Staff Report, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Clint Bowyer's bubble picture looks OK. Not great, but OK. He doesn't exactly need a win to make the playoffs, but that's certainly the easiest path.
And coming into this season, that's as much as you could ask for when it came to the veteran of 12 full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series seasons.
Entering 2017, Bowyer has finished outside the top 15 in points in three consecutive seasons, and last year endured his worst season, finishing 27th.
But a renewed optimism enveloped the Kansas native, as he joined powerhouse Stewart-Haas Racing, with Ford as its new manufacturer.
Now Bowyer's a contender, and only 31 points outside the all-important final playoff spot. If you ask him, he should be better.
"We've come close to victory several times this year," Bowyer said. "That's what can be so frustrating. You are only one or two spots away from where you want to be, but there's a huge difference between first and everything else in this business."
The good news: Bristol's on deck with Saturday night's Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC). Bowyer finished second in the Monster Energy Series' first trip to Bristol in April, and has top 10s in three of the last four races at the Tennessee short track (and in the top five in two of those).
"I'm the hunter, not the hunted," he said. "So it's a lot of fun to go into this weekend knowing that you've got to go out there and chase that guy down or chase those guys down and, hopefully, pop off a win here and just put it all to bed."
Annett hoping to stay on the right side of the bubble
JR Motorsport's driver Michael Annett is once again on the hot seat -- residing in the 12th and final playoff spot in the NASCAR Xfinity Series standings.
Still, the position could be worse. He is a somewhat comfortable 34 points ahead of 13th-place Ryan Sieg. In 21 starts this season, Annett has posted five top 10s and an average finish of 18.1.
Fortunately for Annett, he has outperformed his closest combatants at Bristol, posting an average finish of 13.6 at the half-mile compared to the average finishes of Sieg (20.1).
And in Friday night's Food City 300 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Annett will have a little more motivation. His boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr., will compete in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for the first time in 2017, driving the No. 88 Goody's Mixed Fruit Blast Chevrolet.
"After two road courses in a row, it will be nice to get back to what we do the majority of the season," Annett said. "I've run pretty well at Bristol in the past, and we were 10th in the spring, so we'll take our (No. 5) Pilot Flying J Chevy up there this weekend and try to do it again. The playoffs are approaching, and it's time to get some momentum going."
Race Weekend Guide
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Race: Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race
Place: Bristol Motor Speedway
Date and Time: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 266.5 miles (500 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 125), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 250), Final Stage (Ends on lap 500)
What to Watch For: Only three races remain in the regular season, and only three playoff spots remain. ... Three drivers with previous wins at Bristol have yet to secure a playoff spot: Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano. ... Logano, in particular, very much needs a win -- something he's done with regularity at Bristol. He has two Bristol wins, including one in the 2015 Night Race. ... Martin Truex Jr. can clinch the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 2017 Regular Season Championship if he leaves Bristol with a 121-point lead over second place. He currently holds a lead of 129 points over second place Kyle Larson.
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Race: Food City 300
Place: Bristol Motor Speedway
Date and Time: Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 159.9 miles (300 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 85), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 170), Final Stage (Ends on lap 300)
What To Watch For: Of the nine drivers currently inside the top 12 in NASCAR Xfinity Series championship points without a win this season, JR Motorsport's Elliott Sadler is the only competitor who has previously won at Bristol. ... Even without a win, there's a strong likelihood that Sadler clinches a spot in the playoffs this weekend. He needs to score only five points to lock up a spot. ... Joe Gibbs Racing's Erik Jones drove the No. 18 Toyota to Victory Lane at Bristol earlier this season. Jones is not entered, but his teammates Kyle Busch (No. 18), Matt Tifft (No. 19) and Daniel Suarez (No. 20) will take their shot at the season sweep and bringing home the trophy for the organization. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make his first NASCAR Xfinity Series start since April 23, 2016 at Richmond.