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Plotlines abound heading into Bristol


Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti know all about "Bump Day" at the Indianapolis 500, when the slowest qualified driver in the field can get bumped out of the starting lineup by last-chance drivers who make one final attempt to qualify their way into the field.

While driving for the best teams in IndyCar racing, Hornish and Franchitti were never in jeopardy of getting bumped out of the Indy 500. Hornish won the 2006 race along with three IndyCar titles, while Franchitti claimed last year's Indy 500 and circuit title.

But the two big-name drivers are about to experience a different kind of "Bump Day" at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday, which could be just as cruel as anything Marty Roth or Arie Luyendyk Jr. have experienced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Sunday's Bristol bash -- a torturous 500-laps around a 35-degree banked half-mile oval -- is the last race before NASCAR's "top 35 rule" switches over to this year's standings.

Hornish ranks 36th and Franchitti 38th in Sprint Cup points after Sunday's Kobalt 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Hornish finished 25th and Franchitti 33rd.

That leaves the past two IndyCar champions precariously close to getting tossed back in the go-or-go-home group of drivers, who have to qualify for the race based on speed from next Sunday onward.

Both drivers have been guaranteed starting positions thus far based on inherited points from last year. Hornish received Kurt Busch's seventh-place points and Franchitti was awarded David Stremme's points at Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates when he replaced that driver in the No. 40 Dodge.

It's important because only the top 35 drivers are guaranteed a starting position for the next race. Any other car has to qualify for one of the remaining eight positions on speed.

Hornish appeared to be safe after the season-opening Daytona 500, when he finished 15th. But after crashing early and finishing last at California, he logged a 41st-place finish at Las Vegas, which has him in jeopardy of missing races after Bristol.

"It's pretty difficult," Hornish said. "We just need to be calm and patient and that is the same thing that we need to do Sunday to try to get ourselves out of that hole that we're in in the points with being in the wrong place at the wrong time at California and blowing the front tire at Vegas. That pretty much put us in a deep hole, so we'll just keep working away at it."

Even veteran drivers like four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon realize the pressure of getting into the top 35 and the negative impact if a driver falls short of the cusp.

"I'm just trying to keep myself inside the top 35 right now," Gordon said. "You know there are some interesting little things going around the garage area right now about who is in the top 35 and who is trying to protect and help other people stay in the top 35.

"You know what? This business has turned into just that. It's big business. And these sponsors pay a lot of money and you can't afford to lose them. And we've seen that's the thing that keeps the team afloat. And being in the top 35 and being in the race every week and not having to qualify in, what risk are you willing to take to do that? And that's what we're going to find out.

"Some guys are going to play it cool and smart and hope that that gets them in. Other guys are going to take big risks and hope that gets them in. So it's an interesting story to watch, just like it's interesting to watch qualifying when those guys are all qualifying at the back."

Elliott Sadler at Gillett Evernham Motorsports said there's enough pressure in Sprint Cup racing already, so he can't imagine the stress level Hornish and Franchitti must be experiencing despite both having achieved the highest level of success in IndyCar racing.

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"There are only so many pieces of the pie," Sadler said. "I know Dario and Hornish got a lot of hype and I think both are with two really good race teams. And they both have a pretty good advantage over my teammate [Patrick Carpentier], where they're both locked in the top 35 the first five races. That helps them for the Rookie of the Year and helps them for the top 35.

"Sam had some problems in the first couple of races -- maybe wrecking a little bit and not finishing. We've been trying to talk to Patrick about it -- run every lap, run every race you can, run every lap you can, every mile you can -- just try and be there in the end. That's something that Dario and Sam are struggling with -- if they ever get on the outside after Bristol, I think that it's going to be tough for those guys to get back in."

The task gets even more difficult for Franchitti, who hasn't really raced his way into the top 30 this season -- with three finishes of 33rd and a best finish of 32nd at California.

If either driver misses the top 35, it may begin a string of races where they fail to qualify for the starting lineup, casting a dubious shadow on their decision to leave IndyCar for NASCAR.

"Ah, it is what it is," Franchitti said. "We just do our best. If we're out, we're out. We'll just have to do qualifying performances like we did on Friday night. If we end up out of it, we'll work our way back in. Nothing else we can do.

"Bristol is going to be wild. In one way I'm looking forward to it and we'll see what happens."


The so-called All-American sport of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing now has a Japanese nameplate in Victory Lane after Kyle Busch drove a Toyota Camry to victory in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

It's the first time since 1954 -- when All Keller drove a Jaguar to victory at Linden, N.J. -- that a car with a heritage from outside of the United States has won in NASCAR's top division.

Busch's Toyota defeated Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart by 2.066 seconds with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevrolet third, followed by Roush Fenway driver Greg Biffle's Ford and Jeff Gordon's Chevrolet.

Jim Aust, who is retiring as vice president of motorsports for Toyota Motor Sales, USA and president/CEO of TRD finally has something tangible to show validating the decision to come to NASCAR. But it wasn't until Toyota added the powerful Joe Gibbs Racing team to its lineup for the 2008 season that the auto maker had a legitimate shot at scoring a race victory in NASCAR's premier series.

With Busch behind the wheel for a JGR Toyota Camry, he has been close to winning at Daytona, California and Las Vegas before finally finding the path to victory lane at Atlanta.

"Kyle has been very close ever since the beginning of this year," Aust said. "Starting with the Daytona 500 and what could have been. To have Kyle come in and take this one and Tony Stewart finish second -- wow -- the feeling can't get any better than that.

Aust, who retires in July, believes Sunday's win is the first of many more to come this season.

"I said all along from the very beginning that I thought the number was somewhere in the area of eight, so I'm going to stick to that and hope my prediction comes through," Aust said. "With a guy like the coach [Joe Gibbs] here running this thing and J.D. Gibbs, who knows what the rest of the season is going to bring for us?

"This is a fabulous day for Toyota to win in this prestigious series. It is just a fabulous feeling. We are just feeling really great about the whole decision to move into the Cup Series."