3 Champs, 1 Goal: Become the penultimate warrior

Just two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series remain to determine those who will make it in this year's Chase for the championship. Johnson, Bowyer and Kenseth are secured no matter the outcome at Atlanta.

Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 continues a Labor Day tradition reaching into NASCAR’s formative years.

Great racing and legendary winners have ushered out summer and – in recent seasons – solidified the lineup for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.

This weekend figures to be no different as the series heads to the penultimate race of the regular season.

Three Chase spots have been claimed leaving nine positions to be determined, either on Atlanta’s 1.54-mile asphalt or next week at Richmond International Raceway.

Sunday’s race (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Performance Racing Network Radio, Sirius XM Radio) may be more about who doesn’t have provisional Chase standing than those who may punch their tickets for NASCAR’s post season.

Look no further than three former series champions whose title hopes could soar or be dashed over 501 miles of high-speed competition under the lights.

Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing Ford
Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing Ford

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Reigning champion Brad Keselowski enters the regular season’s next-to-final race ranked 11th, four points out of the top 10. Kurt Busch, the 2004 titleholder, stands 12th (-six) and four-time champion Jeff Gordon is 13th (-11).

None of the three has won in 2013. A victory certainly would push each into the top 10 – and also provide potential Chase Wild Card, available to the two highest-ranked drivers 11th through 20th in points.

Keselowski finished third in last year’s Atlanta race. He has two top-10 finishes but has led just two laps in four starts.

“I’m not going to be out of the worried zone unless I make it (the Chase) or it’s over,” Keselowski said recently. “We’ve got two races left. I think they’ll be good race tracks for us.”

Busch is responsible for making the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet a Chase contender fashioning, six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes and a pole. Earlier this week he announced a switch to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, joining new boss Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick.

“My focus still remains on the present and trying to achieve our Chase goal in the No. 78,” said Busch, a two-time Atlanta winner whose most recent victory came in 2010.

A year ago, Gordon finished second in Atlanta and Richmond to claim a Wild Card. Gordon’s most recent of five Atlanta victories came in 2011. He has finished on the lead lap in 13 consecutive races.

“We just need to do our job and get the best results possible these next two races and see how things shake out,” Gordon said.

Logano’s Top 10-Streak Faces Atlanta Hurdle

Race winner Joey Logano, Penske Racing Ford
Race winner Joey Logano, Penske Racing Ford

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

When Joey Logano posted consecutive 40th-place finishes at Daytona and Loudon, dropping to 18th in the standings, his freshman season with Penske Racing appeared destined to end the same as his previous campaigns – outside the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.

Instead of disappearing into irrelevancy, Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon caught fire. Beginning with an eighth-place finish at Indianapolis, the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford hasn’t finished outside the top 10 in five straight starts.

Logano won at Michigan several weeks ago, giving the team a shot at a Chase Wild Card entry. The 23-year-old Connecticut driver wasn’t satisfied with that, following the victory with a hard-fought fifth-place in a battered Fusion that moved Logano into 10th-place in the standings.

It’s a theme that sounds very familiar for the 23-year-old out of Middletown, Conn. Logano has rebounded before, earlier this season. After starting 2013 with four consecutive finishes outside the top 10, Logano chimed in with a third at Auto Club Speedway to catapult him to ninth in the standings. It was the first of three stints in the top 10 in points for Logano this season.

Now Logano must take what he’s earned and keep it going for two more races.

Atlanta, statistically speaking, will be a challenge. Logano’s best performance, 18th, came in last year’s AdvoCare 500. In six races at the 1.54-mile superspeedway, he has an average finish of 26.0 and Driver Rating of 56.5. Both are worst among drivers ranking among the current top 12.

“I’ve never really run great there,” he said of his previous tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing. “I’ve run in the top 10 but I’ve never really had a car that’s been able to go up there in the top five or anything like that.

“”But, like I’ve said, we’re not gonna go in there thinking that we’re gonna have a bad run.”

Punchin’ Tickets: Clinch Scenarios For Atlanta

Two races remain in the regular season – yet only three drivers know with absolute certainty that they’re competing for a championship over the final 10 races. Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer have each clinched a top-10 spot in the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and Matt Kenseth locked up at least a Wild Card spot with his fifth win of the season, at Bristol. He’ll likely clinch a top-10 berth either this weekend or next weekend at Richmond.

Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

After Atlanta, count on many more joining Johnson, Bowyer and Kenseth. Three drivers control their own destiny, and four more could clinch at least a wild card. Below are the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup clinch scenarios for this weekend’s race at Atlanta.

The magic number for this weekend is 49 – any driver 49 points ahead of 11th will clinch a top 10 spot. (That number could drop to 48 depending on if the driver in question owns the tie breaker.)

Regardless of how any other driver finishes, the following will clinch at top-10 berth by accomplishing the below…

Carl Edwards: 38th-place finish or better (39th with lap led, 40th with most laps led)

Kevin Harvick: 31st-place finish or better (32nd with lap led, 33rd with most laps led)

Kyle Busch: 10th-place finish or better (11th with lap led, 12th with most laps led)

Matt Kenseth: 7th-place finish or better (8th with lap led, 9th with most laps led)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (33 points cushion over 11th), Kasey Kahne (20 points cushion), Greg Biffle (17 points cushion) and Joey Logano (4 point cushion) all conceivably could reach the 49-point magic number.)

Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Greg Biffle – all of whom have one win this season – can clinch at least a Wild Card spot with a win and some help. Kasey Kahne, with two wins, would clinch with a third win if two out of the following three drivers clinch a T10 spot: Kyle Busch, Kenseth and Harvick. If all three clinch a top 10, Kahne clinches if anyone other than Biffle, Logano, Truex or Newman wins.

Johnson, Kenseth Find Momentum Cuts Two Ways

How quickly momentum can be gained and lost.

Two races ago, holding a 77-point lead after a top-10 finish at Pocono Raceway, Jimmie Johnson appeared a prohibitive favorite to win a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title.

After finishes of 40th (engine failure) and 36th (accident), the fortunes of Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet have changed perceptibly. His points lead over Clint Bowyer also has shrunk to 18 markers.

Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: General Motors

Nobody, particularly Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, want to be viewed as stumbling into the postseason.

“We certainly want to clean things up and have some great finishes rolling into the Chase,” said Johnson, a three-time Atlanta winner. Johnson holds the track’s top Driver Rating of 108.3. “There is still a lot of racing left. And once the Chase starts, it is its own animal.”

A single race may have shifted momentum to Matt Kenseth, the Bristol winner.

Kenseth, ranked sixth, has clinched at least a Chase Wild Card berth but more likely will qualify as a member of the regular season top 10. Were the reset to occur today, he would be the No. 1 seed with 15 bonus points – three more than Johnson.

“I’m not always a huge believer in momentum as far as just looking at paper and looking at finishes but I am a believer in momentum as far as performance,” said Kenseth, whose average finish had been 17.8 since his last victory in Kentucky. “We had all our speed back (at Bristol). We led some laps. Hopefully that gives you momentum.”

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Etc.

Based on several tests over the past year, Goodyear’s racing division will utilize “zone tread” technology for its race recommendation for Atlanta. For its new Atlanta right-side tire, Goodyear has combined one compound (run recently at Michigan International Speedway) to help control heat on the inner half of the tread with a different tread (run previously at Atlanta Motor Speedway) to give the cars more grip. It will be paired with the more traditional left-side tire run at Atlanta last season. “Historically, Atlanta is one of the more difficult race tracks on tires and equipment and this tire gives us the ability to improve performance,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition. “Combining the high speeds we always see at Atlanta with the high loads in the corners and the abrasive surface that brings tire wear into play, this is the ideal track to debut this technology.” … Austin Dillon returns to the seat of the No. 33 Chevrolet this weekend, making his ninth start of the season. He has driven three different cars in 2013 (No. 33 Circle Sport Racing Chevrolet; No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet; No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet), with a best finish of 11th at Michigan in the No. 33. … Toyota’s next win will be No. 250 in NASCAR national series competition.

NASCAR

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Series NASCAR-CUP
Article type Previews
Tags atlanta, bowyer, busch, chevrolet, dillon, ford, goodyear, gordon, johnson, kenseth, keselowski, logano, nscs, pemberton, toyota, wild card

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