From the moment NASCAR's new Chase for the Nextel Cup championship format was introduced, the Sharpie 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway has loomed as a potential joker in the deck.
Saturday night's race will be the 24th of 26 that will be used to select the drivers who will be eligible to compete for this year's championship. With time running so short, and with the standings as close as they are, bringing that battle to the 0.533-mile Bristol bullring seems like a recipe for fireworks.
Two of the three races left to the championship cutoff, in fact, will be short-track events. After Bristol this weekend and California Speedway next week, the 26th race will be at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. With only 70 points separating 10th from 15th in the standings, that seems like adding two big dollops of hot sauce to five-alarm chili.
Dale Jarrett says a tight points race isn't necessary to have fun at places like Bristol and Richmond. He thinks having up to 30 cars capable of competing for a good finish is a recipe for a crazy night.
"I am not sure the format is going to make Bristol and Richmond any more wild than they have been," said Jarrett, who enters the Sharpie 500 in 14th place in the standings, 58 points behind 10th-place Kasey Kahne. "I think it's the competition that's going to do that."
Elliott Sadler, Jarrett's teammate at Robert Yates Racing, is seventh in the points standings. However, a 32nd-place finish at Michigan, his worst result of the season, cut into the cushion he wanted to have coming into a track where trouble has a way of finding him. Sadler, 78 points ahead of 11th place in the standings, has finished 42nd and 38th the past two night races at Bristol.
"I get so caught up in the excitement and we usually have such good cars there," Sadler said of Bristol, the track where he also got his first Cup victory in March 2001. "I am not as patient as I need to be. You really need to put patience first. The driver's got to use his head and try to stay out of trouble."
Sadler, Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte and Kahne will all be trying to hang onto their spots in the top 10 during the next three races while Jeremy Mayfield, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Jarrett and Jamie McMurray try to take one or more of them out of the championship mix.
Jarrett said he didn't know how to answer when he's asked what his team can do to try to move up into the group that will race for the title over the season's final 10 races.
"We can't try any harder, first off," he said. "We're doing everything we possibly can."
But Jarrett does have a very direct answer when asked if he believes the race to get a shot at the championship will turn ugly over the next three weeks.
"I think everybody is trying to make it like we're going to Bristol and going to Richmond and hunt down whoever is ahead of us (in the points) and take them out," Jarrett said. "Well, if that's the way I have to get into the top 10, then I'll quit.
"I am going to race them hard and if we can go into the next three races and outrun everybody we're racing back there and somehow get into the top 10, that would be great.
"We're going to race hard, and it may come that guys in eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th are all in the same accident or are banging on each other. But that's not going to be because of the point system, it's just going to be because of the nature of the race track and how close the competition is."