RICHMOND, Va. -- Clint Bowyer's got a pressure-packed Saturday night in store as he tries to secure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. With only a slight margin over 13th-place David Ragan, Bowyer will be in the spotlight.
The good news is that he'll have a relatively pressure-free warmup during Friday night's Nationwide Series race (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and ESPN360). Sure, Bowyer's entering with the points lead, but his 204-point edge over Brad Keselowski is quite comfortable with just eight races remaining.
That means Bowyer can have some fun in the Emerson Radio 250 at Richmond International Raceway. Bowyer won the Sprint Cup Series race there in June and won the track's Nationwide Series event in May 2007.
And racing under the lights on this night might be just what Bowyer needs to get in the perfect frame of mind for Saturday's all-or-nothing battle. Because even if things go wrong on Friday, he'll head into an off week for the Nationwide Series with the points lead.
"I love it. That's what most of us grew up doing," Bowyer said of racing at night. "It adds an extra element of atmosphere. It's so much fun. Electricity is in the air and the energy is high. Everybody is looking to have a good time. When the lights come on, everyone puts their gloves on and gets ready to go to battle."
In the Cup race, Bowyer will have to ignore individual on-track battles to focus on the big picture. A wreck in that race could leave him outside the top 12. Bowyer won't mind a clean night if it ends up where he thinks it could.
"Usually, the guy who wins has a clean car and all four fenders are on it. Nine times out of 10, that's the case," Bowyer said. "It's hard to get in trouble and keep all four fenders intact. Even at a short track like Richmond, aerodynamics is crucial. You wouldn't think so, but I know firsthand. I ripped my right-front fender off during the Nationwide race a couple years ago that everyone thought we had wrapped up. It wasn't so much the case after that."
Bowyer's season has been a study in how consistency can win a championship, as he has 22 top-10 finishes in 27 starts. His lone win came at Bristol in March, but he has nine top-5s and hasn't fallen out of a race yet.
Keselowski hasn't been as lucky, as he's fallen out of two races, and his championship hopes were greatly dashed a week ago in California when the distributor broke. By the time the JR Motorsports crew could repair the problem, the damage was done.
Now it will likely take several tough races for Bowyer for either Keselowski or Carl Edwards (222 points behind) to get within striking distance.
While the three-quarter-mile facility is a favorite of both drivers and fans, Keselowski knows it presents a few challenges.
"It's got a little more banking on the very bottom than on the top, but then the corner exits really level off. The banking drops off," Keselowski explained. "If you run the bottom, you're way faster in and through the center of the corner than if you run the top.
"But then when you run the top, you get up off the corner a lot better. So there's a constant see-saw between the guys who run the bottom and those who run the top. That makes for interesting racing. It makes it easier to run side-by-side there compared to some of the other tracks we run at. That's why I think you see some of the best racing of the season at Richmond."
It will come as no surprise if Kevin Harvick's at the heart of the action coming off a tough second-place finish here in May. Harvick was the class of the field late in the race and had the lead when the caution waved.
The decision was made to stay on the track, while Denny Hamlin was among those who came in and got fresh tires. That made the difference, as Hamlin pulled off the win with Harvick taking second.
Kevin Harvick Inc. has been working with rotating crew chiefs of late since releasing Wally Rogers earlier this summer. Jason Meeks will be atop the pit box as Ernie Cope and Rick Ren will be leading the Craftsman Truck Series teams at Gateway.
"We had a good car here in the spring, and I came really close to getting my first Nationwide win in a KHI car. We were just in a tough position, being the leader there at the end when that caution came out," Harvick said. "If we didn't pit, everybody else was going to come get tires, and if we pitted everybody was going to stay out. It wasn't the finish we wanted, but I think we have proven since then that we can run up front and be in contention to win races."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.