Tony Stewart (L) and Matt Kenseth: talking out their Bristol differences?
By Mike Mulhern
Yes, those two playoff wild card slots are up for grabs, and the race to the chase is down to just nine days.
Yes, Tony Stewart last fall did show that miracles can happen in the 10-race championship sprint. And his pole winning run here Friday evening puts him in a great position for the 7:30 p.m. ET Sunday start of the Atlanta 500.
Sizing up the championship picture more realistically -- and figuring the man winning the title will have to win at least two or three chase races -- this fall's title battle is shaping up as a duel between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, this season's top two 'home run' hitters, and two men currently very, very hot.
Johnson versus Keselowski?
Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, teammates for Jack Roush, would certainly take exception to such a prediction. And Kasey Kahne is certainly capable of striking hard and fast.
However at this moment -- cutting through all the hype -- this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup championship appears to be Jimmie Johnson's to lose.
"I agree," teammate Jeff Gordon says, with all the appropriate caveats.
And Gordon has seen 20 years of championship runs, since his Cup debut right here back in 1992.
Jeff Gordon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"But then I thought that Carl Edwards was the man to beat last season......" Gordon quickly adds.
Kahne -- finally on the inside at Rick Hendrick's, in his ninth season on the circuit -- agrees that Johnson is the championship favorite. So how to beat Mr. Five-Time? Kahne, who has never had a great title run yet, says he's going to work on consistency, but concedes that it will take wins to take the title.
"After last year it's all very unpredictable," Gordon ponders.
"But I agree (Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are title favorites). They've shown the signs and strengths of being able to really strike, and put the speed up when they need to... and we're not even in the chase yet.
"They seem to be able to find another gear when it comes to the chase.
"That team has so many strengths. It seems they've got a bag of tricks they can constantly take things out of -- weapons they can go after.
"They're either fast at this particular track or they just know how to battle back. It doesn't matter where they start, they're always capable of pulling out the weapons they need.
"Other teams are consistent, other teams can come and go, come and go.
"I'm interested to see how those final 10 races go, because it's been a bit unpredictable this season... as well as the last couple of seasons -- at least last year, the way Tony stepped up when you least expected it."
Kasey Kahne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The battle to make the playoffs is down to just nine days, Edwards says, perhaps sweating, "and when I realized that, my heart started racing a little quicker. We've got nine days to get it done."
If Edwards wins here, and he should be one of the favorites, because this has been a good track for him, then he should make the playoffs. If he doesn't, he probably won't.
The battle for those two playoff wild card spots appears down to Kasey Kahne, Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano. But there are so many permutations of possibilities that it's virtually impossible to set up a list of chase-making scenarios.
Wins are the simplest way to look at the wild card slots.
What the heck has happened to the man who had the best finishing average last season and actually tied the man who won the championship, Stewart?
"Two things have set us behind....and not winning the championship last year is not part of it," Edwards says.
"One, terrible luck -- the bolt fell off the carburetor butterflies at Michigan...at Pocono we qualified second and then go down into the first turn and Denny (Hamlin) plows into us and we have to fight from behind from there....every week it seems.....
"Mediocre performance couples with terrible luck, and we're 100 points out of the lead.
"We should be as fast as those guys."
Carl Edwards (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Edwards had the line of the day, in talking about how much he likes this track, and its 15-year-old asphalt: "If the Lord were to take me from this Earth right now, there would be a place in heaven that would look a lot like this race track. I mean, it is awesome. It's as good as it gets.
"If there were a way to repave tracks just like this, this is how they should pave all of them. You drive down in the corner and it's awesome.
"We're going to wear out steering boxes; we're slinging the cars sideways.
"It's just fun.
"And then the tires fall off and the times slow down, and there are going to be guys coming and going.
"There is going to be somebody on the last pit stop who takes tires and passes 20 cars in five laps.
"I just hope they can maintain this pavement and not have to repave it. And if they do, please pave it just like it is."
Kyle Busch is in a similar situation, on the verge of missing the chase.
But Busch could easily win Richmond...and if he does, then even if Edwards wins here Edwards would probably miss the chase.
Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
However Edwards sees so much more enthusiastic about his chances to make the chase...while Busch continues to seem almost lackadaisical about the way his season is going, well, aside from that emotional last lap at Watkins Glen.
"I don't see any reason why we wouldn't be able to go out there and contend for the championship if we were given the
opportunity to make the chase," Busch says. "We've just got to solidify our chances here this weekend and next weekend in Richmond and do everything right the way we know how to do it.
"I don't see our competition, nor the way we're running, as why we're in 13th -- it's just due to dumb circumstances.
"We were in this situation in 2009 or '10: we had to go to Richmond and we had to finish five spots ahead of Brian Vickers... and we finished fifth, which was great, but Brian finished eighth, so we missed the chase.
"Obviously the win would be nice, and that would lock yourself in (the chase) a heck of a lot easier.
"(But) if we run top-five both weeks and don't score a win, I feel we still have a really good shot at getting in."
Danica Patrick at Bristol, expressing her displeasure with Regan Smith (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Danica Patrick says Regan Smith called to apologize for their run-in last Saturday night at Bristol, and she described that move as 'upstanding,' though it's not clear if she's really buying the apology 100 percent.
Any regrets about not throwing her helmet at the man who took her out of a top-20 finish? That's what teammate Tony Stewart did at his Bristol antagonist, Matt Kenseth, much to the delight of the crowd of some 153,000.
"I'm just glad I didn't give him the finger, because I understand that is a penalty," Patrick said with an impish grin.
Stewart, meanwhile, says he's cooled off a bit, after his run-in with Kenseth, in that curious brouhaha between the two NASCAR champions.
Stewart said a few days ago he didn't figure he needed to talk with Kenseth. However Kenseth wanted to talk to clear the air.
"I tried to get up with him this morning and missed him, but I plan to try to talk to him," Kenseth said.
The two finally did meet, Stewart says: "We are fine. We have too much to do the last 10 weeks to be worrying about each other.
"The big thing is getting it done and over with now."
But Stewart says venting anger is good.
Stewart threw his helmet at Kenseth after the two crashed, but NASCAR decided not to penalize Stewart. A few years ago NASCAR penalized Robby Gordon $25,000 and hit him with a 25-point penalty for throwing a helmet at Michael Waltrip.
What did happen to Stewart's helmet? "For some reason it's MIA," he says.
Tony Stewart (R) gets a Braves jersey from Atlanta track boss Ed Clark, for that Bristol helmet throw (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Such emotional temper tantrums may be fun to watch from the sidelines, Dale Earnhardt Jr. conceded, but for the men in the middle, it's not that much fun.
"That stuff is always fun to watch.... I hate being involved in it," Kenseth says. "I don't like that part of it.
"But I always like watching it. I love watching other people's conflicts. I mean everybody does; it's human nature.
"I think the fans loved the helmet toss. I thought that was cool too... although I wish it wasn't being tossed at me.
"It's just human nature to like conflict and controversy and action.
"Everybody wants to see good racing and a competitive finish... but, whether people admit it or not, a lot like to see the wrecks, and see guys go over the edge."
Apparently this little Bristol tiff follows run-ins at Sonoma in June and Indianapolis in July.
"If you race long enough you're probably going to have some type of disagreement with pretty much everybody on the track that you're competitive with, whether it's a very minor one or a major one that everybody notices," Kenseth says.
"Or maybe it's just something on the track that none of the media notices and you just take care of it."
However Stewart's anger, Kenseth says, was unexpected: "Honestly I was really surprised.
"I wasn't trying to put our cars in a bad situation. I thought we were going to make it through there.
"I'm not sure what all went down there, but Tony and I, 99 percent of the time, show each other probably more respect and more room on the track than most people have.
"There have been a couple instances here and there, but we try to show each other a lot of respect, and we usually get that back."
Danica Patrick's Bristol car, after that run-in with Regan Smith (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
As bitter and sharp as those moments were for the two Saturday night, there was an element of humor in it all....though neither man would probably see it that way.
"There have been a lot of times in my career I've done dumb things or made people mad. It's hard to laugh about that because I don't like having people mad at me and I don't like being mad at people. And you don't like wrecking cars."
Kenseth says he's now trying to "get it worked out...when you actually either both agree to disagree or you end up agreeing or seeing each other's point of view.
"Maybe you can get past that and laugh about it or talk about it... hopefully.
"I've had wars with people for a long, long time, and then, when we got all done with it, we decided we were both probably not being that smart.
"The best thing to do is try to get it in your rearview mirror as quick as you can... try to get that resolved and move on and go racing.
"You don't want to focus on being mad at somebody or somebody being mad at you, because you're taking focus away from trying to win races and a championship."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)