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Bristol! A Payback 500? Well, a number of drivers have scores to settle.....

  Kyle Busch is already winning at Bristol, and he's taking aim on a three-win sweep here (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   BRISTOL, Tenn.
   If Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards are the pre-race picks here for Saturday night's Bristol 500, well, Busch certainly got the week off to a good start, with a last-to-first charge to victory in Wednesday night's Truck race.
   Maybe it hasn't been a great summer for Busch on the Sprint Cup tour – he concedes he and the Joe Gibbs guys have lost that edge they showed back in the spring – but Busch sure isn't letting it get him down.
   Consider: with this latest win, Busch now has a whopping 76 career victories in NASCAR's top three national touring series – 18 in Cup, 39 in Nationwide, and 19 in Truck.
   That is by far the most impressive overall record of anybody in this sport over that span.
   Can Busch sweep the weekend at this high-banked half-mile in the Blue Ridge?
   "I was very close last year --  I won the Truck race, didn't win the Nationwide race, got wrecked, then won the Cup race," Busch says.
   "So I don't see why not."

  Carl Edwards (R) and crew chief Bob Osborne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  And Edwards, along with the rest of the Jack Roush guys, has made a remarkable turnaround on the Cup side over the past few weeks. When he left Loudon, N.H., in late June, he was 12th in the standings and worried about even making the playoffs. Now, with top-sevens or better the last six races, including a strong third at Michigan, Edwards has jumped up to sixth in the standings and can clinch a playoff spot here, with two races (Atlanta and Richmond) before the cut.
    Consider: Edwards' 4.3 finishing average the past six races is the best of any driver on the tour.
    Now that's impressive, particularly considering Edwards is a streak player, who went he gets hot can really get hot.
   Whatever's happened in the Roush camp the past two months, it's been across the board – at one point late Sunday at Michigan Roush had four of the top-eight.
     So what to expect from Edwards here? "We are going into Bristol with a good points cushion, so we can be more aggressive," Edwards says.
    "We still have to race smart and get as many points as we can to clinch a spot.  Bristol is the battle...but the war is the chase.  We need to be in the chase."
   Things happen fast here, to put it mildly. Faster, really, than just about any other track on the tour.
   So Pat Tryson, who runs Martin Truex' team, says "Bristol is a little harder on crew chiefs because we don't have as much time to think about things.
    "My job is to watch and base decisions on what is right for the team and what most teams will do. Lately Bristol has seen a lot of long green-flag runs. It has changed a lot as far as how the race is run."

  Brian Vickers (L) and general manager Jay Frye, in May at Darlington, just days before Vickers was hospitalized with mysterious blood clots (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Among the story lines here this week is Brian Vickers, who has been recovering the past three months from mysterious blood clots. Vickers hasn't been around the tour much this summer, but he is expected here Saturday, perhaps to layout his recovery and his plans for 2011.
   Vickers' medical treatments typically take three to six months to show results, and team manager Jay Frye says he's halfway through that.
   Frye, of course, is under pressure to keep Team Red Bull up and running in the meanwhile, and his current two drivers, regular Scott Speed and sub Reed Sorenson, haven't done much of note lately. Speed's contract for 2011 is dependent on his performance, with a Sept. 11th deadline. Sorenson is averaging a 25th-place finish in his six starts.
   Kasey Kahne was just signed, in an odd move, last week to drive for Frye next year. Whether that means Kahne replaces Speed and Vickers returns, or whether that means Frye is still looking for a second driver if Vickers doesn't return is unclear.

   NASCAR's King Kong this season: tour leader Kevin Harvick, three races left before the playoffs begin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Harvick says "Bristol is a lot like Watkins Glen -- You never know what's going to happen.
   "You could get caught up in someone else's mess before you even know what happened."
   Which makes teammate Clint Bowyer's situation and Mark Martin's situation tough. They're battling for one of the final playoff spots.
   And there may yet be a new player in that hot seat game before the Richmond cut.
   "You can be really aggressive and take chances you wouldn't normal take if you were in Clint's position," Harvick says. "I'm glad we're not in that position."
   One question: is Jeff Gordon ever going to win again?
   He's looking for a major sponsor for next year, with DuPont cutting back, but Gordon's last tour win was in the spring of '09, at Texas.
   Here, well, "we've struggled ever since they changed the track," Gordon frets. "I had a knack for that place...a groove, a feel, a setup.
   "Ever since they changed the track, none of that seems to work.
    "So it is about reinventing yourself as a driver."
    But really maybe it's just rhythm. This has always been a rhythm track, one where a driver's confidence means a lot.
    The new, smooth concrete, which has widened the racing groove considerably, may take a different touch.
    "The straights are so short, and it is such a quick lap (15 seconds), that -- if you get it right -- it can be really fun. But if you keep missing it lap after lap, it can be very, very frustrating."
    And anything that goes wrong here, goes wrong big-time, and can take out a lot of cars.
    Plus, any problem, like a cut tire, can drop a man two laps down in a heartbeat. "If you have one hiccup, it's hard to recover," Tony Stewart says.
     Stewart has won only one race here: "It's been feast or famine for us.
    "We've had more 'long' days than good days."

    So, for that last playoff spot, it looks like Mark Martin (L) versus Clint Bowyer (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Did Jimmie Johnson really win here in the spring? Yep, and led 84 laps. Considering his current slump, that seems sooo long ago.
    Another driver who needs to get back on track is Jeff Burton. He's run strong all year, but is still winless. And, at 42, if he wants to be a contender for the title, he needs to make something happen.
   Burton is optimistic here: "Short tracks are the strength of our deal. We led a lot at Martinsville. We were very, very fast at Phoenix. And we ran really well at Bristol in March.
    "We were also really fast at New Hampshire and led a lot of laps."
    Teammate Bowyer is in even more of a jam, 12th in the standings, on the playoff bubble. "Bristol is all about speed. Things happen fast. The key is to avoid trouble....easier said than done."
     The man Bowyer will be keeping an eye on is Martin, 13th and trying to make cut. "Bristol is a tough one, because you can't count on anything...and you can't count anything out."
   He knows that all too well: "In March we had an awesome race car, possibly the best one we've had all season. We had a chance to win...and lost it all when we were pushed into the wall by another car.
    "You just can't count out something crazy happening at Bristol.
    "Sparks fly there."
    Which means we should be keeping an eye on Joey Logano and Ryan Newman....and maybe Logano and Harvick....and Edwards and Brad Keselowski....and who all else should be expecting a payback?
    Might need a big notebook to write all those down.
    "Frustrations can rise and flame up quicker than at any other racetrack," Newman says.
   "Bristol has always been a game of survival. You don't have time to think or blink. You just don't realize how quickly everything happens."


  Jimmie Johnson in victory lane? Considering his current string of finishes -- 31st, 25th, 22nd, 10th, 28th, and 12th -- all those wins seem almost ancient history (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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