- Mike Massaro
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BRISTOL, Tenn. -- You've heard the analogy before; racing at Bristol is like flying a jet fighter in a gymnasium. If that's true, Saturday's race is going to be like flying a jet fighter in a gymnasium that's on fire.
Scheduling the Bristol night race 24th in this year's 26 race "regular season" is like chasing a shot of whiskey with a shot of tequila. It's like giving six time Formula One champ Michael Schumacher a 100-horsepower advantage or adding Barry Bonds to the Yankees' already ridiculously potent roster. The timing of this emotion-filled event, coupled with what's at stake Saturday night, makes what was already the most intense race on the schedule even more extreme.
Call it the battle for the bubble but right now it's more than that. In reality there's not one but three qualifying spots for the inaugural 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup up for grabs and there are eight drivers fighting for them. With just three races remaining before the cutoff, only 110 points separate positions eight through 15 -- a margin that could be wiped out in a single race, especially one with the unpredictable nature of Bristol.
"Bristol's going to be a tough place just because you don't have total control there," said Jeremy Mayfield, 11th in the standings, just six points behind teammate Kasey Kahne --who for the time being holds the final qualifying spot. "You've got to race hard, but you've got to stay out of trouble, and it's hard to stay out of trouble at that place."
Mayfield's right. Beating, banging and Bristol are synonyms in the racer's thesaurus. Crashing isn't a possibility it's a probability at this tight half-mile.
"Bristol can be such an evil track," says Ryan Newman, 13th. "A team can put its best race car out on the track, be dominating the field and suddenly get caught up in someone else's wreck. It seems unfair, but that's Bristol."
That is Bristol and whether you're ready for it or not doesn't seem to matter.
"You just have to hope that you have a good car and that you can stay out of all the trouble and sometimes that's hoping for a lot," says Mark Martin, 12th.
"It's a crapshoot," said Dale Jarrett, 14th. "Somebody else's mistake can catch you and make for a long day or night."
Jamie McMurray is one driver who can't afford to be victimized. He's 15th in the standings, a mere 70 points behind Kahne. He does however carry momentum from a strong fourth place Michigan finish and heads to Bristol knowing there's little room for error. "This is going to be a crucial weekend for us," he says.
McMurray isn't the only driver sensing urgency. With Rusty Wallace mired in 19th and Rookie Brendan Gaughn 30th, Newman represents Penske Racing's only championship hope. But to fulfill expectations he must reverse his momentum. In the past four weeks he's fallen from eighth to 13th in points.
"Bristol could shake a lot of things up," said Newman, who has won two Bristol poles but has had inconsistent finishes.
Meanwhile, Martin is just 33 points back but as close as he appears to be, he hasn't allowed himself to get caught up in the excitement. It's easy to understand why. Twice this season he's erased triple digit deficits and made a run at the 10-spot only to have his hopes dashed by mechanical failure.
"Don't get me wrong," said Martin. "We plan to go down swinging in this thing. We aren't going to go out and get all hyped up and set up for heartbreak, but we are not about to give up without a fight either."
Now that's the spirit. What would a Bristol race be without some sort of fight?
Thunder valley is known for that kind of thing. Mix a playoff atmosphere with a sense of desperation and the stage is set for one of the most dramatic races this year. Give NASCAR credit, this is exactly what they had in mind when they unveiled the new championship system.
"It's always an entertaining race and if nothing else, this race to get into the championship chase will probably make it even more so for the fans," said Jarrett, who despite his 58-point deficit says he won't be doing anything differently. "What we are thinking about trying to do is just run as hard as we can and be lucky. I think that's the best thing you can hope for is to be lucky there."
Those currently inside the top 10 shouldn't feel much more comfortable than those outside. Points leader Jeff Gordon is the only driver who -- providing he starts the next three races -- has mathematically clinched a birth. Beyond that no one has a guaranteed spot. While Jimmie Johnson (2nd), Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (3rd), Tony Stewart (4th), Matt Kenseth (5th), are all but a lock, Kurt Busch (6th) and Elliott Sadler (7th) are still on shaky ground. Kevin Harvick (8th), Bobby Labonte (9th) and Kahne (10th) are completely on the brink with a collective cushion of only 46 points.
We already know beating and banging are synonymous with Bristol. Now with much tension surrounding Saturday night's race two other B-words will be associated with the treacherous half-mile: bubble bursting.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.