Atlanta: News of note

* Atlanta resident Bill Lester attempts to qualify for his first ever NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race * Jimmie Johnson maintains points lead following final lap victory at Las Vegas * Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton crack Top 10 for first time...

* Atlanta resident Bill Lester attempts to qualify for his first ever NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race

* Jimmie Johnson maintains points lead following final lap victory at Las Vegas

* Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton crack Top 10 for first time this season


History In The Making ... Aside from Edwards' quest for three consecutive Atlanta victories, other history may be accomplished this week at Atlanta. Bill Lester, an Atlanta, Ga., resident and a regular on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series circuit, announced Tuesday he will attempt to qualify for this Sunday's Golden Corral 500 at his hometown track. If he is successful, Lester not only would earn his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup start, he also would become the first African-American to compete in a series race since Willy T. Ribbs in 1986.

Lester will drive the No. 23 Waste Management Dodge for Bill Davis Racing. His inaugural NASCAR NEXTEL Cup qualifying run will occur at 7:10 p.m. Friday, just after his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series qualifier at 5:10 p.m. and before the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series John Deere 200 at 9:10 p.m.

Top 10 Deck Shuffled; Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton Return ... There are three newcomers to the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 this week. Kyle Busch (No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet) improved six spots following his third-place showing at Las Vegas and is sixth. Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) likewise moved up six spots thanks to his fifth place finish at Las Vegas. He cracks the top 10 for the first time since Bristol last August, ending a 14-race absence, the longest of his career. Jeff Burton (No. 31 Cingular Chevrolet) finished seventh at Las Vegas to move into 10th place in the standings, making his first appearance in the top 10 since Pocono in July 2003, ending a 90-race absence.

In The Loop ... Through the season's first three races, a quick look at NASCAR's new Loop Data statistics provides a good indication why Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth currently rank 1-2 in the point standings. Johnson has the top Driver Rating (117.8) and the top Average Running Position (5.116). Kenseth ranks second with a 115.6 Driver Rating and is first in the Miles Leader category (369). ... Mark Martin tops the Percentage of Laps Run on Lead Lap statistic with a perfect 100% (724-724). ... Kyle Busch is the leader with 355 Quality Passes. ... Johnson's final lap pass of Kenseth coming out of Turn 4 to win the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 last Sunday at Las Vegas further reinforced the relevance of the Loop Data. Johnson was tops among Fastest Drivers in Turn Four and ranked second among Fastest Drivers on the Frontstretch. In contrast, Kenseth was the fourth-fastest driver through Turn 4 and just the 12th-fastest down the frontstretch, where Johnson made his winning pass. ... Analyzing the Loop Data statistics for last year's races at Atlanta Motor Speedway reveals that the top three finishers in last year's Golden Corral 500 -- Carl Edwards, Johnson and Greg Biffle (No. 16 National Guard Ford) -- also held three of the top four spots in the Driver Rating category for the 2005 races. Edwards had the top cumulative Driver Rating (133.5), ahead of Biffle (121.2), Martin (117.8), and Johnson (112.1).

Golden Corral 500 Rewind ... On March 20, 2005, Johnson and Biffle may have dominated the race, leading 156 and 151 laps, respectively, but it was Edwards who grabbed the checkered flag, with a razor-close 0.028-second victory over Johnson. That margin of victory was tied for eighth on the list of closest finishes since the advent of electronic timing in mid-season 1993. Edwards became the first driver ever to post his first career NASCAR Busch and NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series victories in the same weekend, as the Columbia, Mo., native had claimed the Aaron's 312 the day before. Edwards finished the 2005 season with four NASCAR NEXTEL Cup wins, 18 top 10's and a third-place finish in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup.

Johnson Off To The Races ... Johnson's two victories and a runner-up finish through the season's first three races has only been accomplished three times: In 1977 by Cale Yarborough; in 1969 by Richard Petty; and in 1963 by Jim Paschal. The best start in the first four races was turned in by Bill Elliott in 1992 and Herb Thomas in 1952, with both drivers posting three wins. Elliott is the only driver to win four of the first five races.

On The Right Track ... Three drivers currently in the top 10 in points own victories at Atlanta. Jeff Gordon leads the way with four (2003, 1999, 1998, 1995), followed by Mark Martin with two (1994, 1991) and Jimmie Johnson with one (2004). Bobby Labonte (No. 43 Cheerios/Betty Crocker Dodge) has posted six Atlanta victories to lead all active drivers. ... Greg Biffle is also fond of the 1.54 mile quad-oval, having posted four top-10 finishes in six races, while Johnson has finished in the top 10 in five of nine Atlanta starts. ... Ryan Newman (No. 12 Alltel Dodge) will be shooting for his seventh consecutive pole at AMS, which would tie him with Buddy Baker for the most career poles at the track. ... The victories have been spread evenly among team owners during the last 10 races at Atlanta. Roush Racing has three wins (two in 2005 and one in 2002) as has Joe Gibbs Racing (2003, 2002 and 2001). Hendrick Motorsports has two victories during that time (2004, 2003) while Richard Childress Racing (2001) and DEI (2004) each have won once during that time. ... Reed Sorenson (No. 41 Target Dodge) grew up in Peachtree City, a suburb of Atlanta. He made his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series debut last October at Atlanta, finishing 41st at the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500. ... Mike Garvey (No. 51 Marathon Chevrolet) is from McDonough, Ga.

What A Difference A Year Makes ... Several members of the current top 10 have made dramatic turnarounds from a year ago. Matt Kenseth, currently second in points, was 28th this time last year while Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge), who is third, was 38th at this stage of the 2005 season. Casey Mears (No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge) has finished in the top 10 in all three races this season. Through the first three races of 2005, Mears had one top 10 showing (a seventh-place finish at Las Vegas). Mears enters this week's competition on the best racing streak of his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup career, with top-10 finishes in five of the six races since Texas last November.

This And That ... Starting up front may be more important than ever at Atlanta. Seven of the last eight races there have been won from a top-10 starting position. In fact, only seven of the 93 races at Atlanta have been won from outside a top-20 starting position. ... While Dodge currently has two drivers (Kasey Kahne and Casey Mears) ranked among the top five, the Atlanta track hasn't rewarded that manufacturer over the past three decades. A Dodge car hasn't won at Atlanta since Richard Petty won the Atlanta 500 in March, 1977. ... Mark Martin is expected to make his 585th consecutive NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series start at Atlanta, the longest current streak. ... Clint Bowyer (No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet) is off to a fast start as a leading contender for 2006 Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors. Bowyer, who has three top-15 finishes to his credit and is seventh in the series standings, will compete in his first Atlanta race in only his fourth series start. ... Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet), the defending NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champion, climbed three spots in the standings this week and is currently 19th, 69 points from cracking the top 10. Stewart has one win at Atlanta (March, 2002). ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) dropped six spots in the standings this week, due to a 27th-place finish at Las Vegas. Earnhardt Jr., is now 11th, four points from 10th place. He has one win (March, 2004) and one pole (Oct., 2002) at Atlanta. ... Newman's misfortune last week at Las Vegas caused him to finish 43rd and plunge 11 spots in the points, from seventh to 18th. It marks the first time since after the second race of 2005 that Newman hasn't been in the top 10 -- a stretch of 36 consecutive races.

New Look For AMS ... After working around the clock last summer to repair tornado damage from July, the Atlanta staff completed all work prior to last October's event. Track officials announced earlier this month that three major enhancements would take place in time for the October 2006 race weekend: The addition of 13,000 grandstand seats for the newly created Winners Grandstand located at the Turn 1 end of the front straightaway, the addition of approximately 1,000 "Club One" luxury seats and an upgrade to the trackside terrace camping area, adding 90 camper hookups along the track's backstretch.

"We are always listening to ideas presented by our customers and in an effort to keep up with their demands, we are adding these quality improvements to Atlanta Motor Speedway," said Ed Clark, the track's president and general manager. "The changes we have planned are a direct reflection of fan input and are aimed at giving our fans options they don't currently have."

Motorsports Luncheon ... The Atlanta Sports Council will host the 2006 Motorsports Luncheon this Thursday at noon at the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel. Featured speakers include NASCAR President Mike Helton; Bruton Smith, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Speedway Motorsports; Jeff Burton (No. 31 Cingular Chevrolet) and NASCAR on FOX analyst Larry McReynolds.

Pit Crew Spotlight: Peach State Natives ... Nearly a dozen NASCAR NEXTEL Cup crew members hail from Georgia. Byron Goggin, motorcoach driver for the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet, is from Tifton; Chris Golder, shock specialist for the No. 25 GMAC Financial Services Chevrolet, is from the Peach State; Jason Jones, mechanic and rear tire carrier for the No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet, is from Rhine; Shannon Keys, the front tire carrier for the No. 99 Office Depot Ford, is from Byron; Sheila Lumpkin, scorer for the No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge, is from Atlanta; Dwayne Moore, mechanic and rear tire carrier for the No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet, is from Hampton; Jacob Norman, the front tire changer for the No. 45 Georgia Pacific/Brawny Dodge, is from Marietta; Adam North, fabricator and jack man for the No. 31 Cingular Chevrolet, is from Sonoraville; Dion "Rocky" Williams, pit crew coach and rear tire carrier for the No. 45 Georgia Pacific/Brawny Dodge, is from Atlanta and Richard Young, chef and motorcoach driver for the No. 25 GMAC Financial Services Chevrolet is from Atlanta.

Chevrolet Maintains Manufacturers' Lead ... Chevrolet continues to lead the Manufacturers' Championship standings. Through three races, Chevrolet has compiled 24 points, leading Ford (19) and Dodge (14).

Fast Facts

The race: Golden Corral 500

The track: Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, Ga.

The date/time: Sunday, March 19, 1:30 p.m. (ET).

TV: FOX, 1 p.m. (ET).
Radio: PRN/XM Satellite

Posted awards: $4,843,713

Race length: 500 miles, 325 laps
Track layout: 1.54 mile quad-oval

2005 winner: Carl Edwards
2005 polesitter: Ryan Newman

NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10: 1. Jimmie Johnson 540. 2. Matt Kenseth 488. 3. Kasey Kahne 455. 4. Casey Mears 454. 5. Mark Martin 430. 6. Kyle Busch 403. 7. Clint Bowyer (r) 389. 8. Elliott Sadler 385. 9. Jeff Gordon 374. 10. Jeff Burton 373.

(r) Denotes Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate


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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Greg Biffle , Ryan Newman , Casey Mears , Jimmie Johnson , Richard Petty , Kasey Kahne , Bill Lester , Carl Edwards , Clint Bowyer , Mike Helton , Elliott Sadler , Reed Sorenson , Mike Garvey , Buddy Baker , Cale Yarborough , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin
Teams Williams , Richard Childress Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing , Bill Davis Racing