Mash The Gas – Atlanta Preview

With the Chase for the Sprint Cup on the horizon, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, GA for Sunday night racing action on Labor Day weekend.

The green flag will fly at 7:30pm EST and will be broadcast on ESPN with coverage beginning an hour prior to the start of the race. 325 laps around the 1.54-mile oval, with 24-degree banking in turns, make up the 500 miles in the 53rd Annual AdvoCare 500.

Labor Day Weekend traditionally meant Darlington and the Southern 500 around NASCAR circles, however for the last three years, the Sprint Cup Tour has marked the end of summer at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Atlanta is a wide, high-speed track that provides multiple grooves to race in which makes it a favorite among drivers. Plus, it’s slick which brings pit strategy into play as new tires offer a distinct advantage of almost three seconds per lap. At this point in the season, wins are all that matter and with that mentality playing out on a fast “racers” type track, Sunday’s race under the lights should be a good one.

Carl Edwards
Dan Margetta: I’m going out on limb a bit here in making Edwards my favorite to win Sunday night as I’m banking on the team’s luck finally turning around. The Roush-Fenway cars should be fast at Atlanta and Edwards is the only Roush driver to have won at Atlanta, accomplishing the feat three times. A victory by Edwards would severely shake up the Chase wild card situation and the team has focused solely on wins as evidenced by their fuel gamble last weekend which came up just a few laps short.

John Wiedemann: The 99 team almost made it to victory lane last week and has an even better shot on Sunday. Only four times in fourteen races has Carl Edwards finished out of the top ten at Atlanta, and one of those is when he was parked after the infamous contact with Brad Keselowski. Edwards led in nine of the fourteen events and finished second and fifth last year. He needs a win and Atlanta is the perfect track for him to find victory lane once again.

Kasey Kahne
DM: The Hendrick Motorsports cars will also be fast at Atlanta and Kahne has been successful at the high-speed 1.5 mile tracks like Atlanta and Charlotte. If the engine issue that plagued the Hendrick teams at Michigan was just a one week parts batch fluke and not something more drastically related to their unique rear suspension setups, Kahne could very well notch his third career Atlanta win on Sunday.

JW: Kasey Kahne has won twice at Atlanta (2006, 2009) and could return to victory lane this weekend. Kahne was on the pole last year and led fifteen laps but later lost an engine. Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have brought their cookie-cutter magic to Hendrick Motorsports. Look for all of the Hendrick teams to be fast and battling for the lead on Sunday night. Kahne should see blood in the water as tenth place in the standings is within his grasp and he certainly wants to collect the bonus points for his wins this season heading into the Chase.

Jimmy Johnson
DM: Like Kasey Kahne, Johnson should also be strong at Atlanta as it continues to be business as usual with the five-time champion, racking up solid performances as he prepares for his title run. Johnson has three victories at Atlanta and owns the best Driver Rating among his peers. Mechanical issues appear to be the only thing that can stop this team lately.

JW: Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the #48 team are pretty much in championship form right now. Besides the motor issue at Michigan, which we should find out this weekend if it has been fixed, they are a force to be reckoned with again and the rest of the garage knows it. Johnson continues to be a favorite every week.

Denny Hamlin
DM: With last week’s win at Bristol, Hamlin has quietly joined the group at the top of the list in total victories for the season. While Hamlin has never won at Atlanta, crew chief Darien Grubb has had success here and while this team has been under everyone’s radar of sorts, they could get everyone’s attention with their second consecutive victory on Sunday.

JW: The reason that Denny Hamlin is under the radar is because he has lacked consistency from week to week. He will have top ten finishes and then throw in a couple below twentieth place. Consistency is a huge factor in the short ten race chase and Hamlin will need top fives and wins if he expects to even challenge for the Cup.

Matt Kenseth
DM: While Kenseth has been at or near the front each and every week this season, he still only has his Daytona 500 victory to show for his efforts. The team should run well in Atlanta but they need to show they can close the deal and find victory lane. Kenseth’s season so far is eerily similar to Carl Edwards’ a year ago and as we all learned then consistency doesn’t cut it in the Chase.

Kevin Harvick
JW: Kevin Harvick has won one time at Atlanta, back in 2001 when he replaced the late Dale Earnhardt. While he has maintained his spot in the top ten this season, it hasn’t been the season that Richard Childress Racing expected coming into 2012. Atlanta is a track that fits Harvick’s racing and a win on Sunday would be a huge boost to propel the RCR team into the Chase. Is Harvick a favorite, well maybe a slight one but I wouldn’t call him a long-shot.

Greg Biffle
DM: Biffle appears to be all-in when it comes to the championship this year. While he has yet to win at Atlanta, victories at high-speed tracks like Texas and Michigan prove that this team has to be considered a threat to win Sunday night. The Roush-Yates engines definitely have the horsepower necessary to win and so far this season, the #16 team has yet to make any drastic costly mistakes. In other words, they don’t beat themselves which could pay off in huge dividends as their title run begins.

JW: Sitting at the top of the standings with eleven more points than Jimmie Johnson must be a relief to Greg Biffle who missed the Chase last season and ultimately finished sixteenth. Look for Biffle to lead laps on Sunday probably battling his teammates and the Hendrick Motorsports gang. A win would tie him with four other drivers at the top and give them all nine bonus points in the Chase.

Tony Stewart
DM: Stewart has three wins at the Atlanta track but lately when he’s not busy running into Matt Kenseth “every chance” he gets, he needs to work on avoiding distractions. This team appears to be off its game the last few weeks and they’ve slipped to tenth in points, just 16 ahead of Kasey Kahne, and in danger of losing the bonus points their three victories on the season would net them in the Chase. Atlanta would be a good place to rebound and show the form that brought them five victories in the Chase races a year ago.

JW: No one understands how important a single point is more than Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. After stumbling late in the 2011 regular season, he finished up with a seventh at Atlanta and a third at Richmond and then we all know what happened in the Chase. Could lightning strike twice and jump start another title run for Stewart? I’m not so sure, but one should never count out “Smoke”.

Kyle Busch
DM: Last week, Busch told reporters worried about his Chase aspirations to “Chill out..there’s still three weeks left.” Well now there’s just two weeks left to join the dance and while Busch currently holds the second wild card slot, there are way too many circumstances that could jeopardize his standing in an instant. Busch has a win at Atlanta but his stats here show inconsistency. He’ll race in all three weekend events (Trucks, Nationwide, and Cup) for the first time in a long time which could be just what he needs to return to his dominating form.

JW: Everyone knows that Busch’s best shot at grabbing that needed win is next weekend at Richmond. But, why wait? Qualifying should go well for Busch with 9 top 10 starts in fourteen events and a recent streak of 9th, 5th, 2nd, 3rd and 3rd place starts. Start strong and finish strong, that will be the key on Sunday night.

Long Shots:
DM: Atlanta is so hard to handicap that I’m going with no less than three long shot picks this week. Martin Truex Jr. comes in at 25-1 odds but this team has had success on the 1.5 mile tracks this season, nearly winning at Kansas. The Vegas odds makers say Joey Logano has a 40-1 chance to win, but with the announcement he’s out of the #20 car expected in the next two weeks, Logano will be out to prove he can get the job done and Atlanta is a track that suits his style well. I’m including Marcos Ambrose in the long shot list mainly out of spite. He’s at 50-1 odds this week and again while he’s never won on an oval, he has scored many good finishes on the left-turn only tracks this season including a fifth last week at Bristol. Despite being told numerous times I don’t know what I’m talking about, one of these days, it’s bound to happen.

JW: Wow, I thought Dan was going to take the whole rest of the field with his long shot list and leave me with hometown racer Reed Sorenson. I’m going to take Mark Martin, driving for Michael Waltrip Racing and hometown sponsor Aaron’s. With three different drivers, the #55 team sits in eighteenth in the owners standings ahead of Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya. By the way, Montoya runs pretty good at Atlanta and wouldn’t be a huge surprise to score a top ten. It would be awesome to see Martin back in victory lane. There, I mentioned more drivers than Dan did. Hey, how about Danica… Never mind.

Wild Card Watch
by John Wiedemann

Following Bristol the Wild Card standings are:
They are in (for now):
Kasey Kahne, 2 wins, 730 points
Kyle Busch, 1 win, 707 pts

Need points but a win would put them in:
Jeff Gordon, 1 win, 691 pts
Ryan Newman, 1 win, 688 pts
Marcos Ambrose, 1 win, 679 pts
Joey Logano, 1 win, 638 pts

Need a win plus:
Carl Edwards, 0 wins, 712 pts
Paul Menard, 0 wins, 674 pts

Need two wins, both will probably be off the list next week:
Jamie McMurray, 0 wins, 598 pts
Jeff Burton, 0 wins, 577 pts

This Wild Card battle has been pretty interesting and will remain exciting till the final laps at Richmond. There are five drivers that could knock Kyle Busch out of the final Wild Card spot with a win at Atlanta even if Busch were to finish second. If Busch would get knocked out of the race early and finish 30th or worse, Paul Menard could even grab the wild card with a win.

Following the excitement at Bristol, Ryan Newman dropped in the standings and lost his wild card for now. Finishing thirty-sixth hurt Newman badly as both Busch and Gordon jumped ahead in the wild card race and left Newman nineteen points behind Busch, a huge swing when you consider that Newman entered Bristol with an eleven point advantage over Busch.

Much has been made of Tony Stewart dropping to tenth following his altercation with Matt Kenseth. While Stewart’s recent struggles may be of concern to some, he still is a lock to make the Chase and anyone worried must not remember what happened last year.

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