
And don't even bother asking Bowyer whether winning a rain-shortened event here in the spring detracted from the accomplishment. His response was what you'd expect from any racer.
"Not at all. A win is a win no matter what the circumstances," Bowyer said. "No matter how we won, I know where the trophy is. Bristol is such a neat racetrack, and it's a dream come true to have won a race there. The trophies are the same, but the trophy from the Nationwide race is a little smaller than the one from the [Sprint] Cup race. Hopefully, I can put the big trophy next to the smaller one on my mantel after this weekend."
Although the race trophy would be nice for Edwards as well, he's focusing on the big picture -- and that's another championship. He wouldn't mind having a little fun along the way, either.
"Bristol is a special place with a lot of history and tradition. It's always fun going to Bristol because there is nothing like racing under the lights," Edwards said. "We had a great points weekend [winning] in Michigan, and we will carry the momentum into Bristol and focus on gaining as many points on the series leader, Clint Bowyer."
"I thought we had it there at the end, but Kasey had the preferred line and I just couldn't get by him. We have been strong in our last couple of outings at Bristol," said Leffler, who has three top-10s in his past five starts at the track. "[Crew chief] Todd Lohse has a good handle on the setup you need to run well at a short track like Bristol, and with the Toyota horsepower underneath us, I think we have a good shot at being there at the end again this weekend."
Marcos Ambrose is among the drivers who will never forget his first experience at Bristol, and his didn't come behind the wheel -- but as a spectator back in 2003. That was when the Australian driver first realized he'd like to try to his hand at NASCAR.
They got debris in their beer cans. That's all they could talk about was how they were sitting so close that they got debris in their beer cans. Bristol is a great place.
-- Marcos Ambrose
"It is a real intimidating place," Ambrose said. "I went there as a fan in 2003 and watched the races there. It is a real buzz to get back there and actually drive the track."
Ambrose was behind the wheel here in the spring but had some friends in the stands, and he said they left similarly impressed.
"They got debris in their beer cans," Ambrose said. "That's all they could talk about was how they were sitting so close that they got debris in their beer cans. Bristol is a great place. It's one of the best tracks we go to because of the atmosphere."
It isn't, however, necessarily a great place to go to with a new crew chief, but that's what Kyle Busch will be facing this weekend as Doug Hewitt will be calling the shots on his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after Jason Ratcliff was suspended by NASCAR on Wednesday. Busch, though, might not miss a beat. He already has worked with multiple crew chiefs this year between NASCAR's three national series.
"You never know how quick you're going to click with a crew chief. Fortunately for me, I've been able to do that with a lot of crew chiefs that I've worked with over the years," said Busch, who has never worked with Hewitt. "I've had pretty much a different crew chief in every series and every single year of my racing career.
"For the last 10 years -- really since I was 13 -- I've had at least 10 different crew chiefs. And in certain years it's been three or four different crew chiefs I've worked with a lot of different people, but I've always been able to adapt since I've run in so many different series with different crew chiefs."
And Busch, who won Wednesday night's Craftsman Truck Series race, is looking to add another Bristol trophy. He knows what type of race he'd like to see Friday.
"I think the perfect balance would be some good green-flag racing with a couple of green-flag [pit] stops, and yet still having some wrecks," Busch said. "With the racing that we have there, it's pretty good racing there now, with the three lanes, but you don't see as much beating and banging for the one groove that we all had to fight for before because we can go anywhere, now.
"It's good racing, but there's less contact and more room to maneuver around, although you might see a little more of the bump-and-run stuff in the Nationwide Series cars as opposed to the Cup cars. I think the fans have their different opinions [as to what makes for a great Bristol race], and you're never going to be able to please everybody."
Bowyer, though, will be pleased if he can get his championship run headed back in the right direction.
"Bristol is such a demanding racetrack, and if you can win at a place like that, you've done a good day's work," he said.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
Clint Bowyer can feel Carl Edwards breathing down his neck. Good thing for Bowyer the Nationwide Series is headed back to Bristol, writes Mark Ashenfelter.