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NASCAR NOTEBOOK: New Sprint Cup format makes for thrilling finishes

Dale Earnhardt Jr, left, passes Reed Sorensen during last week’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Earnhardt believes this year’s new Sprint Cup format forces drivers to make more passes later in races, which will lead to exciting finishes all season. (Reuters)

Dale Earnhardt Jr, left, passes Reed Sorensen during last week’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Earnhardt believes this year’s new Sprint Cup format forces drivers to make more passes later in races, which will lead to exciting finishes all season. (Reuters)

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Whether it’s NASCAR’s new rules for Chase qualifying or simply the nature of short-track racing at Bristol Motor Speedway, 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be surprised to see push come to shove once the checkered flag is in sight today.

He says other drivers shouldn’t be surprised either if the final laps of the Food City 500 turn a bit wild.

“You don’t want to go throw trash in your neighbor’s yard just for the hell of it, but if you give me a good reason, I might do it,” said Earnhardt, speaking metaphorically on Friday about the need to take out a rival at Bristol.

“The mentality has changed over the years and the new system changes that mindset slightly, too. Winning is important. So, if you need to move somebody to win, the guy that gets moved has to see it coming and understand that in the same situation, he may have done the same thing.”

With winning a race early in the season all but assuring drivers a place in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Earnhardt thinks last August’s IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol might have played out differently under current rules. In that race, Kasey Kahne elected not to bump Matt Kenseth out of his way.

“I think Kasey would have been much more aggressive in that situation had we been using the current format for the points system,” Earnhardt said. “When it comes down to it, if you’ve got a guy running second, within reach of the leader, and he needs a win, he’s probably going to do a little bit more than he probably would have done last year.”

Earnhardt, with a victory and two second-place finishes to start his season, says it’s one thing to nudge a competitor at comparatively low short-track speeds, quite another to end a competitor’s afternoon when massive damage is likely.

“It’s just wrong to fence a guy and end his race,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t think the drivers ever intentionally do that. I’ve tried to move guys and accidentally spun them out. I mean, it happens. You know (when) you can move a guy out of the way, get the position and make the pass without ruining his day.”

Kyle Busch also believes the intensity will ramp up when drivers, still seeking their first victories, are pursuing race leaders. Busch, a five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup winner at Bristol, is a fit for that category this week.

“I think you’re going to see some things happening,” Busch said. “It’s part of what this sport is. It’s what the rules grant. Everybody is playing by the same (rules) but some might play a little harder than others.”

Intentional or not, Earnhardt realizes that a little fender banging isn’t such a bad thing from a fan’s perspective.

“Not that we all want to go out there and see each other running each other into the fence,” he said. “But, hopefully, that definitely is what we see at places like Bristol when we’re presented with those opportunities. Fans get more excitement and get more bang for their buck.”

LOSING THEIR MARBLES: Drivers didn’t need any help tearing up sheet metal in Friday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup practice at Bristol. No fewer than five drivers were forced to back-up cars as morning temperatures in the 30s and a green track factored into a battle for grip from the start.

Ryan Newman suggested other elements also at play.

“It’s a big transition for us this weekend, not only with the new rules package but with the new tires that we have here,” said Newman, after turning the seventh-fastest lap in the noon-time session.

Danica Patrick was the first forced to a back-up car, brushing the wall in Turn 2 of her fourth lap, then tagging Parker Kligerman, who had just gotten on the track. Kligerman’s crew worked feverishly to repair his car and get it back on track for eight laps.

After Justin Allgaier found the wall during his first lap, Kyle Busch suffered right-side damage and summoned his back-up ride. Greg Biffle’s car might have survived its contact with the wall in Turn 4, but couldn’t be repaired when Biffle went skidding and slammed the track’s inner wall, nose-first. Moments later, Biffle’s Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. scraped the wall.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING: Matt Kenseth’s wife Katie has always had great timing. Daughter Kaylin was born two days after the 2009 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway and daughter Grace was born two days after the 2011 Daytona 500.

The couple is expecting again in the next several days, so Sam Hornish Jr. (NASCAR Nationwide Series) and Jeff Burton (NASCAR Sprint Cup) are on stand-by duty for this weekend and next week’s race at Auto Club Speedway in California.

The Kenseths had been rooting for a Monday birth. But with the weather forecast iffy at best for today, the family has revised its thinking.

“We kind of had to change that around a little bit, because it’s supposed to rain (today),” Matt said. “(Katie) was praying for Monday, so we had to change that to Tuesday. (Now) it’s supposed to snow Monday, so I guess (if) we can’t race, then we can still have her on Monday.”