Jeff Burton will drive in place of Tony Stewart in tonight's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol, Tennessee. (Wade Payne / Associated Press)
Bristol, Tenn. — It’s the kind of jumble that can make even the most seasoned driver nervous.
Matt Kenseth stands fifth in the points standings and seems a lock to make in into NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship when the 10-race playoffs begin in three weeks at Chicagoland Speedway.
But the 2003 series champion is still winless this season. With three races remaining in the regular-season, including two on unpredictable short tracks, he’s not banking on anything just yet.
“I never feel like you’re a lock for anything until you’re really a lock for something,” Kenseth said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway, the first of those short tracks to be navigated in the next three races. “Until it’s mathematically impossible to be out, I never feel like you’re in. We want to win.”
He’s still in a lot less precarious position than, say, Greg Biffle.
Twelve drivers are already locked into the playoffs as race winners.
Kenseth’s 709 points put him 49 points ahead of Biffle, who is 11th, and 58 ahead of Kasey Kahne, who is in the final qualifying spot.
Two other drivers — Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson — are within 24 points of Biffle.
In NASCAR’s new format, a win by any of them, or by one of several other drivers, would allow the race winner to jump into the championship field.
“You’ve got to really be on offense and defense” at Bristol, Biffle said. “You come in here and run as hard as you can. We’re here to win and we feel like we run in the top 10 about every time we’re at Bristol, and that’s the position you need to be in in order to put yourself in a position to win.”
Kevin Harvick became the best qualifier in NASCAR’s top series, when he won the pole position for tonight’s race, setting a track record with a lap at 131.62 mph that knocked Jeff Gordon from the top spot. Gordon, the series points leader, will start second at 131.290.
It’s Harvick’s series-high fifth top starting spot of the season, and just the 11th in 490 starts in his career.
“Any time you beat the 24 right now, things are going OK,” Harvick said.
Ryan Blaney bolted past Kyle Busch on a restart with six laps remaining and won the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday night for his second career victory.
Blaney’s victory was a surprise after Busch, seeking to become the first driver ever to win four consecutive races in the series on the 0.533-mile oval, had dominated, especially on restarts.
Battling at various times against the youngest and brightest stars in the series, Busch generally made quick work of them. He led 161 of the 300 laps and seemed poised for his record 67th victory in the series.
But on the final restart, Blaney darted to the lead from the inside, and Busch never quite caught up.