Friday, August 27, 2004

Bristol's lights will shine even brighter

Playoff race adds to already high short-track tensions

By Ed Hinton
The Orlando Sentinel

BRISTOL, Tenn. - Somebody's going to leave here furious Saturday night. Then again, somebody always leaves Bristol Motor Speedway furious.

The record is somewhere in excess of 100,000. That night, the boos drowned out the engine noise and the angry legion rained objects down on Dale Earnhardt, who had wrecked Terry Labonte on the last lap to win.

In the grandstands, grown men ripped their Earnhardt No. 3 T-shirts off their backs, shredded them, set them afire.

That was precisely five years ago Saturday night.

That is somehow appropriate.

Here comes the first race with a chance to equal or surpass Aug. 28, 1999, atop all the electric, frantic, furious atmospheres that have developed in these 160,000-seat grandstands set in the Smoky Mountains.

Little need be at stake for driver tempers to explode on this little half-mile track where racing is so claustrophobic that wrecking is almost as obligatory as running into one another. Bristol is an anger-cooker, in and of itself.

But now more, by far, is at stake than ever before. Here come the championship hopes of not the usual one or two at this point in the season, but at least 15 of the 43 drivers who will compete in Saturday night's Sharpie 500.

Of all places to bring the first big fight for the 10 berths in NASCAR's new playoff system.

With three races left to "make the cut" in the Chase to the Nextel Cup, two of the remaining venues are slam-bang short tracks. But Richmond, site of the 26th and final race of the "regular season" Sept. 11, is at three-quarters of a mile considered by drivers a roomier, more forgiving track than this loved-hated monster.

This place's history of untimely wrecks indicates Saturday night's race will do more to shake up the five-way battle for the 10th playoff berth than the other two.

Take Kasey Kahne, who clings to 10th place in the standings, with five drivers within 70 points - surmountable in a single race - of him.

In March, in Kahne's first Bristol Cup race, he was running second when he was knocked out of the race by Jamie McMurray (15th in the standings now).

A recurrence of that, with the added significance of its effect on the playoffs, surely would run up the numbers of the angry. And there are numerous other combinations of possibilities when you add points positions 11-14: Jeremy Mayfield, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman and Dale Jarrett.

Jarrett, 58 points behind Kahne, has been trying to defuse the wrestling-match buildup. Any wrecking won't be because of the championship race, he says, but to the naturally rough nature of Bristol racing.

"I think everybody is trying to make it like we're going to Bristol and going to go to Richmond and hunt down whoever is ahead of us and take them out," Jarrett says. "Well, if that's the way I have to get in the top 10, then I'll quit.

"The guys who are in the top 10 are not going to hunt the guys down who are in 11th through 15th and turn them, just to make sure they get in. We're going to race hard, and it may turn out that the guys in eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th all end up in the same accident or are banging on each other, but it's not going to be because of the point system."

If the Daytona 500 is America's favorite race, the Sharpie 500, commonly known as "The Night Race at Bristol," is far and away the favorite of NASCAR purists.

Bristol is beloved because it always is a free-for-all. And now the battle for the 10th spot in the playoffs has become a free-for-all.

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