The Sprint Cup season is only four races old but in two weeks the first big points battle of the season will take place. Four races of a 36- race schedule doesn’t sound like much, but when the series rolls into Bristol Motor Speedway for the next race on the schedule what will be on line for every team is a spot in the coveted top 35 in owner’s points.
The top-35 rule was the talk of the off season especially in the final weeks heading into Daytona as several race teams that had finished in the 2008 top 35 were sold to teams that had to face the prospect of entering this season without being locked into the starting field by way of last year’s final point standings.
Each season, NASCAR uses the previous season’s final point standings to help set the starting field in the first five races. Beginning with the sixth race of the season the present season point standings are used to guarantee starting spots. The event at Bristol is the fifth race of the season, which for many race teams struggling to stay in the top 35 becomes like the fall race at Richmond that is the last race of the season before the field for the Chase for the Championship is set.
A bad start doesn’t necessarily seal a team’s fate but with each passing race, the number of spots that a team can gain or drop after one race grows smaller and smaller. That’s why being assured of a starting position before ever unloading the hauler on Friday becomes so important. A team in the top 35 knows that it is going to start the race regardless, which permits it to spend more time on its race setup than having to work on its qualifying package. Practice time at each track is very limited so being able to work on your race setup is a luxury that teams hovering around the cutoff spot of 35 don’t get to enjoy. Also, just knowing that you are already in the race if rain cancels qualifying takes away a tremendous amount of pressure.
Going into Bristol, Aric Almirola holds down the 35th spot but he is far from secure in holding on to that spot the following week when the series goes to Martinsville. Trailing Almirola is David Gilliland by just one point and Scott Speed in 37th is only 21 points of being assured of a starting spot.
Also joining this list of drivers that need to have a good Bristol finish are several drivers that are ranked higher but not by enough points to withstand a bad finish. Robby Gordon in 29th place is only 65 points in front of Almirola, and those drivers that find themselves in between Gordon and Almirola know that they don’t have any kind of cushion when the green flag waves to begin the 500 laps on Bristol’s high banks, which have been known to crush many a driver’s dreams long before the checkered flag waves.
John Andrette sits in 30th, 59 points ahead of Almirola, and Sam Hornish Jr. finds himself 51 points ahead of the final guaranteed spot. Those two drivers were expected before the season began to battle to stay in the top 35, but the next three drivers fighting to stay inside of the top 35 are a surprise to everyone in the sport.
Even though Ryan Newman is driving for the startup team of Tony Stewart, he wasn’t expected to be in a fight to stay in the top 35. He sits in 32nd, just 47 points ahead of the final guaranteed spot. Right behind him is Joe Gibbs Racing’s rookie Joey Logano, who is 44 points from having to qualify on speed at Martinsville.
The real shocker, though, is Mark Martin who is only 9 points ahead of Almirola and has yet to finish in the top 10 this season. Martin’s return full time in the series with Hendrick Motorsports this season was supposed to finally give him a chance to win his first-ever title. Instead, he finds himself 189 points from being in the Chase field and in a real battle just to stay inside the top 35.
Bristol may not shape up as a big points race for who will make the field, but it has become ‘the’ race for those trying to stay in the top 35. It might be that the best racing will not be among those running up front but among those drivers trying to be locked in at Martinsville.
Race Preview — Event: Food City 500. Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (.533-mile oval, 24-30 variable banking in the turns). Date: March 22, 2 p.m. TV: Fox. Radio: PRN. Defending champion: Jeff Burton.