Atlanta II: 'Chase' round seven preview

* Told you so: Busch's rise to top of standings not surprising * NASCAR family comes together in support of Hendrick Motorsports * Atlanta would be appropriate place for Gordon to start late-season charge Coming into the season's home...

* Told you so: Busch's rise to top of standings not surprising

* NASCAR family comes together in support of Hendrick Motorsports

* Atlanta would be appropriate place for Gordon to start late-season charge

Coming into the season's home stretch, Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Ford) is atop the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings.

That is surprising to virtually no one.

From the outset of the Chase, Busch had the word "favorite" written all over him, mainly because of a mercurial late-season sprint in 2002. That season Busch won three of the last five events (Martinsville, Atlanta and Homestead) to vault into third place in the final championship standings.

Busch -- seeking his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup title in only his fourth full-time season -- didn't win again at Martinsville this past Sunday but he did finish fifth and lead the most laps. That enabled him to pad his lead substantially; he comes into this week's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway with a 96-point lead over four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). He also has a 125-point advantage over Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), whose championship chances were damaged by a 33rd-place Martinsville finish.

"You've got to step up to the plate and race hard each of these final 10 ... right now, we haven't had a bad finish [in the Chase]," Busch said.

Next up is Atlanta, where Busch has three top-10 finishes in seven starts, including that 2002 autumn victory. He has led a total of 146 laps on the 1.54-mile oval. In this season's spring Atlanta race, he finished 12th.

NASCAR FAMILY SHAKEN BUT STEADFAST -- AND SUPPORTIVE

Last Sunday's accident involving a Hendrick Motorsports airplane claimed 10 lives, and affected countless others. NASCAR Vice President Jim Hunter offered these thoughts on the tragedy:

"NASCAR is a major nationwide sport involving thousands of people, but whenever something like this happens, we're reminded of just how close-knit we are, despite the growth of the sport," Hunter said.

"The term 'NASCAR Family' is not a mere slogan. In times like this we pull together as any other family would. All of us at NASCAR continue to keep those affected by the accident in our prayers. We will continue to offer support and comfort whenever possible. We will carry on and, simply, do the best we can under these incredibly trying circumstances."

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

* Atlanta Motor Speedway looks like it would be an appropriate place for Jeff Gordon to start a late-season charge to a fifth title. And, of course, whatever transpires for the balance of the season, will no doubt be emotional for Gordon, the standard-bearer for Hendrick Motorsports.

Atlanta was where Gordon ran his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup event, in November 1992. That race, the Hooters 500, is considered to be one of the most significant in NASCAR history. In addition to being the debut of a future great, it was the final NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race for seven-time champion Richard Petty. Also, it was the day that Alan Kulwicki pulled a considerable upset, finishing second but edging Bill Elliott in the final standings by only 10 points -- the narrowest margin in series history.

Gordon has gone to race 23 more times at Atlanta, winning four times. His most recent AMS victory? October 2003.

* Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been talking confidently about Atlanta. Here's why: He has six top-10 runs in 10 starts, including a victory in March.

* Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford) is fifth in the Chase standings, a highly respectable effort thus far in the Chase. But he's also 214 points behind Busch, his Roush Racing teammate. Atlanta has been good for Martin during his long career. In 37 starts he has two victories and 17 top-10 finishes. He finished 14th in this season's spring AMS race.

* Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) has rebounded from a frustrating early Chase stretch and finds himself fourth in points, albeit 207 points behind Busch. Johnson might just play more catch-up on Sunday; in six Atlanta starts he has three top-five finishes.

* Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge), ninth in the Chase, has taken a liking to the fast AMS oval. In five starts he has four top-10 finishes -- plus three Bud Poles.

* Tony Stewart (No. 20 The Home Depot Chevrolet) has 11 starts at Atlanta -- six top 10s, including four top fives. He has a win at AMS, in the 2002 spring race.

STATBOOK

Geoffrey Bodine's 197.478 mph qualifying lap at Atlanta in November 1997 (the first on the current 1.54-mile configuration) remains the fastest qualifying lap on a non-restrictor-plate track in the history of NASCAR. ... There have been 90 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races at Atlanta Motor Speedway since the first race was held there in 1960. There have been two races a year except for 1961 which had a third event, the 250-mile Festival 250. Additionally, one race was a 300-mile event, six were 400 miles and all the others were 500 miles. ... A Dodge has not won at Atlanta Motor Speedway since Richard Petty won there in the 1977 spring race. Of course, Dodge left NASCAR competition in the late 1970s and didn't return until the 2001 season. ... Atlanta has produced two of the four-closest finishes since electronic timing was introduced in May 1993. Both races have occurred on the latest configuration, 1.54-miles. Kevin Harvick beat Jeff Gordon by 0.006-second on March 11, 2001, in the third-closest finish. Dale Earnhardt crossed the line just 0.10-second ahead of Bobby Labonte in the fourth-closest race (tied with Rockingham in February) on March 12, 2000.

QUOTEBOOK

* "Qualifying at Atlanta is like no other place we go. It's the fastest non-restrictor plate track on the schedule and you can definitely feel the speed during your qualifying run. I hold my breath for each lap. It's amazing." -- Ryan Newman.

* "I'm approaching the final four races with one simple strategy. I'll race as hard as I can every lap, trying to get out front and stay there. Everything else will take care of itself, the points and everything. We're excited about the final four races of the season. We should be very competitive at all four tracks." -- Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge), 10th in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings.

* "Atlanta is the fastest track that we go to that's not a restrictor plate race and that makes for a lot of fun. It's my kind of race track." -- Mark Martin.

Fast Facts

What: Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500. (Round 7 of the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup/Race No. 33 of the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season.)

Where: Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, Ga.
When: Sunday, Oct. 31, 12:30 p.m. (ET).

TV: NBC, Noon (ET).
Radio: PRN/XM Satellite.

Posted awards: $5,831,269.

Race length: 500.5 miles/325 laps.
Track layout: 1.54-mile oval.

2003 winner: Jeff Gordon.
2003 polesitter: Ryan Newman.

Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings: 1. Kurt Busch 6,015. 2. Jeff Gordon 5,919. 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 5,890. 4. Jimmie Johnson 5,808. 5. Mark Martin 5,791. 6. Tony Stewart 5,769. 7. Elliott Sadler 5,760. 8. Matt Kenseth 5,755. 9. Ryan Newman 5,749. 10. Jeremy Mayfield 5,651.

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Bobby Labonte , Jeremy Mayfield , Tony Stewart , Geoffrey Bodine , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Richard Petty , Elliott Sadler , Jim Hunter , Mark Martin , Alan Kulwicki
Teams Hendrick Motorsports