Irwin Tools Night Race: Bristol viewer's guide

Randy Sartin-US PRESSWIRE

Previewing NASCAR’s Saturday night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

NASCAR's annual Saturday night race at Bristol Motor Speedway has turned into one of the more anticipated events on the Sprint Cup calendar. As you settle in for what surely will be a slam-bam affair featuring frayed tempers and bent fenders, here's a look at the drivers and storylines to follow.

Storylines

Kyle Busch coming from the back

The only driver to win a Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series race at the same track on the same weekend is Kyle Busch, who completed the sweep in August 2010 at Bristol. And after a narrow victory over Timothy Peters in Wednesday's Truck race and dominant win in Friday's Nationwide event, Busch is once again in line to make history.

But a Cup win was made infinitely harder after a wreck in qualifying relegated Busch to the 43rd and last spot on the starting grid. Although there are some tracks where you start is insignificant, qualifying near the front at Bristol goes a long way to recording a strong finish, as the half-mile oval has a well-deserved reputation for mayhem. And it's going to take a combination of luck and skill to avoid the inevitable carnage.

"Starting deep on the field you're going to have to be patient," Busch said. "But you can't be too patient because the leaders are going to be bearing down on you if you get stuck in traffic and can't go anywhere. But that's what Bristol is all about. We'll just have to continue to try to cut through traffic."

Bristol and its impact on the Chase

With three regular season races remaining, positions seven through 13 in the standings are separated by a mere 33 points and the wild card fight is even closer as there is just a 23-point gap from Kasey Kahne (first in the wild card standings) to Ryan Newman (fourth). But no matter how the order appears now, in all likelihood it will be vastly different after 500 laps at Bristol.

For some drivers on the Chase bubble Bristol is about surviving and ensuring that a potential playoff spot doesn't disappear due to an untimely incident. There are others who are approaching this weekend as a chance to solidify their standing and will pursue victory aggressively. Included in this is group are Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne, each of whom harbors realistic hopes of leaving with a win. Keselowski has won at Bristol twice, while Kahne went to Victory Lane in the spring and Logano had a car good enough to contend in March.

Then there is Jeff Gordon, in a precarious position following back-to-back subpar runs with a crash two weeks ago at Watkins Glen and nondescript 17th last weekend at Michigan. Because he's winless on the year and 26 points out of 10th, his best -- and maybe the only route -- to make the Chase is going all-out for the win.

Worth Noting

The worst starting position for an eventual winner at Bristol was 38th, by Elliott Sadler when he won the spring race in 2001.

Before this weekend Kyle Busch's worst starting in a Cup race was 42nd in 2005 at Atlanta. He would go on to finish 12th.

Dating back to 2005 (17 races) the average starting position for an eventual winner at Bristol is 9.05.

Favorites

1. Brad Keselowski

The defending Cup champion has a pair of wins and a third in his last four Bristol starts. And having qualified 12th and quick in practice, Keselowski should be near the front in little time.

2. Kurt Busch

Having finished third here in the spring and starting on the outside of the front row there was already reason enough to like Busch's chances to win. Then you consider that with five wins at Bristol he is tied with Jeff Gordon and younger brother Kyle Busch for most victories among active drivers, Kurt Busch's odds raise significantly.

3. Kyle Busch

Yes, starting last is dicey and he'll likely get swept up in someone else's mess. But that aside, if there was one driver who can go from the back to the front it would be Busch. And regardless of the outcome, it sure will be fun to watch him try.

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