Coming off another exciting race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads south to Atlanta Motor Speedway for this weekend's AdvoCare 500. Only two races remain before the Chase for the Cup gets underway in Chicago, and if the past few weeks are any indication of things to come, you better hold on a lot tighter than Tony Stewart holds onto one of his helmets.
Since the series hit the summer stretch in June, there have been 11 different winners in 11 races, dating back to Joey Logano's win at the repaved Pocono Raceway. Last week, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin that broke in the new configuration at Bristol and went to Victory Lane.
Just as the battle for wins each week has heated up, so has the battle to secure a spot in the 12-driver Chase field.
Hamlin's victory was his third of the season, making it a four-way tie for the most win on the seasons with Hamlin, Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. So far, only four drivers have locked themselves into the Chase: Johnson, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. This weekend, eight other drivers could mathematically lock themselves into the field.
While the top 10 is settling things amongst themselves, the fight for the two wild card spots are very much up for grabs. Entering this weekend's race, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch hold the coveted position, but anything can change, as Sunday night's race proved. Among those looking to secure a spot in the Chase through via wild card are Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards.
In the meantime, we've seen wild races over the course of the last three weeks. Last-lap drama, helmet throwing, finger pointing, accusations of teams testing the boundaries of the rulebook … you name it, it’s happened.
With a 500-mile race under the lights on the fast, high-banks of the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, the stage is set for yet another dramatic weekend for the Cup Series.
However, look for that streak of 11 different winners to end this week as Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the entire No. 48 team look to solidify their spot as the top seed heading into the Chase.
This organization has shown it is once again in championship form, with a win at Indianapolis, a second last week at Bristol, a third at Watkins Glen and a 14th at Pocono. Don’t forget, the 27th-place finish at Michigan is very deceiving as Johnson lost a motor leading in the closing laps.
A three-time winner in Atlanta, Johnson enters the weekend as the fantasy favorite. Already locked into the Chase, Johnson and Knaus are now looking solely for wins. While this group has not been to Victory Lane at AMS since it swept the races in 2007, Johnson was second last year and third in the September 2010 event. Look for him to improve that finishing position by one spot Sunday night and emerge as the Chase favorite heading to Richmond.
While questions arose about when last year's Atlanta event would be run after rain washed out the race until Tuesday, there was no question as to who had the best car when the green flag finally flew. Veteran Jeff Gordon dominated the day, leading seven times for a total of 146 laps en route to his fifth Atlanta win.
Marking the 20th anniversary of his historic first start in the Cup Series, the four-time series champion is on the verge of missing out on this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Currently third in the Chase wild card battle, with one win (Pocono), Gordon is 55 points out of the top 10, but only 16 behind fellow wild carder Kyle Busch. If Gordon can score his second win of the season, it would go a long way towards his quest to make the Chase.
The No. 24 team, led by crew chief Alan Gustafson, has been strong of late, but two poor finishes at Watkins Glen and Michigan have made things much more difficult. Expect Gordon to be a contender throughout Sunday night's race and be there in the end, challenging for the win.
Five Favorites: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne
This year, veteran Mark Martin has proven that you are only as old as you feel. The 53-year-old is running a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, but each time he climbs behind the wheel, he’s a threat for the win. Making only 15 starts thus far in 2012, Martin leads the series in poles (four) and has two top 5s and five top 10s.
Over the past few seasons, however, Martin has struggled a bit on the high banks of Atlanta. Since finishing second in the spring 2006 race, he has only two other top--10 finishes and seven finishes outside the top 20 (including three DNFs).
Despite his not-so-stellar record in Atlanta of late, Martin appears renewed at MWR and is this week's undervalued pick of the week.
When looking for another undervalued driver for your fantasy lineup, you might want to consider Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola. While Almirola has only one start in Atlanta, he sat on the pole earlier this year at Charlotte Motor Speedway, another mile-and-a-half track. The No. 43 team has not set the world on fire this season, but with crew chief Mike Ford now calling the shots they have steadily improved.
Do not expect this team to get up there and battle Johnson, Gordon, et al, for the win, but they could score a solid finish and give you the fantasy points you need as the season winds toward its home stretch.
Five Undervalued Picks: Mark Martin, Aric Almirola, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard
Have you ever seen a kid trying to eat an ice cream cone when it is about 100 degrees outside? Typically it’s a losing battle. That's where Carl Edwards currently finds himself with only two races left before the Chase field is set.
For the past few weeks, Edwards has been our darkhorse pick of the week. Each week, he has proved why. A sixth at Michigan was a solid finish, but not what the team needed to make the Chase. Last weekend at Bristol, Edwards was out front leading, but made a mistake late in the race, bypassing a fuel stop under caution. The resulting 22nd-place finish was the result when the tank ran dry.
With only two top 5s and 11 top 10s, Edwards has rarely been in contention to win races this season. After losing last year's championship battle to Tony Stewart by virtue of a tiebreaker, the driver of the No. 99 has struggled to bounce back.
Admitting there is a "real sense of urgency" at the moment, Edwards also pointed out earlier in the week there are a lot of talented drivers in a similar situation.
"It’s almost hard to put into words how close the competition is and any loss you have, there are gonna be a ton of people who capitalize on it, and any gain you have it’s really hard to have a real positive gain over the field technically or competitive-wise, points-wise," he said. "I don’t think that it could be any more competitive. Misery likes company and right now we’ve got a little bit of company back there, but I don’t know if it makes me feel any better, but it is good to see that it can happen to anybody.”
Once again, though, Edwards heads to a track where he is very capable of winning. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has three wins, eight top 5s and 10 top 10s on the 1.5-mile track, finishing second in the September 2010 race and fifth last season.
Although his last win cam in 2008, if he and crew chief Chad Norris can put together a strong setup under the car, stay out of trouble both on the track and in the pits, as well as play the strategy right, this could be the weekend Edwards finally gets out and does his signature backflip — and then the wild card battle really gets crazy. If not, you can pretty much write off his Chase hopes for 2012.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Carl Edwards, Landon Cassill, Jamie McMurray, Regan Smith, Danica Patrick
Best Average Finish at Atlanta (Wins/Starts)
Jimmie Johnson — 10.0 (3/20)
Tony Stewart — 11.2 (3/25)
Jeff Gordon — 12.2 (5/38)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 12.8 (1/24)
Matt Kenseth — 12.9 (0/23)
Carl Edwards — 13.6 (3/14)
Greg Biffle — 16.1 (0/17)
Jeff Burton — 16.6 (0/34)
Juan Pablo Montoya — 16.9 (0/9)
Mark Martin — 17.3 (2/51)
by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter:@JayWPennell