With only two races left until the NASCAR Sprint Cup ”playoffs,” the field is beginning to tighten up. Out of the top ten drivers, four drivers (points-leader Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, and Carl Edwards) were locked in after last week’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. As the week progressed, NASCAR Officials determined two more drivers (Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon) had clinched spots in the Chase, based on races won and points. Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin currently hold the two “wild card” spots.
At this weekend’s race, The AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (AMS), the magic number is 48…if a driver in the top ten is 48 points or more ahead of 11th place, they’re locked in. Dale Earnhardt Jr, sitting in the 9th position, is looking to get locked in, but he’ll have Tony Stewart, and “Bubble Boys” Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Clint Bowyer fighting to get that tenth and final Chase position. Greg Biffle, currently sixteenth and looking to break into the top-ten, will have to start 43rd due to an engine change, thereby making his quest for the top-ten quite problematic. Overall, expect at least one to three or more drivers to lock in their Cup position (points race breakdown is in today’s TechTalk below).
The AdvoCare 500 will be run at a relatively off-cycle position on SUNDAY NIGHT, in the only race in the Sprint Cup schedule run this year at AMS. The race coverage begins at 4:30pm EDT with NASCAR Raceday on SPEED, continues with NASCAR Countdown on ESPN at 6:30pm EDT, with the race broadcast at 7:30pm EDT on ESPN. The Green Flag drops at 7:46pm EDT, with four U.S. Air Force F-15s scheduled to conduct the pre-race flyover.
AMS’s 1.54-mile quad oval can produce some of the fastest speeds at any NASCAR track, with qualifying runs well over 195 miles per hour (track qualifying record was 197.478, set by Geoffrey Bodine in 1997). It’s a track that can have drivers slipping and sliding all over the place, providing for some serious race excitement.
Additionally, with the Sprint Summer Showdown concluding at AMS, the question isn’t simply who’s going to lock themselves into the Chase, it’s whether one of the Showdown drivers with wins this summer (Paul Menard-Indy, Brad Keselowski-Pocono and Bristol, Kyle Busch-Michigan, and Marcos Ambrose-Watkins Glen) can take the checkered flag tomorrow night, to win a million dollars for himself, a million to his favorite charity, and an additional million to a lucky fan.
Best Bets: Almost looks like an easy two for the top picks this week…
- Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge): The Blue Deuce continues its domination; with finishes of no less than third, including two wins, within the last four races. Goose eggs on the board at AMS, but two wins tells me he has far more to bring than his record here would show. He starts in fourteenth, but was fourth fastest in final practice.
- Kyle Busch (#18 Pedigree Toyota): KyBu was edged out Saturday night for the Nationwide victory by Carl Edwards, and looks to put up some good numbers again tomorrow. With a P3 starting position, he doesn’t have too far to get to the front, but his ninth-place final practice speed either says his team was making Q (qualifying) runs during final practice, or he may face some challenges Sunday. He’s got a win, three top-fives, and three top-tens here at AMS. It would be easy to think that KyBu will be running just to maintain his lead in the NSC standings, but I know he’s always running full throttle.
Probables: Some well-tested drivers in this group for the race. Likely have more than a “probable” chance.
- Jeff Gordon (#24 Drive to End Hunger Chevy): Big Daddy ran well last week at Bristol, and he looks to repeat that performance this Sunday. With four wins, fourteen top-fives, and twenty-three top-tens at AMS, accompanied by running the fastest laps in final practice, he’ll likely be occupying P1 before long. He starts fifth, and will hope to score three more bonus points with a win.
- Carl Edwards (#99 Aflac “Friends of a Feather” Ford): Carl won the Great Clips 300 Nationwide Series race Saturday night, beating out Kyle Busch by over a second. He’s won at AMS three times, with seven top-fives and nine top-tens. His successes here can only give him more confidence going into tomorrow’s race, despite a flawless backflip and hitting a fence bar with his forehead as he exited the grandstands. He lines up seventh, and was seventh-fastest in final practice.
Dark Horses: Sad to say, but the remainder of the picks have to center around the Wild Card race, and those gunning for the ninth and tenth positions. Those locked in not already mentioned will work to keep their positions; the remainder will have work to do.
- Tony Stewart (#14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy): Smoke is the defending winner of this race. As such, he’ll want to keep his title; but, despite his struggles of late, he’ll have his work cut out for him to keep the wolves knocking at the door of tenth place at bay. He’s also got three wins at AMS, including three top-fives and fourteen top-tens. He may start a ways back in P20, but he was second fastest in final practice, telling me he’s got power in reserve under the hood.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr (#88 National Guard Military Intelligence/Amp Energy Chevy): Jr’s the only remaining Dark Horse who has won at Atlanta, thus my choice of him as second Dark Horse. With his contract extension signed, sealed, and delivered, he has little to worry about other than breaking his winless streak. He may start back in twenty-ninth, but he was sixth fastest in final practice. The aforementioned win, eight top-fives, and ten top-tens makes him the next best bet.
- Clint Bowyer (#33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevy): He starts second and was third-fastest in final practice. Only five top-ten finishes at Atlanta makes him a prospect to work his way into the Chase.
- Paul Menard (#27 Quaker State/Menards Chevy): Paul’s got one win at Indy, which might give him a wild card bid, but he’s only scored a top-five and one top-ten, and he starts back in the pack.
- Greg Biffle (#16 3m Ford): Although he starts in P15 when the Green Flag waves, Biffle was fifth in final practice which might give him a chance. However, he’s only scored top fives at best and his motor change won’t help matters.
Shoutouts (otherwise known this week as “Rumor Mill”): Lots of news this week deserving of shoutouts. Among them–
- Dale Earnhardt Jr, in one of the week’s biggest stories, signed a five-year contract extension with Hendrick Motor Sports, taking his current contract from 2012 out to 2017 behind the wheel of the #88 car. At least he can put everything else out of his mind and concentrate on breaking his 117-race winless streak.
- UPS, current sponsor of David Ragan’s #6 UPS Ford, will scale back its sponsorship next season. Rumors are that they might be courting the #99 team of Carl Edwards for at least a partial sponsorship.
- Clint Bowyer, one of the drivers involved with “Silly Season” this year (the constant flux of free agency for drivers and sponsors), has the possibility of not only remaining at Richard Childress Racing (as long as he gains a new sponsor to replace General Mills), or could potentially move to Roush Fenway Racing…Jack Roush was quoted as saying he’s had his eyes on Bowyer for quite some time (from Twitter).
- Sounds like Tony Stewart would love to have Mark Martin behind the wheel of his third car, sharing the driving duties with Danica Patrick in the other races next season for Stewart-Haas racing. Kasey Kahne will take over duties in the #5 car for Hendrick Motor Sports.
- Carl Edwards will have Fastenal as a primary sponsor for around 17 races of the 2012 NSC season.
- Finally, Kevin Harvick, in an interview with an Atlanta-based radio station, burned up the Twitter feeds and news stories earlier in the week, as he was quoted as calling Kyle Busch a d@u&!bag (click here for the audio and listen around 2:30). KyBu has not commented, in this latest battle in the war of words between the two (or is he accepting the name?!?!).
Tech Talk: For those that haven’t figured out yet how the Chase points work, here’s the quick rundown…
- Top ten in points make the Chase. Period.
- Top two drivers in positions 11-20 with the most wins, earn “wild card” bids.
- When the points are reset at the beginning of the Chase, drivers with wins will be seeded higher, since they will be given three points for each win they had during the first 26 races. Right now, that means that Kyle Busch gets twelve bonus points when the Chase starts and will be seeded first.
- Wild card drivers (currently Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin) who make the Chase based on the number of wins they had, do not get to use their “win” bonus points a second time. In other words, they will be seeded alongside any of the top-ten drivers who had no wins.
- Paul Menard and his #27 Quaker State/Menard’s Chevy needs 42 points to catch up and surpass Denny Hamlin if he wants that second wild card berth. He’ll be sporting a different paint scheme this week, with a “Quaker State Green” and “Menards Yellow” combination.
- David Ragan and Marcos Ambrose need better than 50 points to catch up to Denny Hamlin to make the Chase.
- If Brad Keselowski makes it into the Top 10 within the next two races, since he’s in the Top-10, he WILL be able to use his bonus points for his three wins this season. He would be seeded just below KyBu.
So we’re off to Hotlanta tomorrow…I’ll be on scene for the race, and around the infield before the race. I’ll still be posting my usual rantings, analysis, and race updates on Twitter (@Speedglutton). Looks like Tropical Storm Lee will be moving in, and the hope is that he stays away long enough to get at least half the race in. Which brings the question of how the crew chiefs and teams will run their strategies…with a pit window of about 50 laps, getting to the crossed flags at 175 laps might be their goal. We’ll be watching the Doppler Radar, to be sure.
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