Driving With Blinders On: Coleman Excels At First-Time Tracks
Determined Burton Seeks Record Three Straight Atlanta Wins
Familiar Territory: Bires Has Experience, Success At Atlanta
In 17 starts last year, Brad Coleman collected a pole, three top fives and five top-10 finishes while running for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Pretty heady stuff for the teenager who also gained respect in the garage and praise from his team for his ability to hold his own in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
But despite running for one of the top teams in NASCAR, his was only a part-time deal. He longed for a full-time opportunity and found it during the off-season with Baker-Curb Racing, formerly Brewco Motorsports.
After the first three races with his new team this season, the move seems to be the right one.
With decent results at Daytona and California, Coleman (No. 27 Cottonelle Ford) truly broke through at Las Vegas. After celebrating his 20th birthday on Feb. 26, Coleman posted his best finish of the young season (ninth) and for the first time in his series career, climbed into the top 10 in the rankings.
Through his first 22 career races, Coleman has had a knack for strong finishes at tracks he's never seen before. Atlanta Motor Speedway will be another first-time drive for the Houston, Texas native.
His results at first-time tracks in 2007 were impressive. He was fourth in his first race at Milwaukee; he was ninth at Talladega (plus a pole); eighth at Montreal; fifth at Watkins Glen; 16th at Texas; 15th at Michigan and 17th at Bristol.
"It's a challenge I've learned to handle well," he said. "You just have to go out there, be smart and find your groove."
Man On A Mission: Burton Seeks Third Consecutive Win At Atlanta
It's hard to figure how Jeff Burton (No. 29 Holiday Inn Chevrolet) would be seeking redemption when he's coming to Atlanta.
After all, he's won the last two races at the 1.54-mile track and is a strong favorite to become the first NASCAR Nationwide Series driver to win three straight there.
But he was forced to shut down last week at Las Vegas where he was also the defending race winner. He was in second place before an expired engine forced him to retire on Lap 157, his first DNF since 2006.
Needless to say -- Burton, who along with Scott Wimmer, produced an owner championship last year for Richard Childress -- is primed for this one.
"Obviously, Las Vegas was disappointing," he said. "(We were) fast all weekend, but we had some things go wrong that were out of our control.
"(But) I don't dwell on disappointment. I use it as an opportunity to learn and improve as a driver."
You Gotta Believe: Keselowski Grins And Bears It Through Unlucky Times
JR Motorsports recorded its first series victory when Mark Martin won at Las Vegas last Saturday. Seemingly a cause for celebration by the owner, two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 5 National Guard Chevrolet) as the driver added to his all-time record for series wins (48).
But the celebration was fairly subdued. Arguably the most respected driver in NASCAR, Martin inadvertently caused an accident with three laps to go that took out contenders Carl Edwards (No. 60 Scotts Ford) and Martin's teammate, Brad Keselowski (No. 88 U.S. NAVY Chevrolet).
Keselowski was in prime position to challenge for his first win, similar to his situation last summer in Memphis during a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race.
There, Keselowski, subbing for a suspended Ted Musgrave, was seemingly in control of things when another late-race incident took him out of contention. But Keselowski's resolve remains firm.
"Man, Carl and I ran each other hard, which is what you're supposed to do," he said. "That's what this series is about. It's about racing hard and going for wins. We were going for the win, both of us. I ran him hard, he ran me hard and (Martin) got in the back of him.
"It is what it is, but we're showing a lot of promise. We're about there. It was about the happiest I could be wrecking out of a race."
In The Loop: Bulls-Eye On Burton At Atlanta Motor Speedway
In each of the last two races, it's been Jeff Burton in victory lane during the NASCAR Nationwide Series races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
He's made it look easy, too.
In the 2006 race, Burton racked up 75 laps led and had a comfy margin of victory of 1.419 seconds. Last season, he led 29 laps and came home 1.064 seconds ahead of then-teammate Kevin Harvick (No. 33 Camping World Chevrolet).
Burton's statistics have been phenomenal over the two wins. He has a Driver Rating of 133.7, an Average Running Position of 3.9, 51 Fastest Laps Run and has run 96% of the total laps in the 15.
So figure Burton to have a bull's eye on his bumper. Two other favorites looking to dethrone the 27-time series winner are Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Hellmann's Dodge) and Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Arby's Ford).
Kahne finished second to Burton in 2006 and has finished outside the top 10 only once in six Atlanta starts. In his three races since 2005, Kahne has a Driver Rating of 114.1, an Average Running Position of 5.2, a series-high 64 Fastest Laps Run and a series-high 580 Laps in the Top 15.
Kenseth, always dangerous on intermediate layouts such as Atlanta, won there in 2004 and has finished in the top 10 in each of the last five trips to the 1.54-mile track.
In the last three races, Kenseth has a Driver Rating of 114.4, an Average Running Position of 4.9, 48 Fastest Laps Run and 574 Laps in the top 15.
Also watch for NASCAR Nationwide Series regular Jason Leffler (No. 38 Great Clips Toyota) to make a play for the win. Though an accident ended his day after 62 laps last season, Leffler enjoyed a strong sixth-place run in 2006. In that race, Leffler earned a solid Driver Rating of 94.9.
David Stremme (No. 64 Atreus Homes & Communities Chevrolet), who had a fifth-place finish at Las Vegas last week, another track where he had strong Loop Data stats, could also be a factor. He has an Average Running Position of 15.4 at Atlanta since 2005.
The Director's Take: Hitting Setups Critical At Atlanta Motor Speedway
"Handling will be a critical component during our race at Atlanta," said Joe Balash, NASCAR Nationwide Series director of the series' lone stop at the 1.54-mile track.
"The way our mile-and-a-half tracks are configured allows teams to reach high speeds. Atlanta is truly one of those tracks where aerodynamics and the mechanical grip of coil binding come together. "Teams have to figure out their setups to get the biggest advantage.
"They'll focus on balancing the handling of the car, working to make their cars grip and handle through the corners and carry higher corner entry speed so as to not push through the center."
Atlanta Motor Speedway
Most Wins: Mark Martin (3)
Most Poles: Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Dick Trickle (2)
Quick Fact: Jeff Gordon won his first national series race at Atlanta in
NASCAR Nationwide Series competition in 1992.
Kelly Bires (No. 47 Clorox Ford), a former Wisconsin high school wrestling state champion, has a good grip on the start to his season. Competing in his first full year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series with JTG Racing, Bires, 23, has posted two top-15 finishes in the first three races.
Consistency has been his key; according to Loop Data, nearly 80% of his laps last week at Las Vegas were in the top 15.
Bires is not only coming off a stout performance but comes to a track where he has experience. He has raced at Atlanta twice in NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series competition, finishing 19th in 2006 in his national series debut and 10th last year before moving to the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
The NASCAR Nationwide Series has its share of Georgia natives represented at their home track this weekend.
David Ragan (No. 6 Discount Tire Ford - Unadilla) won the 2007 Raybestos Rookie of the Year award and is one of four drivers competing full time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He began racing at the quarter-mile track at AMS when he was 12 years old.
Jeffrey Roth, the front tire carrier for Kevin Harvick's No. 33 Chevrolet, is from Washington, Ga.
Atreus Homes & Communities, sponsor of Rusty Wallace Racing's Nos. 64 and 66 Chevrolets, is based in Atlanta as is Aaron's Sales & Lease, sponsor of David Reutimann's No. 99 Toyota.
Bill France Performance Cup Standings
Mark Martin's win at Las Vegas last Saturday pulled Chevrolet even with Toyota in the Bill France Performance Cup standings, but Toyota holds the edge in wins, 2-1.
To date, Chevrolet (10) and Ford (6) are the only two manufacturers to win at Atlanta.
Up Next: Sharpie Mini 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway
The first short-track race of the season is up next for the NASCAR Nationwide Series on Saturday, March 15 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
ABC will broadcast its first NASCAR event of the season starting at 2 p.m. ET.
Defending series driver champion Carl Edwards won his first race of the year there last season, while Steve Wallace captured his first career series pole at the .533-mile track.
The Race: Nicorette 300
The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, March 8
The Time: 2 p.m. ET
The Distance: 300.3 miles/195 laps
Track Size: 1.54 miles
TV: ESPN2, 1:30 p.m. ET
2007 Winner: Jeff Burton
2007 Pole: Kyle Busch
Friday -- Practice 10:10-11:05 a.m.; Final Practice 1:05-2:50 p.m.
Saturday -- Qualifying, 9:15 a.m. (Impound).