Where you start matters -- a little
Jeff Gordon, with four victories at Bristol Motor Speedway, and Kurt Busch, also with four wins -- including three straight -- entered Saturday night's Sharpie 500 as favorites.
They also entered with considerably different views. Gordon's is clear. From the pole, he can see straight into Turn 1. Busch's is congested, with 22 other cars in front of him, and one more on the inside of his No. 97 Ford.
But with both drivers so skilled at manuevering and surviving Bristol Motor Speedway's half-mile confines, is the starting position going to matter?
"Well, I'd say it means less here than most places," said Jimmy Fennig, Busch's crew chief. "You could be anywhere on this track and find trouble. Doesn't matter where."
But Gordon is hoping that the starting positions do mean at least a little.
While the view doesn't mean too much, Gordon is hoping confidence will. He's got a lot of momentum going after winning the pole for tonight's race, and Busch's team is a little nervous working on a puzzling tremor that keeps popping up with the car's setup -- one that relegated the team to a 24th-place starting position.
Moreover, and more importantly, Gordon got to pick his pit stall first. Getting a coveted spot on the front stretch is a big deal here. At first, you get one. At 24th, you're much farther back.
"We've been on the front row here many times and seen the benefits of it," Gordon said. "There's nothing better than having a nice pit stall here."
Busch knows this just as well as anybody. As he watched qualifying with his disappointing speed on the chart, he couldn't shake that thought.
"That's going to push us back," he said.
Busch said he wasn't going to worry too much about all the traffic he'll start amongst or where his pit stall is. With the Chase for the Championship field ready to be set after just a few more events, he knows he has to suck it up and muster a good finish to keep those drivers knocking on the door of the top 10 out of reach.
"We're one of those teams that can't afford a bad day," Busch said. "We've got some cushion in case we miss the setup that we'll still run competitively enough to gain points.
"But Bristol is by no means a track that we're going to miss the setup on as well as California Speedway, the race after it, and then of course with preparations for Richmond, that's the final race where we get locked in."
Gordon believes that's another area where he might have an advantage over any other Bristol contenders. He's in the points lead and guaranteed a spot among the top 10 for the chase. The only thing he's racing for, now, is wins. And he has none of the pressure much of the rest of the field does.
"Finishing second, third, fourth, fifth, or whatever doesn't really matter to us," he said. "We're trying to gain momentum going into those last 10. We want to gain confidence in ourselves and show what we've got and what we're made of.
"We're certainly not here just to ride around and wait for those last 10 races. We're here to fight and charge from here all the way to the end of the season. We want to show ourselves that and everybody else out there."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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