BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) _ Rusty Wallace's shot at winning the Nextel Cup championship this year is over. That won't stop Wallace from going after yet another win at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Wallace, a nine-time Bristol winner, is expected to announce on Monday that the 2005 season will be his last. What better way to set up his farewell tour than with another victory at the Tennessee bullring?
Wallace had been unbeatable at Bristol until late. His luck turned the past few seasons, beginning with Jeff Gordon bumping him out of the lead with a lap to go in the 2002 race.
He finished 14th in the spring race last year, then was knocked out of the night race in August and finished 43rd.
``We hit a couple of times where it felt like stuff was just falling from the sky and hitting us,'' Wallace said. ``We really did hit rock bottom last year. But we bounced back in the spring, and it looks like everything is back to being A-OK again.''
Wallace finished second in the spring behind Kurt Busch, who has won three consecutive races at Bristol.
He'll try to carry over that turnaround into the Sharpie 500 on Saturday night, a race that could wreak havoc on the championship chase.
With just three races to go before NASCAR's 10-race playoff series begins, drivers are scrambling to become eligible to race for the title. Bristol, a tight, concrete track, has the potential to ruin many teams' chances.
``Bristol is an intense race track to say the least,'' Mark Martin said. ``Forty-three cars is a lot for a track that size, and driving around that place is like trying to fly a jet fighter airplane around the inside of a basketball arena, so it gets really wild when you have 42 other guys trying to do the same thing.
``You just have to hope that you have a good car and that you can stay out of all the trouble and sometimes that's hoping for a lot.''
Only the top 10 drivers in the points standings, and anyone else within 400 points of the leader, will qualify for the final shootout.
Rookie Kasey Kahne is currently holding the 10th and final spot, with just a six-point lead over teammate Jeremy Mayfield. Sitting in 11th position, Mayfield wants to crack the top 10 _ but could still make it in because he's only 68 points outside of the 400-point cutoff.
Right behind the Evernham Motorsports duo is Martin, who is just 33 points out of the top 10 and has an impressive resume at Bristol: two career victories and 20 top-10 finishes.
Dale Jarrett is in striking distance, 58 points out of 10th and a proven record at Bristol with one win and 15 top-10s.
``Obviously the best-case scenario for going into Bristol is having a good race car that allows you to run up front,'' Jarrett said. ``Then usually you can have a pretty good weekend because you don't have to drive every single lap crazy back in the middle of the pack.''
Even Jamie McMurray in 15th place can consider himself racing for a spot. He's just 70 points out of 10th.
All will have to contend with the drivers ahead of them.
Jimmie Johnson has failed to finish the past three races, sliding into second in the standings.
Elliott Sadler, who scored his first career victory at Bristol, is coming off a 32nd place finish in Michigan that saw his hold on seventh in the standings cut to a 72-point advantage over Kahne.
Then there's Bobby Labonte, who has been on a steady slide the past month. His 26th place finish in Michigan last week cut his lock on the ninth spot to a 13-point advantage over Mayfield.
Anything can go wrong at Bristol.
One wrong move can trigger a multi-car crash. An ill-handling car can cause a driver to be lapped minutes into the race. Tempers are usually as high as the Tennessee heat and humidity.
``You have to remember, whether you are leading, last, or in the middle, you are vulnerable at all times to get caught up in a mess,'' Kevin Harvick said. ``You have to pick and choose when to pass because it's so hard to do without using your front end.''