It's difficult and dangerous enough to make 500 passes around Bristol Motor Speedway's half-mile, narrow-width race layout at high speed without having so much at stake and so many desperate drivers willing to do whatever it takes to secure their place in the fast-closing Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
That pretty much describes the type of racing we can expect over the final three 2011 regular-season races in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, which will set the 12-driver field for the eighth annual Chase.
You can also add impending bad weather, which threatens to postpone or alter the schedule of the race at Bristol, as Hurricane Irene works itself up the Eastern seaboard this weekend.
First up in the three-race countdown is the Irwin Tools Night Race at historic and highly popular Bristol, which is celebrating its 50th year of operation. The fourth largest sports venue in this country, the seating capacity in Bristol Motor Speedway's bowl-shaped oval holds up to 165,000 racing fans.
Heading into the 24th Cup race of the season, the first seven qualifiers for the Chase are fairly well locked, although only Kyle Busch, the leader in the points standings that determines the first ten qualifiers in the Chase for the Cup field, has clinched a spot for sure to this point. Among the seven drivers who are almost certain to be in the Chase despite what happens in the last three regular-season races is Kansas City-area driver Carl Edwards. The Columbia, Mo., native is currently tied with Kevin Harvick in fourth, 39 points back of the leader.
The last three automatic-qualifier spots in the top ten - currently occupied by Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart - and the two new-in-2011 wild-card qualifiers are still very much up for grabs. Ten drivers are in the hunt for those final five positions that will fill out this year's Chase field.
After last weekend's Cup race at Michigan, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin were in places 11 through 14 in the standings. But among those four drivers, only Keselowski (2) and Hamlin (1) have victories this season and, as of today, would move ahead of Bowyer and Biffle as the two wild-card entrants based on the new wild-card rules this season. Under the new wild-card rules, the last two spots in the Chase will be awarded to the drivers in positions 11 through 20 with the most race wins.
Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge for Penske Racing, is the one right now who is benefiting the most from the new wild-card qualification. Keselowski, with wins at Kansas Speedway in June and Pocono earlier this month, is 52-points behind tenth-place Stewart, but his two victories almost assure him of one of the two wild-card qualifying spots in the Chase.
"I'm a big fan of the wild card," said Keselowski, who has finished in the top three in each of his last three starts. "It's going to be something that's going to reward me. I think it's a great way of showing a commitment to our fans to rewarding those who can win races."
Paul Menard, David Ragan and Marcos Ambrose all have one win and are among the five first-time winners this season in the Cup Series. Their problem, however, is that they are too far back to get in the Chase on points. Which means that their only hope of making the Chase field is to win one of the final three races.
It is unlikely that Bowyer or Biffle is going to win two of the final three Cup races - at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond - so the only way that they are going to be able to make the Chase is to finish in the top ten on points.
This is the fourth consecutive year in Bowyer's six years driving fulltime in the Sprint Cup Series that he has come into the second race of the year at Bristol with his Chase hopes very much in doubt. "Hey, we're in one of those sports,: the Emporia, Kan., resident told the Sporting News. "I'm bummed out that we're in the situation we're in. We've just had too many DNFs (did not finish). We've got to go out there and work hard to be part of the Chase."
Out if the last four seasons, only in 2009 did the 32-year-old Kansan fail to make the Chase, but Bowyer is in definite danger of missing out this year, despite being 11th in points.
"The key to success at a track like Bristol is you have to be able to get in the car, settle down and slow everything down, including the pace," Bowyer said. "You have to think and if you can do all that, you prevail there."
Bowyer has five top-ten finishes at Bristol, but his average finish in 11 previous starts there has been 16th. He finished 35th in the first race there this season after experiencing engine problems.
If you are handicapping this weekend's Cup race at Bristol, points-leader Kyle Busch would be a good bet. The youngest of the Busch brothers has won four times in his last five races at Bristol Motor Speedway and has come in first or second in five of his past six starts there.