Top 35 Battle Is On

Forget the "Sweet 16." In the NEXTEL Cup Series, it's all about the Top 35.

Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway is the fifth race of the NEXTEL Cup season, which means drivers who leave the high-banked Tennessee oval among the first 35 in the point standings will be locked into a starting spot the following weekend at Martinsville.

Through Bristol, the Top 35 from last year's point standings were used to give drivers an automatic starting spot in the first five races. But once the Food City 500 is in the books, things revert to this year's championship chase.

Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty and Jeff Green have positions 33-35 heading into Bristol and need good runs in the 500-lap grind to stay in the magic group.

Because right outside of the Top 35 is a pack of drivers, led by Kasey Kahne, who after winning a series-leading six races in 2006, finds himself in 36th position coming into this weekend.

Paul Menard and Dave Blaney in 37th and 38th are also within striking distance to work their way into the promised land this weekend.

But then there's the bottom dwellers of the standings, several drivers mired deep in the pack with really no chance of getting into the Top 35 for several weeks.

Michael Waltrip is the headliner of this group, trapped in 51st place with seemingly no end in sight to his 2007 season troubles.

"We've just got to look at every piece and part of our team to see how to improve," Waltrip said. "We really just have to adjust what we are doing as a team."

But Waltrip has company.

Unfortunately one of them is teammate David Reutimann, who is back in 43rd place but has at least been able to qualify his way into races the last two weeks.

Brian Vickers of the Toyota Red Bull Racing team and Scott Riggs from Evernham Motorsports also have their work cut out for them.

With the "Car of Tomorrow" making its debut this weekend at Bristol, several drivers are hoping a level playing field will help their cause and give them a chance to race in NASCAR's next tomorrow - the following Sunday at Martinsville.

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