Wearing protective driving gloves is status quo in NASCAR racing, but after last weekend's Nationwide Series scrum at Bristol Motor Speedway, the gloves -- in hockey terms, anyway -- have been dropped for the tour's top two drivers.
Series leader Elliott Sadler and defending Nationwide champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will renew their suddenly tense championship battle in tonight's NRA American Warrior 300 (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Stenhouse nudged his way past Sadler during the two-lap sprint to the finish in last Friday night's Food City 250 at Bristol, securing a runner-up finish for himself and relegating Sadler to fifth. The move whittled three points off Sadler's series lead, which now stands at 19.
The two title contenders had a pointed post-race conversation that may set the tone for the final 10-race stretch.
"I told him, we've always raced each other with a lot of respect," Sadler said Friday at Bristol. "I'm glad he didn't wreck us, but it's not the finish we deserved. He opened it up. Now we can race differently the last 10 races."
Atlanta's high-speed high banks are not the most conducive for issuing paybacks, but if sparks were to fly for the series' top two, Sam Hornish Jr. and Austin Dillon are within striking distance. Hornish, whose recent surge was tempered somewhat by a 10th-place finish at Bristol, is 28 points behind Sadler in third. Dillon, the top Nationwide rookie, is 35 points off the top in fourth place.
Five Sprint Cup Series regulars -- Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski -- are entered in the 300-mile event, which has been monopolized by Cup stars in recent years. The last NASCAR Nationwide Series regular to win at Atlanta was Jamie McMurray in 2002.