Top 10 Head To Bristol

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The following is a glance at the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Top 10 in the championship entering Saturday night's Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, TNT), Race 24 of 36 on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series schedule. The first 26 races of the season will determine which drivers will be part of the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup in the final 10 races. The drivers who are in the NASCAR Top 10 in addition to any within 400 points of the leader after those 26 races - with the final one being Richmond on Sept. 11 - will vie for the series title in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup.

No. 1 - Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 3254. Previous ranking: 2. Gordon, powered by Sunday's seventh-place finish in the GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway, captured the No. 1 ranking for the first time since he won the 2001 series championship. Gordon, who was ranked No. 2 for the past three race weeks and trailed by 40 points entering this weekend, becomes the fifth different driver to be ranked No. 1 this season after carving out a 68-point advantage over former No. 1 Jimmie Johnson. The performance at Michigan was his seventh top-10 finish in the last eight races, giving him a series-high 17 for the season. Gordon is a good bet to hold onto that No. 1 ranking as the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series heads to Bristol, where he has been outstanding throughout his career. He is a five-time winner with 15 top-10 finishes overall in 23 career starts at the .533-mile oval. He has recorded top-10 efforts in three of his last four appearances, including a ninth in his most recent visit in March. He also has led laps in 17 of his starts here, including eight out of the last 10. He did not lead a lap in March, however, marking the first time since August of 2000 he had been blanked at Bristol. Gordon also has been an exceptional qualifier at Bristol with 20 top 10 starts, including sitting on the front row in his last five visits. The run includes Bud Poles in both events in 2002 and this event last season.

No. 2 - Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 3186. Previous ranking: 1. Johnson's eight-week reign at No. 1 came to a halt as a result of Sunday's 40th-place finish at Michigan. He fell to No. 2 - 68 points behind newly anointed No. 1 Jeff Gordon - as he was victimized by an engine problem for the third consecutive race. The engine woes over the last three races, in which he has finished 36th or worse, has evaporated a 232-point lead and transformed it into a 68-point deficit. Johnson, however, remains among the top two in the points for the 15th consecutive race week. He will look to get back on track at Bristol, where he has posted three top-10 finishes in five career starts. His best performance came in this event last season when he finished fifth. In his most recent visit in March, he led eight laps - the first laps led for him at the .533-mile oval - en route to a 16th-place finish.

No. 3 - Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet). Team: Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Points: 3115 (-139). Previous ranking: 3. Earnhardt Jr., coming off a strong fifth-place effort at Watkins Glen, finished 21st at Michigan for his fifth finish outside the top 20 in the last six races. Despite the struggles, he remains at No. 3 for the fourth consecutive race week but No. 4 Tony Stewart has closed to 26 points of his ranking. In nine career starts at Bristol, Earnhardt Jr. has recorded three top-10 finishes, all of which have come in his last five visits. He posted a pair of top-10 finishes in 2002 - a fourth in March and third in August - and added a ninth in this event last season. In his most recent appearance earlier this season, he led 91 laps en route to an 11th-place finish.

No. 4 - Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet). Team Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 3089 (-165). Previous ranking: 4. Stewart finished ninth at Michigan for his sixth top-10 effort in his last seven starts as he inched closer to a top-three ranking. He remains at No. 4 for the third consecutive race week, but has closed to 26 points of third-ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr. Stewart, one of four drivers to be ranked all season long, has not been ranked among the top three since possessing the No. 3 ranking following Darlington in late March. Stewart has struggled of late at Bristol, where he has finished no better than 23rd in his last four appearances. He has enjoyed a measure of success overall with a victory in August of 2001 and three top-five finishes in his first six appearances. In his most recent appearance in March, he finished 24th although he did lead 25 laps.

No. 5 - Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 3018 (-236). Previous ranking: 5. Kenseth registered his second consecutive top-10 finish and fourth in the last five races with an eighth-place performance at Michigan. The effort was his 14th top-10 finish on the season, which ranks third in the series behind Jeff Gordon (17) and Jimmie Johnson (15). He remains at No. 5 for the third race week in a row and sixth time in the last seven weeks. He trails No. 4 Tony Stewart by 71 points. After being shut out of the top 10 in his first four visits to Bristol, Kenseth has rebounded strongly with a run of five consecutive finishes among the top six at the .533-mile oval entering this weekend. His best performance during that tear was a runner-up finish in March of 2003. He finished fourth in this event last year and fifth earlier this season.

No. 6 - Kurt Busch (No. 97 Sharpie Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 2909 (-345). Previous ranking: 7. Busch posted his third consecutive top-10 finish and fourth in the last five races with a sixth-place effort at Michigan. The performance improved him to No. 6 after spending the past three race weeks at No. 7. He moved 45 points ahead of No. 7 Elliott Sadler and trails No. 5 Matt Kenseth by 109 points. Busch has been dominant at Bristol, where he has won the last three races at the .533-mile oval and four of the last five. The only miss during that span, which began with his first career series triumph in the spring event of 2002, was a sixth in the fall race that season. He has led at least 45 laps in each of his last five visits, including 100 or more in his last three. Earlier this season, he started 13th and led 119 laps en route to the victory. He has qualified among the top 10 in three of his last four starts, including a best of fifth in this event last season.

No. 7 - Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford). Team: Robert Yates Racing. Points: 2864 (-390). Previous ranking: 6. Sadler's run of consecutive top-15 finishes ended at four when he finished 32nd at Michigan. It marked his worst finish of the season - topping a 29th at Atlanta in mid-March - and cost him a position in the rankings as he fell to No. 7. He trails No. 6 Kurt Busch by 45 points and No. 8 Kevin Harvick is 32 behind Sadler. Sadler enjoyed a historic moment at Bristol, earning his first career series victory in March of 2001 when he started 38th and led 70 laps en route to the win. However, since that win at the .533-mile oval, he has been unable to post a top-10 finish in his last six visits. He finished 38th in this event last season and 14th earlier this year.

No. 8 - Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet). Team: Richard Childress Racing. Points: 2832 (-422). Previous ranking: 8. Harvick finished 16th at Michigan, ending a modest two-race streak of top-10 finishes and marking just the second time in the last eight races he has finished outside the top 15. It was enough to retain the No. 8 ranking for the second week in a row, but No. 9 Bobby Labonte sits 33 points away and No. 10 Kasey Kahne just 40. Harvick, who trails No. 7 Elliott Sadler by 32 points, may look to Bristol for some breathing room in the standings. He has been extremely strong at Bristol, where he enters this weekend with a streak of six consecutive top-10 finishes. The run includes top-five finishes in three of his last four visits, including runner-up in this event last season and third earlier this season. The runner-up finish matches his personal best at Bristol, which he established in August of 2001. He has led laps in four of his seven career starts, including in three of his last four appearances.

No. 9 - Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet). Team: Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 2799 (-455). Previous ranking: 9. Labonte, riding back-to-back top-15 finishes entering this past weekend, finished 26th at Michigan and now has a precarious hold on a Top-10 ranking. Although he is just 33 points behind No. 8 Kevin Harvick, he now is defending his ranking from No. 10 Kasey Kahne, who is seven back; No. 11 Jeremy Mayfield, who is 13 behind him; and No. 12 Mark Martin, who has closed to 40 of the No. 9 ranking. Labonte has posted eight top-10 finishes in 23 career starts, half of which have come in his last six starts. The most recent came in March of 2003 when he finished a personal-best of third and led 26 laps, marking only the third time he has led at the .533-mile oval. That performance concluded a run of four consecutive top-10 efforts (Aug. 2001 to March 2003) for Labonte, who has struggled in his two visits since with no finish among the top 25. He finished 27th in this event a year ago and 33rd earlier this season.

No. 10 - Kasey Kahne (No. 9 UAW/Dodge Dealers Dodge). Team: Evernham Motorsports. Points: 2792 (-462). Previous ranking: 11. Kahne bounced Evernham Motorsports teammate Jeremy Mayfield from the Top 10 with a fifth-place finish at Michigan. The performance was the eighth top-five finish on the season for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year leader and it moved him six points ahead of Mayfield and into the No. 10 position. It marks his fifth race week in the Top 10 overall and first appearance since being ranked No. 9 following Martinsville in mid-April. Kahne, with top-five finishes in three of his last four races, is just seven points behind No. 9 Bobby Labonte, but will need a strong effort at Bristol to fend off a host of drivers behind him chasing a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup. He has five drivers within 70 points of his position, led by Mayfield. No. 12 Mark Martin is 33 back; No. 13 Ryan Newman 44 behind; No. 14 Dale Jarrett 58 back; and No. 15 Jamie McMurray 70 out. Kahne has made just one NASCAR Nextel Cup appearance at Bristol, that coming earlier this season when he qualified fifth but finished 40th due to an accident.

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