BRISTOL, Tenn. --- Jeff Gordon tried playing it smart and that didn't work. So for the next three races he's going to keep the gas pedal on the floor and hope for the best.
The four-time champion is one of seven drivers separated by just 103 points in positions eight-through-14. The top 12 drivers advance to the Chase for the Championship that starts on Sept. 14 at New Hampshire. Gordon is ninth in the rankings heading into Saturday night's race at Bristol Motor Speedway, 57 points from falling out of the top 12.
In the next three races, contenders likely will be defined by their approach. Mistakes will be magnified, consistency will be rewarded. But with so many people in the mix, Gordon isn't willing to sit around and wait. He's going on the attack.
"I'm relieved because we've been going every week, 'Well we can't take too big of a risk, but we've got to push hard enough.' I'm relieved and now we just don't have to worry about anything," he said. "We can just drive as hard as we can, do anything we possibly can and just go out and that's all we can do. We'll see where we end up."
The top five drivers in the standings are in good shape. Kyle Busch already has clinched his spot in the playoffs; Carl Edwards only needs to start the next three races to qualify. Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton all need to avoid a major collapse to make it.
All 12 qualifiers will start the playoffs with the same number of points. Victories in the first 26 races, however, will be worth 10 points each, so Busch's eight wins means he will have 80 extra points over drivers who haven't won.
Those atop the rankings have only one thing in mind during the next three races -- wins. Second place, Edwards said, is no different than last since the only thing that matters now are bonus points.
Matt Kenseth finished fifth last Sunday at Michigan to improve his position to 10th place, but he hardly sounded like a driver with a lot of confidence.
"I haven't really thought about it at all, to tell you the truth," he said of the points race. "I'm more than a little frustrated with the way we ran there."
Although he's on the outside looking in, David Ragan thinks if he stays out of trouble in the next three races he will advance to the playoffs. Ragan is currently 14th.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(RACE NO. 24 OF 36)
WHERE: Bristol Motor Speedway at Bristol, Tenn.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
TRACK DIMENSIONS: .533-mile 2-mile oval with 36-degree banking.
BROADCAST: Television -- 7 p.m. ESPN; Radio -- 6:15 p.m. Performance Racing Network, Sirius Satellite Radio 128
LAST YEAR'S WINNER: Carl Edwards