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Mash The Gas: Atlanta Preview

By Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

With the Daytona 500 and Speed Weeks fanfare in the rear view mirror, the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers will get down to business Sunday afternoon as the Atlanta Motor Speedway hosts the Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 in the second race of the 2015 season.

The Atlanta Motor Speedway’s 1.5 mile configuration is indicative of a majority of the circuits on the tour and often times the drivers who perform well on these types of tracks are set up for a successful season. With a ban on testing implicated for 2015, the Sprint Cup teams are eagerly waiting to take to the Atlanta track to see just what they have as the normal grind of the season begins.

Already this season has thrown some surprises as Kyle Busch recuperates from his Daytona injuries and Kurt Busch remains on the sidelines due to a suspension. New father Regan Smith returns to wheel the #41 Chevrolet while David Ragan moves from the #34 Ford to sub for Kyle Busch in the #18 Toyota, leaving Joe Nemechek to slot in the #34 seat. Those are just a few stories to keep an eye on this weekend in Atlanta and here are a few more…

Carl Edwards (Dan Margetta)
With three wins here on his resume, Carl Edwards heads to Atlanta for the first time with his new #19 Joe Gibbs Racing team. Edwards’ Atlanta stats also include nine top five finishes and eleven top ten results which shows this is one of his more successful tracks. He’s listed at 10-1 odds this weekend and holds the third best driver rating at the track. Crew chief Darian Grubb led Denny Hamlin to a third place finish here last Fall and he should also have Edwards running near the front this weekend as well. If Edwards seeks to start the year off on the right foot with his new team, Atlanta seems to be the right place to accomplish that.

Joey Logano (John Wiedemann)
The Daytona 500 winner is one to watch this weekend. Team Penske was great on the intermediate tracks last season and should continue this season starting at Atlanta. In Thursday’s test session at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Team Penske drivers were the fastest of the Fords, but stuck in the middle of the pack as far as top speed. Don’t put too much into that – it was a test session and not everyone is going to show their hands. Logano’s stats aren’t very special at Atlanta although he has been improving each year. His best finish was 2nd in 2013 and he was 14th last season, much better than the mid 20’s and worse he had been finishing. Daytona’s stats weren’t very good for Logano either and look how that turned out.

Kasey Kahne (DM)
Another driver looking to get the year off with a strong start is the race’s defending champion, Kasey Kahne. Kahne also has three wins in Atlanta to go along with seven top five finishes and he’s listed at 12-1 odds this week. Traditionally Kahne has started the year out slowly the past few seasons before coming on strong towards the end and heading to Atlanta straight from Daytona should give Kahne a strong chance to change that. The 2015 ban on testing places a tough burden on the crews to set up the cars during these early races without a lot of notes and new crew chief Keith Rodden could be key in the #5 team’s performance to start the year.

Kevin Harvick (JW)
My pick this weekend at Atlanta is for Kevin Harvick to pick up his second victory at the track. Harvick won in his first race at the track in 2001, edging out Jeff Gordon at the line to bring a victory to Richard Childress Racing after they lost Dale Earnhardt. Harvick followed up with a third place finish in the fall race and then had a rough patch at the track not finding the top 10 until 2008. The last ten races have been much better for last season’s champion with two top five runs and a total of seven top ten finishes. Harvick is still looking for that second victory at Atlanta. The track should suit him and his team well as staying on top of changes to the track will be key. The “Closer” may be doing just that as the checkers get ready to fly on Sunday.

Matt Kenseth (DM)
Despite being listed at 8-1 odds this weekend, Matt Kenseth has yet to win a Sprint Cup race in Atlanta. It’s not like this is a tough circuit for him though as he holds nine top five finishes and a whopping fifteen top tens and his solid 10.2 average finishing position leaves him with the fifth best driver rating. Two years ago, Kenseth was the driver to beat on the 1.5 mile tracks before slipping a bit in 2014. The #20 team was one of a few to conduct a tire test with the 2015 rules at the similar Las Vegas track earlier this year which could provide some valuable data heading into this weekend. Plus, Kenseth needs to turn around a disappointing Daytona 500 where getting swept up in an early incident left him with a finish outside the top thirty. Atlanta could provide just the opposite outcome this week and Matt Kenseth should be considered a contender on Sunday.

Jeff Gordon (JW)
Jeff Gordon started his Sprint Cup Series career at the Atlanta Motor Speedway and will be starting his 42nd race at the track on Sunday. Gordon’s stats include five wins, 16 top five and 26 top ten finishes, two pole positions, and 1297 laps led. Which stats will Gordon add to this weekend? I would expect a good number of laps led and a solid top five finish. After getting crashed out at the end of the Daytona 500, look for Gordon to bounce back well at Atlanta. While some teams may not be showing their hand during yesterday’s test session, Gordon went out and ran seventh quickest in the first session closed out the day with the fastest lap in the final session. In the last four races at Atlanta Gordon has won, finished second, sixth and seventeeth. He still has it at Atlanta.

Kyle Larson (DM)
In his only Atlanta NASCAR Sprint Cup start last year, Kyle Larson wowed everyone with a strong second place finish and he returns this season with 15-1 odds to win. Atlanta’s sweeping high speed turns that open up multiple racing lines suit Larson’s driving style well as he is known to utilize the whole track in search of the fastest line. Larson enjoyed his most success last season at the faster circuits on the tour and if he is going to break into the win column, Atlanta would be a good bet as the place for it to happen.

Jimmie Johnson (JW)
Jimmie Johnson had, for him and the 48 team, an unsuccessful Daytona 500. After serving a pit road penalty, the team found themselves at the back of the pack. By the end of the race Johnson had driven back through the field to gain a top five finish. After a, for the 48 team, lackluster season, the entire team is hungry to prove that they are not to be forgotten and looking for another championship. Johnson has won three times, finished top five 12 times and top ten 14 times in 23 races at Atlanta. The mile and a half tracks proliferate the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule and how the 48 team runs at Atlanta will be an indicator into how the season will go for them. Johnson is in the top three in statistics among active drivers and should finish there this weekend.

Tony Stewart (DM)
Tony Stewart is the long shot pick this week? That’s right… the three-time Atlanta winner comes in at generous 30-1 odds this weekend. His ten top five results and fifteen top ten finishes have earned him the fourth best driver rating and while he went winless last season, Stewart seems to have entered 2015 with a new determined attitude. An early crash put him out of the Daytona 500 early, but Atlanta should showcase “Smoke’s” renewed attitude and he should be found near the front of the field on Sunday.

David Ragan (JW)
Kyle Busch’s misfortune could be a treasure for David Ragan and starts this weekend. The ability to show how he can perform in one of the series top rides is what every driver desires. Since leaving Roush Fenway Racing, it has been difficult for Ragan to show what he can do. The soft-spoken Unadilla, Georgia native gets to race at his home track this weekend, a track he says he loves to race at as well. This is the first race with the team and a learning curve should be expected. Add the fact that Ragan’s best finish at the track is eighth and seeing the M&Ms Toyota in victory lane is certainly a stretch, but a solid top fifteen finish is not out of line to look for.

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