The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, fresh from a weekend off, returns to action this Sunday at NASCAR’s fastest venue at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Emory Healthcare 500 is the first of two final events that will conclude the series’ 26 race regular season and send the top 12 teams into the beginning of the ten race series that comprises the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. This race is also on a venue that in the past has created some extremely exciting finishes.
THE STORY LINE
The final 12 man line up for the Chase is of course the big story line this week. This is especially true of the bottom of the list where there could be a final two race shoot out for that coveted 12th position. Going into Sunday’s race at Atlanta, here’s the current prognosis for the Chase:
1. Kevin Harvick. The driver of the #29 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing has already clinched his berth for the Chase. Harvick, who won one of the most dramatic events in Atlanta Motor Speedway history, is now free and clear to charge hard and collect the ten bonus points for winning a race. He’ll need those bonus points when it comes time to reset the top 12 at 5,000 points each. Harvick has three wins this year but he could find himself falling from first to third in the standings when the Chase begins later this month in New Hampshire. That’s because Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have five wins and that means they could become the number one and two seed in the Chase with 5,050 points each. Keep an eye on Harvick this Sunday at Atlanta. He has absolutely nothing to lose here and plenty to gain by using hard charging tactics.
2. Jeff Gordon. NASCAR’s four time champion, and driver of the #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has also clinched his berth in the Chase and can now proceed towards his “drive for five” goal. While Gordon will also be seeking the winner’s bonus points over the next two Sundays, there another major issue he wants resolved. It’s that win less streak that began last year after the Texas race. This team has had some great runs this year but somehow couldn’t get their car in victory lane. Privately, it’s probably driving him crazy. Publicly, he can’t seem to do an interview without hearing about it. Like Harvick, Gordon has nothing to lose and everything to gain by employing hard charging tactics at Atlanta. The fact that he’s a four time winner there already proves that he can get the job done.
3. Kyle Busch. The driver of the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota can virtually employ start and park tactics this Sunday at Atlanta and still secure his berth in the Chase. Busch needs to finish at least 40th to clinch, 42nd with the bonus points from leading a lap in the race or 43d after leading the most laps. This is a done deal. With three wins this year Busch is also free and clear to go after those ten bonus points this Sunday.
4. Carl Edwards. The driver of the #99 Roush Fenway Ford has a very good chance of clinching his Chase spot at Atlanta. Edwards needs a minimum 21st place finish, 23d after leading a lap or 25th with leading the most laps. But here’s another driver who’s bothered by a win less streak. He may opt to go for the win knowing he can easily clinch a Chase berth the following week at Richmond. Atlanta would be a great place for Edwards to display a go for it approach. He’s a three time winner there.
5. Denny Hamlin. This is the second of the Joe Gibbs Toyotas that is Chase bound. Despite a run of recent harsh racing luck, Hamlin has five wins and will start the Chase with at least 5,050 points. He needs a 20th place finish to officially clinch on Sunday. A 22nd place finish with a lap led or a 23d finish with the most laps led will also get the job done. However, expect Hamlin to go for that sixth win which could place him at the top of the standings when the Chase starts.
6. Tony Stewart. “Smoke” is also guaranteed to clinch a Chase berth either this Sunday or next week at Richmond. A 19th place finish at Atlanta will get the job done. He can also clinch via a 21st with a lap led or a 23d with the most laps. Stewart is another driver still looking for that first win of the season so don’t be too surprised if his emphasis is on winning this Sunday. Atlanta would be a great place to launch that offensive. Stewart is a two time winner there.
7. Jeff Burton. Here’s another driver who should have made it to victory lane by now but somehow has some trouble closing the deal. However, he is guaranteed to become the second team car from Richard Childress Racing to clinch a Chase berth either on Sunday or the week after. Burton can get the job done with a 17th place finish, 19th with a lap led or 21st after leading the most laps.
8. Matt Kenseth. The second of the Roush Fenway Fords that is Chase bound, Kenseth is still looking for his first win since early 2009. He can claim his spot in the 2010 Chase this Sunday with a 15th place finish, 17th with a lap led or 19th with the most laps led.
9. Jimmie Johnson. Now here’s a driver everyone has been talking about lately. Several weeks ago Johnson was at the top of the standings with five wins. There’s been somewhat of a tail spin lately but it’s not expected to impact Johnson’s quest for a fifth consecutive title. Before the recent tail spin he collected five wins and that’s going to place him back at the top of the standings when the Chase points are reset. The driver of #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet needs at least a 10th place finish to clinch a Chase berth at Atlanta. He can also get the job done with an 11th plus a lap led or a 13th after leading the most laps in the race. Those numbers are very strong possibilities. Johnson is a three time winner at Atlanta.
It’s believed by many that the top nine in the current Sprint Cup standings are likely to clinch their Chase berths at Atlanta. The scenarios gets a little more interesting from this point on.
10. Kurt Busch. One has to believe that Kurt Busch will drive his #2 Penske Racing Dodge into the Chase next Sunday at Atlanta. He’s a three time winner there including winning the spring event last March. He already has two wins this year and a third one at Atlanta will put him to great shape to launch a run for his second NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. To clinch a Chase berth this Sunday Busch will require at least a 9th place finish, 10th with a lap led or 11th after leading the most laps.
11. Greg Biffle. The third of the Roush Fenway Ford drivers is the only one of the group who has found victory lane this year. Biffle is 235 points away from 13th. The cut off number to clinch at Atlanta is 196 points ahead of 13th. He may have to wait until the following week at Richmond to earn his berth in the 2010 Chase. Having said that, a fourth place finish at Atlanta will get the job done. So will a 5th place finish with a lap led or a 7th place finish if Biffle can lead the most laps next Sunday.
12. Clint Bowyer. Now here’s the story line we’ll all be watching this Sunday. Bowyer’s presence in the 2010 Chase will place all three of the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets in the championship run. It’s not expected that Bowyer will clinch a Chase berth at Atlanta but he could put himself in a position this Sunday to get the job done at the Richmond race. He will need to insure that he finishes ahead of drivers Jaime McMurray, Mark Martin and Ryan Newman during these final two events.
Bowyer is 100 points ahead of McMurray who currently holds the 13th position in the standings. But McMurray performance levels have been running up and down like a roller coaster this year. The question remains which version of a McMurray performance level will we see at Atlanta? Will it be the powerful performance that allowed him to win the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 at Indy or will it be the so-so performance level that we’ve seen from some of his other races? The good news here, for the driver of the #1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, is the fact that McMurray has picked up five points positions in the last five races while outscoring Bowyer by 81 points. A combination of harsh luck for Bowyer along with a strong run by McMurray this Sunday could make the Richmond race most interesting.
Not to be overlooked here are the last chance Chase possibilities for drivers Mark Martin, 101 points away from 12th, and Ryan Newman, 118 points out. Martin is a two time winner at Atlanta and a strong run on Sunday could make the 26th race at Richmond even more interesting. But, in reality, both drivers are going to need some help from Bowyer to sneak into the back door of the 2010 Chase.
THE RACE BREAKDOWN
Sunday’s Emory Healthcare 500 is 325 laps/500.5 miles around the Atlanta Motor Speedway’s 1.54 mile oval.
The race has 47 entries. 12 of those entries are on the go or go home list meaning they are not guaranteed a starting berth in Sunday’s race because they are outside of NASCAR’s top 35 in owner’s points. These teams will have to earn a starting berth in the race based on qualifying speeds.
The defending race winner from last year is Kasey Kahne. By the way Kahne fans may be a little confused while searching for the bright red #9 Budweiser Ford. Kahne’s car will be featuring the blue and white colors of Valvoline this Sunday.
When it comes to winning at Atlanta, Dale Earnhardt Sr tops the list with nine trips to victory lane there. Bobby Labonte leads the active driver’s list with six wins at Atlanta.
The famed Wood Brothers leads the team wins at Atlanta with 12. But it’s the bow tie brigade that leads the manufacturer’s win list. Chevrolet teams has visited the Atlanta victory lane 35 times.
The first ever NASCAR Cup race at Atlanta was held in July of 1960 and was won by the legendary Fireball Roberts. Since that time the NASCAR Cup teams have raced there 102 times sending 42 different winners to victory lane.
The Atlanta Motor Speedway is the fastest track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule with speeds hitting over 200 MPH on the straightaways.
The track qualifying record, 197.478 MPH, was set by Geoffrey Bodine back in November of 1997.
Ryan Newman holds the track record for the number of pole positions at Atlanta with seven. Six of them has been consecutive poles that ranged from March of 2003 to October of 2005.
An Atlanta race has been won from the pole position 14 times.The last driver to accomplish this feat was Kasey Kahne back in 2006. 58 wins at Atlanta came from drivers who started withing the top five starting positions.
The Atlanta Motor Speedway’s massive 1.54 mile oval features 24 degrees of banking in the turns and five degrees on the straightaways. The front stretch measures 2,332 feet while the back stretch is 1,800 feet long.
The pit road speed is 45 MPH.
The speedway has seating for 124,000.
The purse for Sunday’s race is $6,101,958
Weather should not be a factor, other than driver comfort, during the Atlanta weekend. The forecast calls for sunny skies and temperatures in the low 90’s.
The Emory Healthcare 500 will be broadcast live by the ESPN Network beginning at 7 pm eastern time. The early Monday morning rebroadcast is on a time to be announced status so check your local listings. The usual time is generally 2 am Monday morning, eastern time, on ESPN2. The SPEED Channel will re air the race, 12 pm et, on Wednesday.
Finally, just when you think you’ve read it all, consider this vital fact: former President Jimmy Carter was once employed by the Atlanta Motor Speedway as a ticket taker.
THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN.
The Las Vegas based WSE-World Sports Exchange- seems to believe that this is the weekend that three time Atlanta winner Jimmie Johnson is going to rid himself of the aforementioned tail spin and start flying high again. They have rated Johnson at a chart topping 6 to 1 odds this week which is actually a very good wager. Also a good bet is Kurt Busch, another three time Atlanta winner, at 8 to 1. Yet another wager worthy of consideration is the trio of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon, all former Atlanta winners, who are ranked at 10 to 1.
In the WSE’s middle grouping you will find a half dozen drivers ranked at 12 to 1. That group is led by three time winner Carl Edwards, two time race winners Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart along with Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle. Also in middle group you will find Jeff Burton, 18 to 1, along with Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr, a former Atlanta winner, at 20 to 1.
The lower tier of this week’s WSE rankings starts off with the two drivers involved in the Chase drama. That’s where you’ll find Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray at 22 to 1 odds. At 30 to 1 you will find a trio of drivers led by two time race winner Mark Martin along with Martin Truex Jr and David Reutimann. Closing out this week’s rankings are Ryan Newman and Joey Logano at 40 to 1.
Now for the weekly disclaimer: NASCAR wants us to remind you that these numbers are for information and entertainment purposes. In other words talk about the numbers all you want, while standing in front of the water cooler at work, but don’t expect NASCAR to either encourage or condone the placing of wagers on their races.