By Pete Iacobelli
AP Sports Writer
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Break time is over.
With four races left in the Sprint Cup regular season, the push for NASCAR’s playoffs revs up at Bristol Motor Speedway with the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race on Saturday night.
Sprint Cup drivers got a final week off last weekend and now race uninterrupted through the season-ender in Florida on Nov. 20. The immediate concern for most of those in the garage is making the 16-team Chase field — either insiders shoring up a dicey spot on the end of the grid or outsiders making a last-ditch charge to get in.
“During the off weekend, I spent a lot of much-needed time with my family,” six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “I feel like the battery is charged and ready to go for the final stretch of the regular season and then the most important part of the year for us.”
Johnson, with two victories this season, is among 10 drivers locked into the Chase. Many others are less certain about their chances.
“I think we have to be aggressive,” said Austin Dillon, who would make his first playoff appearance at No. 13 right now. “Any time you start playing defense and start playing that game, it seems to hurt you.”
Dillon and his Richard Childress Racing team can’t afford to sit back. He is only 47 points in front of Trevor Bayne, the first driver out at No. 17. And there are the issues of race winners Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher.
Three-time series champion Stewart missed the first eight races this season recovering from back surgery and received a playoff waiver from NASCAR if he qualified. He won at Sonoma in June and, at 26th in the standings (race winners must also be among the top 30 in points), has a provisional, and likely, playoff spot.
Buescher, last year’s Xfinity Series champion, won a rain-shortened race at Pocono last month, but is currently three points short of the cutoff.
“It’s time to go out there and get every point we can get every time we’re out on the track,” Buescher said. “And from there, we’ll just let it play out.”
If Buescher succeeds, that’s one fewer spot for more familiar contenders — something all of them are painfully aware of.
“I know I’m in the Chase right now, but I haven’t viewed that way since (Buescher) won,” said Kyle Larson, currently 16th in points and the first left out if Buescher gets in.
The other drivers in on points alone right now are Ryan Newman in 11th, then Chase Elliott, Dillon, Jamie McMurray and Larson. The regular season concludes after Bristol with races at Michigan on Aug. 28, Darlington on Sept. 4 and Richmond on Sept. 10.
Expect some hard-charging, risk-taking racing the next few weeks, starting at the always tricky half-mile Bristol layout. Following the Food City 500 in April, track officials coated part of the racing surface with a compound designed to entice racers to use the traditional, bottom-groove line as the quickest way to get around.
Carl Edwards, who won Bristol’s spring race, said practice sessions for the summer event did not answer many questions about the best place to run.
“I don’t know if anyone knows where the fast groove is going to be,” he said.
Edwards is among the fortunate 10 who’ve combined wins with consistent performances and won’t bite their nails worrying about Saturday night.
Edwards said his fourth career Bristol victory gave his team the opportunity to try different setups and techniques that might be useful when the Chase starts at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 18. It also allows Edwards to get creative, knowing a mistake or two won’t end his season on the outside.
“For us guys that have wins, we just get to go try everything,” Edwards said. “And that’s a fun way to race.”
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