* Excitement Mounts for Drivers Looking to Clinch Chase Spots * Bubble Battle: Current Hot Spot is 12th Place * Loop Data: Two Big Names Oddly Quiet as Chase Nears Two Races to Go for Drivers Hoping to Clinch Chase Spots NASCAR Sprint Cup...
* Excitement Mounts for Drivers Looking to Clinch Chase Spots
* Bubble Battle: Current Hot Spot is 12th Place
* Loop Data: Two Big Names Oddly Quiet as Chase Nears
Two Races to Go for Drivers Hoping to Clinch Chase Spots
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors pursuing a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berth only have two events remaining in the "Race to the Chase" - the 10-race stretch that precedes the Chase.
That means dwindling opportunity and mounting pressure.
Sunday night's Emory HealthCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway is the first of those two opportunities, a stage where several top-12-ranked drivers - and perhaps a few below that 12th-place cutoff - hope to clinch Chase spots, or claw their way to eligibility.
What we know: Standings leader Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) and second-place Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont/Jeff Gordon Foundation Chevrolet) have clinched their berths.
Who's next: Three drivers - third-place Kyle Busch (No. 18 Pedigree Toyota), fourth-place Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford) and fifth-place Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Sport Clips Toyota) - have very good shots at clinching at Atlanta.
Three others - sixth-place Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet), seventh-place Jeff Burton (No. 31 Cat Financial Chevrolet) and eighth-place Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Ford) - could clinch, depending on scenarios.
The remaining four drivers in the current top 12 - ninth-place Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowes/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet), 10th-place Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge), 11th-place Greg Biffle (No. 16 Scotch Blue Ford) and 12th-place Clint Bowyer (No. 33 BB&T Chevrolet) - may have to wait a week, until the final event in the Race to the Chase, at Richmond International Raceway.
Kyle Busch owns Sunday's most favorable scenario. He'll clinch with a finish of 40th or better with no laps led, 42nd or better with at least one lap led or 43rd or better with the most laps at Atlanta.
Edwards' and Hamlin's scenarios are a little tougher, but similar. Edwards will clinch Sunday with a finish of 21st or better with no laps led, 23rd or better with at least one lap led or 25th or better with the most laps led. Hamlin will clinch with a finish of 20th or better with no laps led, 22nd or better with at least one lap led or 23rd or better with the most laps led.
Stewart, Burton and Kenseth have a bit more work to do. Stewart must finish 19th or better with no laps led, 21st or better with at least one lap led or 23rd or better with the most laps led. Burton must finish 17th or better with no laps led, 19th or better with at least one lap led or 21st or better with the most laps led. Kenseth must finish 15th or better with no laps led, 17th or better with at least one lap led or 19th or better with the most laps led.
Johnson, Kurt Busch and Biffle need really good Atlanta performances. Johnson, the reigning and four-time series champion, must finish 10th or better with no laps led, 11th or better with at least one lap led or 13th or better with the most laps led. Once he clinches, Johnson becomes the only driver to participate in all seven Chases.
Kurt Busch must finish ninth or better with no laps led, 10th or better with at least one lap led or 11th or better with most laps led, to clinch his Chase berth. Biffle must finish fourth or better with no laps led, fifth or better with at least one lap led or seventh or better with the most laps led.
Bowyer needs a superior showing. Possible? Yes, but much more likely that Bowyer clinches his Chase berth at Richmond. He heads to Atlanta 100 points ahead of 13th-place Jamie McMurray (No. 1 McDonald's Chevrolet).
That means he must gain 96 points on 13th.
Don't forget: Twenty bonus points still are available. Following Richmond, Chase drivers are seeded according to the number of wins they accrued in the season's first 26 races. Each win is worth 10 points.
Bubble Battle: Bowyer Leads McMurray, Martin
That smoke you see wafting from the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings?
The current hot spot - 12th place.
It's the final, eligible position in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and the site of the fiercest points battle heading toward Sunday night's Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta.
Clint Bowyer is the current occupant, a spot he's held for the last six weeks.
There's no guarantee he'll keep it with two events remaining before the Chase begins Sept. 19 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but after all relevant addition and subtraction, it's his spot to lose.
Bowyer leads 13th-place Jamie McMurray by 100 points and 14th-place Mark Martin (No. 5 CARQUEST/GoDaddy.com Chevrolet) by 101.
Further afield is 15th-place Ryan Newman (No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet), who trails Bowyer by 118 points.
"It certainly is a better position to be in right now for us because there only is one person we have to pass," McMurray said. "When you have three or four in between you, you have to hope all of them have something bad happen to all them.
"But the 33 is running really well right now. I kind of put him in the same category as us. They are running really well but they've had a lot of DNFs. I think that team will perform fine, and we will just have to wait and see how it works out."
There is comeback precedent. In 2006, Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) was 90 points out of Chase eligibility with two races remaining in the "Race to the Chase." A victory at Auto Club Speedway followed by a third-place finish in the cutoff race at Richmond vaulted him into 10th (at the time, the final Chase spot).
Other comebacks with two races remaining include 2004, the Chase's first season, when Martin and Jeremy Mayfield both made up 35-point deficits; 2005, when Matt Kenseth made up an 11-point deficit and last year, when Brian Vickers overcame a 39-point deficit.
Kahne, the defending Atlanta winner, is 16th, 136 points out of Chase eligibility. But he's not opposed to playing spoiler, especially since Sunday marks a year since his last series victory.
"I've been in this position, I think, every year pretty much since I've been in Cup," Kahne said.
"I'm never in the Chase when we get to this point of the year. We're right on the edge. We either miss it or don't. We have to wait and see. Have a little bit of a shot if anything happens to the 33."
On The Line: Kasey Kahne
Kasey Kahne was the guest on Tuesday's NASCAR Teleconference.
Following are excepts:
Q: What do you think your odds are of another comeback ala 2006?
KAHNE: "Hopefully we have a good shot. I mean, it's tough right now because everybody is running so well. You kind of earn your points position with many races in. You're in that position and it's tough to make up a lot of points.
"Two good tracks for us. I know we can go fast at both of them. If Clint has any type of a hiccup, we'll be right in the middle of it."
Q: When you're not in the Chase group, do you sort of feel like you've been sent to study hall or out of the program, as it were?
KAHNE: "Yeah, I mean, it definitely isn't as good. You don't feel as good about what you've done, the way you race, that type of thing. I think it's a little bit different for me this year because I know I got 12 races left, that's where I'm at. I don't want to be done winning in a Ford, I don't want to be done winning for Budweiser or Richard Petty Motorsports. Hopefully we can find some spark to that.
"If we don't make the Chase, hopefully we can show up to the racetrack each week and contend. If we do make the Chase, we can do the same thing, contend. I feel we should have a really good shot at winning a race or two regardless if we make it or not."
Q: Seems like every year we have a guy that has something that happens at one of those opening Chase races and they never catch up. When that happens, is it difficult to convince yourself you're still in it?
KAHNE: "Well, it can be. 10 races is a long time. That's a good thing about it, is 10 races is a while. If you can keep that on your mind, you'll be all right.
"There's a lot of people to convince. It's not just the driver, the crew chief, the tire changer. It's a big group. If one guy gets off a little bit, it hurts. It can be any one of us. I think that could be what happened is maybe one or two guys get off a little and then it just drags you down, and that's it."
Q: Did any of the fan support help you through the uncertainty?
KAHNE: "It's been pretty good. You know, I mean, fan support's always best when you're winning races and we haven't been doing that. It's what it is. But for the diehards, it's been good. They're always right there. It's been a lot of fun kind of listening to their opinions, reading their opinions on Twitter or different things, seeing what everybody thinks, where we're at. It's been kind of cool."
How is that possible? The answer: Performance.
Take Johnson, the four-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. It has been an up-and-down campaign for Johnson. His five wins are tied for a series-high with Denny Hamlin, yet his nine finishes outside the top 20 (nine) are the most in his nine-year career.
The brunt of Johnson's struggles has come recently. Over the last seven races, Johnson has had five finishes outside the top 20 and two outside the top 30. His average finish was 23.3 during the "slump."
But there are two reasons for optimism.
One, poor finishes aren't always what they seem.
In each of his last seven races, Johnson has had a better Average Running Position than his finish. For instance, two weeks ago at Bristol, Johnson finished 35th, but had an Average Running Position of 17.4 and a Driver Rating of 92.0.
Second, Johnson heads to Atlanta, one of his best tracks. His average Driver Rating at Atlanta of 109.5 makes it his 10th-best track in terms of the Loop Data statistic.
Since the inception of Loop Data in 2005,
Johnson has scored a Driver Rating over 100.0 in eight of 11 Atlanta races. His average finish over that period is 9.1 and his Average Running Position is 7.8. Though he has finished outside the top 10 in the last two Atlanta events, he has finished first or second five times in the last 11.
Then there's the curious case of Earnhardt, seven times voted NASCAR's most popular driver.
Since consecutive top 10s at New Hampshire and Daytona, Earnhardt has struggled. In the last six races, he has finished outside the top 20 four times and has an average finish of 22.5.
His Driver Rating over those six events was 66.3 and his Average Running Position was 20.7.
But, like Johnson, Earnhardt should rebound this weekend. Atlanta is Earnhardt's second-best track in terms of Driver Rating (98.7).
He scored a rating over 100.0 four times over the last 11 races, and over 90.0 seven times. He won there in 2004, prior to the inception of Loop Data.
50 Years Of Racing At Atlanta Has Covered Plenty Of Historic NASCAR Moments
The 2010 season marks the 50th anniversary of racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway, one of the sport's longtime venues.
The 1.5-mile track has evolved through the years, weathering construction, re-configuration, renovation, and yes, even weather.
A tornado that damaged the facility on July 6, 2005 forced many months of repair, but also opportunity. The rebuilding permitted track officials to enact upgrades and changes that have enhanced both fans' and participants' experiences ever since, and this latest NASCAR weekend promises to be a golden-anniversary celebration.
In fact, the tornado and its aftermath are ranked No. 7 on a track-produced, top-10 list of most memorable Atlanta Motor Speedway moments.
It's the racing, however, that's the focus at Atlanta - one of the fastest, favorite venues frequented by NASCAR's three national series.
The 1992 NASCAR Sprint Cup season finale - No. 1 on the track's top-10 list - remains integral lore. Richard Petty's last career race, Jeff Gordon's first series start and a down-to-the-checkered-flag title battle between eventual champion Alan Kulwicki and hometown hero Bill Elliott all took place simultaneously; Elliott won the race, Kulwicki the title, by a mere 10 points, still the second-closest championship margin in NASCAR history. (The closest is eight points, between 2004 champion Kurt Busch and runner-up Jimmie Johnson, in the first Chase.)
And Atlanta continues to evolve, thanks to this weekend's events. Sunday's Emory Healthcare 500 and Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race mark the track's second consecutive year of night racing on Labor Day weekend, a burgeoning tradition. The 2011 season begins yet another new era for Atlanta, with the track hosting one exclusive race weekend featuring all three NASCAR national series, under the lights.
"This weekend as we celebrate our 50th anniversary, we will reflect back on some of the historic moments which have occurred at Atlanta Motor Speedway during our first 50 years," said Ed Clark, Atlanta Motor Speedway president and general manager. "From video presentations, to the official souvenir magazine, to special guests who attended the inaugural event here in 1960, we will commemorate and reflect on the great times fans have experienced at Atlanta Motor Speedway."
Milestones: Mark Martin will make his 50th series start at Atlanta on Sunday. He's also still pursuing his 50th career series pole.
Free Pancakes: And much more if you're a ticketholder to Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup event. Fans attending the race can eat a free breakfast the morning after from 7-9 a.m., on Monday, Sept. 6 in Atlanta Motor Speedway's NASCAR Nationwide Series garage. "Breakfast on Bruton" is the creation of track owner Bruton Smith as a thank-you to fans. The caveat: Breakfast-goers must present their ticket from the Sunday- night race for admission. Starting at 8 a.m., fans also can drive their vehicles around the track for a $30 donation, or, "Hot Laps on the High Banks", which benefits Speedway Children's Charities.
But Wait: More activities are scheduled for the Labor Day race weekend at Atlanta. On Friday, a Fan Fest presented by Your Georgia Best Chevy Dealers kicks off with a 6 p.m., question-and-answer session featuring SPEED's Rutledge Wood and NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Jeff Burton, Clint Bower and David Ragan (No. 6 UPS Ford). A concert by Georgia-based rockers Drivin' N Cryin' follows the track's evening short-track event on its quarter-mile layout.
On Saturday, veteran rockers Foreigner play at 5:20 p.m., from a frontstretch stage, after NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying and before the evening's NASCAR Nationwide Series race.
"Mr. 500": A special touch for Sunday's Grand Marshal. Lawrenceville, Ga., native Terry Wood will have the honors, in celebration of receiving Emory University Hospital's 500th heart transplant in March 2008. Wood, a Kevin Harvick fan, will be attending his first race.
"Papa's Car": Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon will drive a particularly snazzy - and personal - vehicle Sunday night at Atlanta. His No. 24 Chevrolet features a special paint scheme designed by his young daughter, Ella, with assistance from respected motorsports artist Sam Bass. The scheme, titled "My Papa's Car," spotlights the new logo of the renamed Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation and has been blessed by Gordon's longtime primary sponsor, DuPont.
"I can't wait to run Ella and Sam's design, and I can't think of a better way to showcase the new Foundation logo and name than on that car," Gordon said. "DuPont has graciously allowed us to run this scheme during one of their races, and I really appreciate their continued support of the Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation in its efforts to raise awareness and funds for childhood cancer research."
Conway Partners with Robby Gordon: NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Kevin Conway and Robby Gordon Motorsports announced Tuesday that they will partner for the remainder of the 2010 season. The joint venture begins this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway and includes Conway's sponsor, ExtenZe Racing.
Conway will drive the No. 7 ExtenZe Racing Toyota at Atlanta, where he finished 31st in the March event. He leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings over fellow driver Terry Cook, and has one earlier start with Robby Gordon Motorsports, two weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway. Conway also started 21 races for Front Row Motorsports this season.
Up Next: Richmond
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' next stop is an important one - the Air Guard 400 on Saturday, Sept. 11 at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN),
It's the final event in the "Race to the Chase," which sets the field for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Following Richmond, the top 12 drivers in the standings battle for the series title during the season's final 10 races.
Long renowned for its short-track characteristics, but with room to maneuver, Richmond's 0.75-mile layout fosters intense competition.
"The King" - Richard Petty - leads all drivers there with 13 wins, 34 top fives and 41 top 10s. He and another NASCAR great, Bobby Allison, lead all drivers there with eight poles, each.
"The King" also leads all team owners with 15 Richmond wins.
Virginia native Denny Hamlin is the defending race winner. Mark Martin is the defending polesitter.
The Next Race: Emory Healthcare 500
The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway (1.54-mile tri-oval)
The Date: Sunday, Sept. 5
The Time: 7:30 p.m. (ET)
Race Distance: 500.5 miles / 325 laps
TV: ESPN , 7 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128
2009 Polesitter: Martin Truex Jr.
2009 Winner: Kasey Kahne
Schedule Prior To Race Day:
Saturday-Practice, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 1:45-2:30 p.m.; Qualifying, 4:40 p.m.