This weekend, I expect that to change. The top 11 drivers in the playoffs are all well over 200 points clear of the bubble, meaning a Bristol scuffle won't put them in jeopardy of missing the postseason. That leaves only four drivers realistically jostling for that final spot, not enough for an entire field to live 500 laps in fear. Wins and not titles will be on everyone's mind, with a season filled with "Have at it, boys" also allowing revenge to creep into the picture. It's been well over a decade since we've seen a season filled with so much inner rivalry among drivers, and short tracks are the perfect place to go from getting mad to getting even.
Which one of these driver conflicts has the best chance to boil over on Saturday? Let's look at five pairings to watch heading into the weekend:
HISTORY: Logano spun Newman out on Lap 148 at Michigan, contact dropping the Chase contender down to 23rd in the final running order and leaving him 103 points out of a playoff spot.
BATTLE CRIES:Logano: "(Ryan Newman) races me way too hard, he races everybody too hard. I'm not the only one that complains about it every week. And he just went in there and door-jammed me. "
Newman: "I race hard, and the race track at Michigan is different than when you race on Darlington, where you have to give and take. There was no need to give and take at Michigan. He just wanted me to [give him room], and I wasn't going [to be] in the position or [even] want to be that giving -- especially to him. He for sure now shouldn't expect any give and take [going forward], since he has a hard time controlling his racecar inside of somebody else."
WHO'S IN THE RIGHT? Newman. Logano complaining about a guy racing him too hard? Isn't that what the whole sport is all about, giving 110 percent? Just a second-year guy, Logano giving advice to Newman afterwards about the incident is like you trying to counsel the vice president of your company in week two. That just doesn't work, especially when Logano's front bumper is what started the spin in the first place.
BUMP-AND-RUN CHANCES: About 50/50. Usually, with Newman fighting for a playoff spot you wouldn't want to risk rustling someone else's feathers. But this guy doesn't let points get in the way; he wrecked Dale Jarrett a few years ago in a move that knocked the former driver out of a playoff bid. Considering how much this wound still simmers for the Stewart-Haas veteran, I wouldn't be surprised to see some contact.
Check out a gallery of some of NASCAR's most memorable brawls.
HISTORY: Where do you start? From Chicagoland last year, to fighting for the win at New Hampshire this June, to Pocono just a few weeks ago, these guys have a magnetic attraction to each other on the race track. So far, it's Kurt who's gotten the short end of the stick, his Miller Lite Dodge destroyed after a bumpdraft turned bad and also indirectly caused Elliott Sadler's near-tragic slam into Pocono's inside guardrail.
BATTLE CRIES:Busch at Watkins Glen, the Friday after the Pocono wreck: "I asked Johnson as I was walking in here, 'Do I need a dustpan and broom to clean up your mess? I've been wrecked by Johnson quite a bit in the last couple seasons, the last 13 months, whether it was just racing, whether it was a small bump that he didn't intend to mean what he did."
"We have a high car count of wrecked cars over at our shop, and those guys on the 48 --it's definitely been a one-way street right now. The guys at Hendrick are pretty boys, they get on People magazine covers, and that's their job. My job is to go out and race cars, and that's what I focus on. If the roles were reversed and the 2 car wrecked the 48, I would have been hung. I would have been lynched at the gates for wrecking a four-time champion."
Johnson at the Glen: "Kurt isn't very fond of me; he never has been. I think when he has a chance to take a shot at me, he will probably do so."
After getting bumped out of the lead at New Hampshire: "I have to say I was a little shocked, and I haven't spoken to him or really seen any video to know, if he slipped and accidentally got into me or that was his intention. If it was his intention, that's the first time in nine years racing with him that I have experienced that and definitely changed the way that I race with him from that point moving on."
WHO'S IN THE RIGHT? Both. This rivalry is one of the best in the Cup Series right now, two top-notch drivers doing things the right way (Pocono bump notwithstanding) both in the press and out on the race track. Johnson's the champ, and as the challenger Busch is getting in his face and making life difficult for the No. 48 -- causing the verbal sparring matches that cause everyone to tune in and watch. However, Johnson has no excuse for Pocono and gives Busch an opening to return the favor.
BUMP-AND-RUN CHANCES: High. Neither man has anything to lose (despite Busch's recent slump dropping him to 11th in points, he's still relatively safe to make the Chase), and Busch wants to send a message to the No. 48 team he won't be intimidated come Chase time. Considering these two cars battled for the win this spring, they should be up front again Saturday night ... and this time, only one will make it out in one piece.
HISTORY: Running in the top 5 with a car that looked like it could win the race at Infineon, Truex was slammed by Gordon's front bumper entering Sonoma's tricky Turn 11. Forced to restart back in the pack, the No. 56 Toyota became an innocent victim in another, unrelated wreck and saw the victory -- and his Chase chances -- go up in smoke.
BATTLE CRIES:Gordon: "The thing with Martin (Truex Jr.), I don't have any excuses. Yeah, I was racing with Juan Pablo (Montoya) hard, but I just made a mistake there." He also left a voicemail apology for Truex during the week.
Truex: "I'm in the same position I was then, so why would I feel different? I accept his apology, yes, but things are going to change between me and him. That's just the bottom line. The nice guys seems to always get pushed around. I'm tired of being the nice guy. I'm tired of getting pushed around. I'm not going to stand here and say, 'I'm going to go out and wreck Jeff.' That's not me. That's not how I do things. But things are going to change. I'm not going to take it anymore."
WHO'S IN THE RIGHT? Truex. Known as a quiet guy who doesn't start any trouble, he was simply one of a long list of victims on a weekend Gordon turned his DuPont Chevrolet into a battering ram. No less than five drivers suffered the wrath of his front bumper, including Kurt Busch and Elliott Sadler. When Carl Edwards got penalized for his actions against Brad Keselowski (see below), many drivers pointed to Gordon and privately expressed frustration the four-time champ wasn't given the same type of reprimand.
BUMP-AND-RUN CHANCES: High. I think this one's a true darkhorse this weekend, with Truex's postseason chances as limited as Gordon's are already locked up. The quiet type, this veteran doesn't have a great Bristol track record but he'll be one heck of a lapped car for the No. 24 to get around at the very least.
HISTORY: It all began on the last lap at Talladega last April, an ill-fated Keselowski flip for the win nearly sending Edwards into the stands, injuring seven and leaving his Ford a pile of pieces by the start/finish line. Keselowski also crumpled the No. 99 in an early-race incident at Atlanta in March, causing Edwards to come out at half-speed with a damaged car, flip the No. 12 and get even, to the gasps of racing fans everywhere. Add in a last-lap Gateway accident where he turned Keselowski's into a pinball in the Nationwide Series, and these two are keeping NASCAR officials mighty busy these days.
BATTLE CRIES:Edwards after Atlanta -- posted by him on Facebook: "Considering that Brad wrecks me with no regard for anyone's safety or hard work, should I: A Keep letting him wreck me? B - Confront him after the race? C - Wait 'til Bristol and collect other cars? or D - Take care of it now? I want to be clear that I was surprised at his flight and very relieved when he walked away. Every person has to decide what code they want to live by, and hopefully this explains mine."
Keselowski: "Carl decided to just wreck me intentionally down the straightaway and about killed me and a couple thousand people in the grandstands. It's one thing to race somebody hard and get in an accident when you're going for position. It's another to just intentionally wreck someone at 195 mph at a track like this. I know it's ironic that it's me saying that, but I didn't do it on purpose."
From SI Diary in March: "I was angry at myself for not just wrecking him down the straightaway and doing to him what he did to me. I thought to myself, 'Well, apparently honor is out the window.'"
WHO'S IN THE RIGHT? Neutral. Keselowski's made a career out of making major enemies (can you say Denny Hamlin?) and hasn't exactly been apologetic for sending Edwards spinning. The radical nature of Edwards' reaction, though, there and at Gateway has proven wildly unpopular with a fan base that thinks he crossed the line.
BUMP-AND-RUN CHANCES: Low. This rivalry is one that's gone overboard, leaving NASCAR to put both men on probation the rest of the year while clouding the "Have a it, boys" message. In the past, that's a penalty that goes unenforced but neither driver will want to test its limits -- especially with Edwards in position to make the Chase while Keselowski takes the Nationwide championship. Both have proven they can run close but clean, staging a great on-track battle just one week later at O'Reilly Raceway Park, so it's going to take a gargantuan mistake for tempers to flare a fourth time.
HISTORY: These two clashed in a Nationwide Series race at Bristol this March, where Harvick spun Joey Logano for fifth place. A few months later, he did it in the big leagues, pulling an Intimidator-like move and "rattling the cage" of the No. 20 Toyota in a spin that caused a post-race confrontation involving Logano's father -- who needed a reprimand from NASCAR -- and the quote of the year.
BATTLE CRIES:Logano at Pocono: "I don't know what his problem is with me, but it's probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do."
"It's just ridiculous. I don't know what I've ever done to piss him off, but he is apparently stupid."
Harvick's response: "He just races with not giving people any respect and not much room. So, we just wound up getting together. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it goes."
"You can't talk to him. He's 20."
WHO'S IN THE RIGHT? Neither. Harvick's blatant tap on Logano's back bumper is pretty one-sided, but having Daddy come to your aid isn't exactly the most mature response, is it? The positive side is Logano's personality came out in the wake of this crash, an "I'm not going to take it" attitude certain to serve him well during a career where veterans have probably hazed this youngster a little too much the last two years. It's just that insulting Harvick's wife, while hysterical, probably wasn't the right way to go.
BUMP-AND-RUN CHANCES: 50/50. Harvick's riding high on life right now, fresh off a win and a multi-year sponsorship deal with Budweiser. But remember, he's not the one who feels wronged. An already-irritated Logano could cause trouble, although his Bristol track record isn't exactly stellar: A best finish of 27th in three starts despite winning the pole this spring.