What a difference a year can make in the sport of Sprint Cup racing. Last season, Richard Childress Racing struggled as it failed to put a team in the Chase. This season the fortunes have turned around for RCR as all three of its drivers, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, are presently in the top 12 with the opportunity to move on into the championship round of 10 races that will determine this season’s champion.
Of the three, it has been Harvick that has led the Childress operation as he has led the point standings all but five weeks this season. Only three races remain before the Chase begins and he now has a 293-point lead over second-place driver Jeff Gordon. Harvick has been the model of consistency this season, but it was his return to victory lane at Talladega in the spring that snapped a 115-race winless streak that gave both him and the entire Childress operation the confidence that it could go on and become a factor in the Chase.
Even though Harvick has been on top of the standings for the bulk of the season, most didn’t give him a great chance to go on and win the title. He was doing what it took to stay on top, but he wasn’t putting up the numbers in the win column that would give him those precious bonus points to start of the Chase.
Every driver that makes the Chase has his points reset to 5,000, so whether you finish the first 26 races in first or 12th, you will start the Chase on even footing unless you have won a race. Earlier in the season Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin dominated the series as the two drivers each had put up five wins before the end of June. That total gives both drivers 50 bonus points leading into the Chase as each win is worth 10 points.
Those two drivers were racking up the bonus points at such a quick pace that even though Harvick was on top of the standings, he wasn’t being counted on as a favorite because he couldn’t match their win total. Harvick has always been a good restrictor plate driver and he used his skill to win the July Daytona race, which gave him two wins on the season, and after Sunday’s win at Michigan he now has three wins and would only trail Johnson and Hamlin by 20 points if the Chase started next week.
There are still three races to go at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond before the Chase field is set, and with Harvick being the only driver locked into the field at this time, he and his team can go all out to notch another win or two before the points are reset after Richmond. Even without another win, Harvick has more momentum than any other driver presently in the Chase field and with only 10 races making up the playoff round of races, that momentum might be enough to carry him to the title.
The Sprint Cup Series will roll into Bristol this weekend for that track’s 100th Cup race. During the course of those 100 races the speedway has seen many changes, but maybe the hardest one for longtime fans of the sport to really grasp is the fact that the track still has tickets for sale. For years the Bristol night race was the toughest ticket on the schedule and crowds of over 160,000 were normal for 500 laps of racing under the lights on the world’s fastest half-mile track. Like every other track that hosts Cup races, Bristol has felt the sting of our nation’s economy. This weekend’s schedule will be one of the best found on the year as the racing actually gets underway on Wednesday night with the Camping World Truck Series followed by what has become a Bristol tradition on Thursday night with the annual parade of haulers leading into the track with a backdrop of fireworks. The meat of the schedule begins on Friday night with the Nationwide Series followed by the Irwin Tools Night Race Sprint Cup event on Saturday. The track has a three-race package that includes every race of the week for just $170, and with this being considered our home track until next season when Kentucky Speedway hosts its first ever Cup race, it’s a bargain. Best of all, it’s not that far away from the Commonwealth.
Event: Irwin Tools Night Race
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (.533 concrete oval, 24-30 degrees of variable banking)
Date: Aug. 21, 7:30 p.m. TV: ABC
Radio: PRN Defending champion: Kyle Busch