With only three races remaining before the Chase for the Cup begins, it now becomes a matter of each contending driver grabbing as many precious points as possible. In addition to the pressure of trying to nail down a victory or a spot in the Chase field comes more new challenges this week at Bristol: A new concrete surface that was installed after the most recent Nextel Cup event at the site in March, and the return of the Car of Tomorrow.
The new Bristol surface is smoother, 3 feet wider and has variable banking to ease transitions all around the track. Bristol still remains a small and fast track, though. It will be critical for contending drivers to stay out of trouble, as too much contact can lead to a serious fall in the running order. Drivers and their teams were expected to do a lot of practice research this week. The pit stalls are now 2 feet wider and the track has expanded to 43 feet wide.
Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin have already clinched spots in the Chase field. Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch can also clinch Chase spots on Saturday night. Kurt Busch is 163 points ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the final Chase spot, and Busch is only 33 points behind 11th-place Martin Truex Jr.
"The cleanest car usually has a shot going to Victory Lane," Busch said in a NASCAR press release. "That's the approach I've taken there every year and I've had some wins."
With Busch attempting to protect his Chase spot and the other contenders vying for one of just three more wins that are so important when the Chase begins, you can expect a high-drama event that provides some solid fantasy choices.
VICTORY LANE SPECIAL
Jeff Gordon (24.9): He is the most expensive driver in the game, but those who have owned him to this point know he is well worth the price tag. After disappointing finishes in the past two races, Gordon is primed for a strong run at Bristol, one of his favorite tracks. Gordon has five wins at Bristol and two consecutive top-5 finishes. Over the past five races at the site, he has an average running position of 8.5, second-best among current drivers. His 2,079 laps in the top 15 are second-best also, and his 84 quality passes are third-best. (NASCAR defines quality passes as passes of cars in the top 15 under green flag conditions.) Gordon has a total of five poles, 12 top-5s and 18 top-10 finishes at Bristol.
Matt Kenseth (23.2): He has all but officially clinched a spot in the Chase. All Kenseth needs to do is start the race on Saturday night to wrap up his spot in the "playoff" field. Kenseth has dominated in winning two consecutive night races at Bristol. In those two races, he has led the field with an average running position of 2.1, 532 laps led, 146 fastest laps run and 999 of a possible 1,000 laps in the top 15. Kenseth has seven top-5 finishes and nine top-10s at Bristol. Over the past five races at the site, he has an average running position of 5.3, which also is best in the field. He also leads current drivers with 204 of the fastest laps run and 2,364 laps in the top 15 during that span.
Carl Edwards (22.2): He has adapted well to Bristol recently, although he wasn't able to find immediate success at the site. Edwards failed to finish in the top 20 in his first three trips to Bristol in 2004 and 2005. Over the past three races at Bristol, however, Edwards has been a completely different driver. He finished fourth and seventh at the site in the two 2005 races, and he placed 12th earlier this spring. He spent 500 laps in the top 15 in the first Bristol race of 2007. Edwards is running very well of late and is primed for a good run this week. He is coming off a pair of top-10 finishes and has placed in the top 10 in four of the past six races this season.
Kurt Busch (21.5): This is a great bargain price for a driver who has not only won two of the past three races, but also has an outstanding history at Bristol. Busch has five wins and eight top-10 showings at Bristol. He has led eight of 13 races for 560 laps at the site. This season he has 1,270 quality passes, second-best among the current drivers. He has led in 13 of 23 races for 628 laps in 2007. He now has 17 career wins, and Busch has five top-5 finishes and seven top-10s this season. He's set to deliver another very good run as he aims to protect his spot in the Chase field.
Greg Biffle (19.8): He is in 15th place in the standings right now and 125 points behind Ryan Newman for the 14th spot. Biffle's chances of making the Chase appear to have greatly dimmed, but his history at Bristol suggests he will make a big desperation charge on Saturday. He has five top-10 finishes at the site and finished fifth at Bristol in the first race of 2007. He has an average finish of 10.3 at the site. He has 158 of the fastest laps run during the past five Bristol races, which is second-best among current drivers. His 86 quality passes are second-best and his 143 green flag passes rank third.
Casey Mears (18.7): The switch to Hendrick Motorsports is gradually paying off, and it also resulted in his best finish ever at Bristol earlier this year, a 10th-place showing. Mears is quietly putting himself in position for quality finishes every week. His 11th-place showing at Michigan was his third consecutive top-15 finish in 2007. He has also finished 11th or better in three of the past five Cup events.
Aric Alimora (10.0): He's worth the risk as he steps in for Mark Martin and can help you front-load your squad with top-level drivers. Alimora has raced twice at Bristol before in the Busch Series, and he managed a 20th-place finish there in 2006. This will be his first start for DEI, and he will split time with Martin in the No. 01 the rest of the season. "I don't have a lot of experience at Bristol, but I have enough to know that you have to be patient and totally focused," he said. "It's a demanding track; you can't ever let your guard down." A top-25 finish for this price tag would be terrific, and it's very possible.
Dave Blaney (14.9) finished sixth at Michigan and is now guaranteed a starting spot among the top 35 in owners' points. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. (21.0) has one win and eight top-10s at Bristol. Kevin Harvick (21.4) has one win and seven top-5s at Bristol . Tony Stewart (23.9) has one win and four top-5 finishes at Bristol. Jeff Green (14.7) finished sixth in the first Bristol race of 2007.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.