Atlanta: Round four preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes - Atlanta Top 12 Features Competitive, New Look The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series just returned from Las Vegas ... and, if folks could have cashed in on the odds of predicting what the series' top 12 would look...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes - Atlanta

Top 12 Features Competitive, New Look

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series just returned from Las Vegas ... and, if folks could have cashed in on the odds of predicting what the series' top 12 would look like after the season's first three races, the payout would have been monumental.

Heading into the KOBALT Tools 500 this Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the top 12 features a new and competitive look.

Only five drivers who were in the top 12 at this point last year are in there now and there is a trio of drivers -- David Reutimann (No. 00 Aarons Dream Machine Toyota), Bobby Labonte (No. 96 ASK.com Ford), and Michael Waltrip (No. 55 NAPA Toyota) -- that would have been considered long shots to break into this illustrious group at the beginning of the season.

Reutimann is coming off a career-best fourth-place finish at Las Vegas and has moved up to fifth in points. A year ago, Reutimann was 31st in points after the first three races.

Labonte turned in his first top-five performance since 2006 by finishing fifth at Vegas and is 10th in points -- he was 15th this time last season.

Waltrip stayed in the top 12 for the third straight week. Consider: Has 34th at this stage a year ago. Clearly, he is answering the self-imposed pressure he applied during the preseason when he said that if his 2009 results weren't considerably improved, that he would retire.

Call it parity; call it balanced competition. But however you frame it up, the new blood in the 1op 12 certainly has made for some interesting early-season conversation -- and speculation about whether these teams will be among the elite later in the season.

"It's pretty awesome," said Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, following his run at Las Vegas.

"I can't wait to get back in it and go. We're taking it one race at a time, so I'm excited. I just feel like we've got all of this confidence on our side right now."

Jeff Gordon Returns to Familiar Position -- Atop Standings

Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) is back in familiar territory.

The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion finds himself atop the points standings heading into this week's action at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It's the first time since Oct. 28, 2007 that Gordon has been the series' points leader. And, it is the first time since his championship season of 1997 that he has been the points leader after the year's first three events. Gordon has parlayed solid finishes through the season's first three events, including 13th at Daytona, second at Auto Club Speedway and sixth at Las Vegas, to take over the points lead.

"Three weeks in a row, I've felt like we have had the car that can win and that's quite a change from last year," said Gordon, who went winless in 2008, snapping a 14-year stretch in which he won at least one race per season.

At Atlanta this Sunday, Gordon will be looking for his first points victory since Oct. 13, 2007 (Lowe's Motor Speedway), a winless streak of 44 races. Atlanta is the site of Gordon's first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start (Nov. 15, 1992) and has historically been a strong track for the highly decorated driver. In 33 career starts at the 1.54-mile venue, Gordon has posted four wins, 13 top fives and 21 top 10s.

Gordon has 81 career victories -- sixth most in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history. At Las Vegas this past Sunday, he eclipsed the 20,000 laps led mark and heads into Atlanta ranked seventh all-time with 20,006 laps led.

Gordon's last series championship came in 2001. He is seeking his first title under the Chase format, after finishing seventh (2008), second (2007), sixth (2006), 11th (2005) and third (2004) in the previous five Chase seasons.

Sunday's Race Marks 100th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Event At Atlanta Motor Speedway

This Sunday's running of the KOBALT Tools 500 marks the 100th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And, if Sunday's race is anything like the previous 99, one can expect an exciting and dramatic afternoon of competition.

Here's a look at some of the most memorable races at AMS:

July 31, 1960 -- Fireball Roberts wins the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Nov. 5, 1978 -- Richard Petty thought he had defeated rival Cale Yarborough to win the race, however, a scoring snafu is discovered afterwards and the victory is awarded to Donnie Allison.

Nov. 15, 1992 -- Alan Kulwicki may have finished second in the race, but it was good enough for him to overtake Bill Elliott and claim his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship by a slim 10-point margin. Many deemed this race to be one of the greatest NASCAR races ever. It also marked the final race for Richard Petty and was the first career race for Jeff Gordon.

March 12, 2000 -- Dale Earnhardt beats Bobby Labonte to the checkered flag by .01 seconds to record his ninth and final victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Earnhardt's nine wins at AMS is the most of any driver.

March 11, 2001 -- Kevin Harvick holds off Jeff Gordon by .006 seconds to record his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory. The victory came on the heels of the tragic loss of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona just a few weeks earlier. Earnhardt's famed black Chevrolet had been painted white and re-numbered 29, with the rookie Harvick given the daunting task of driving the car. It was an emotional win for owner Richard Childress and marked the second straight win for his team at the Atlanta spring race.

He's Back ... Kyle Busch Wins At Vegas; Defending Race Winner At AMS

Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M's Toyota) demonstrated once again last Sunday that he will be a force to be reckoned with in 2009.

Busch hit the jackpot at his home track in Las Vegas, winning for the first time there. His 13th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory moved him up to sixth in the points standings. Busch, who won a record 21 races across all three national series a year ago, is the defending race champion at this Sunday's KOBALT Tools 500 in Atlanta. Knowing that he won eight times last year at the next 17 tracks that the series competes should provide reason for heartburn for the rest of the competitors.

"We didn't let Daytona haunt us," said Busch, referring to his car getting caught up in an accident towards the end of the race after being so dominant throughout the day. "We went to California and ran a smart race and finished third. We came here (Las Vegas) and ran a smart race and won. This could have been a 1-3-1 season thus far, but it is what it is. We're really looking forward to getting back to Atlanta this weekend and defending our race title."

RCR Team Posts Strong Showing At Las Vegas -- Richard Childress Racing posted three top 12 finishes last week at Las Vegas. Clint Bowyer (No. 33 BB&T Chevrolet, 2nd), Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, 3rd) and Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Reese's Chevrolet, 12th) came on strong and all moved up in the points standings. Bowyer is now second, having moved up four spots and now trails leader Jeff Gordon by just 18 points. Harvick moved up five spots to 11th, while Burton jumped 13 spots to move into 18th in points.

"Rocket Man" Looks For Record Friday At Atlanta -- Ryan Newman (No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet) will be shooting for his eighth career pole at Atlanta Motor Speedway this Friday, which in turn would move him past Buddy Baker for the all-time pole winner record at Atlanta. Newman has 43 career poles, a total that ranks 11th all-time.

Footnotes -- Bobby Labonte has six victories at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the most of any active driver ... Rookie Joey Logano (No. 20 Home Depot Toyota) posted his best NSCS finish to date last week -- a 13th-place showing at Las Vegas ... Carl Edwards (No. 99 AFLAC Ford) has three wins at AMS, including his first career series win in 2005 ... Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Ford) blew an engine after only six laps at Las Vegas and dropped from first to third in points.

#%Loop Data Points To Strong Showing By Carl Edwards At Atlanta

Though Carl Edwards sits in ninth place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, he's not exactly setting the world on fire.

At Las Vegas, he finished 17th; at Auto Club Speedway seventh; and at Daytona 18th. Edwards has led just three laps the entire season. What happened to the guy who won three of the final four races last season? Well, count on him coming back this Sunday at Atlanta -- a track at which he dominated last October.

In Edwards' nine-race Atlanta career, he has three wins (including his first career victory), five top fives and seven top 10s.

Since the inception of Loop Data in 2005, Edwards ranks among the leaders in a number of statistical categories. He has a Driver Rating of 107.4 (second best), an Average Running Position of 10.312 (third), a series-high 260 Fastest Laps Run, an Average Green Flag Speed of 174.094 (second fastest), a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 84.6% (second), and 250 Quality Passes (passes of cars in the top 15 under green), which is third-most.

Speaking of those who are having uncharacteristic struggles in the early going, at the top of the list arguably sits Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet). He rebounded some with his 10th-place finish at Las Vegas and the momentum should continue this weekend at Atlanta.

In his past eight Atlanta races, Earnhardt has a Driver Rating of 103.7 (third), an Average Running Position of 10.331 (fourth), 216 Fastest Laps Run (second), 484 Green Flag Passes (fourth) and Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 77.3%.

Seeing Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's/KOBALT Tools Chevrolet) anywhere but Victory Lane is surprising. This season has thus far been full of disappointment for the three-time defending champion. Johnson sits 19th in the series standings, but is strong at Atlanta. He leads the series in Driver Rating with a 112.9 and is the only driver with an Average Running Position under 10.0 -- he has a series-best 7.2. He also ranks fourth in 183 Fastest Laps Run.

Crunch Time Approaches For Top 35 Positioning

For the first five races of the season, the top 35 teams from the final 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car owner points get guaranteed starting spots. After the first five weeks, the guaranteed berths are based on the 2009 owner point standings. With two races remaining before the 2009 top 35 owner points come into play, there are some intriguing stories that continue to be followed:

For example: the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota driven by Joey Logano and owned by Joe Gibbs is 32nd; the No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet driven by Ryan Newman and owned by Tony Stewart is 33rd; and the No. 5 CARQUEST Chevrolet driven by Mark Martin and owned by Rick Hendrick is 34th.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Rebounds At Las Vegas -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted his first top-10 finish of the season at Las Vegas last week, placing 10th. The performance moved Earnhardt up six spots to 29th in the points standings. Earnhardt still has an uphill climb, as no driver has come back from that far back (29th) after three races to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. In fact, only three drivers have made the Chase from positions lower than 25th after three races -- Jeremy Mayfield from 26th in 2005; Martin Truex Jr. from 27th in 2007 and Matt Kenseth from 28th in 2005. Earnhardt remains cautiously optimistic.

"We really needed that top-10 finish," said Earnhardt. "We know that we have to put together six or seven good weeks to give ourselves a shot at getting back into the battle for the Chase. We've got some good tracks coming up where we can do just that. We've got to keep our heads on straight and be smart."

Earnhardt has one win (2004), eight top-five and 10 top-10 finishes at Atlanta.

Off The Track ...

Thursday, March 5
What: Tony Stewart Autograph Session. Stewart, the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, will be on hand for a special autograph session with his fans at the local Office Depot Store.
When: 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Office Depot, 121 Willow Lane, McDonough, Ga.

Thursday, March 5
What: "Sound Check 9" music concert benefitting the Kasey Kahne Foundation. Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge and Dierks Bentley, multi-platinum country music recording artist, have teamed up for a charity event.
When: 8 p.m.
Where: Wild Bill's in Duluth, Ga.

Friday, March 6
What: Tough Tools for Cool Schools event. Three-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson takes part in a nationwide program launched at a local high school in which his team sponsor, Lowe's, will donate approximately $300,000 worth of KOBALT Tools to more than 500 SkillsUSA classes across the country. Johnson will present the first donation of tools to the Building and Construction Trade Classroom at Lovejoy High School.
When: 10 a.m.
Where: Lovejoy High School, 1587 McDonough Road, Hampton, Ga.

Sunday, March 8
What: Speedway Children's Charities Ride-Along Auctions. Fans can bid to ride around Atlanta Motor Speedway with their favorite NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver in a Chevrolet Corvette convertible prior to the running of Sunday's KOBALT Tools 500. To bid on any of the 25 Speedway Children's Charities Ride-Along Auctions, fans should visit the Sports Memorabilia Autograph Original category at shop.ebay.com/merchant/scc4kids
When: 9 a.m.
Where: Atlanta Motor Speedway

Three Performers Slated for Pre-Race Show

Three performers -- Richie McDonald, Craig Campbell and Chris Hatfield -- are slated to appear at the AFLAC pre-race show prior to the running of the KOBALT Tools 500 on Sunday. McDonald is the former lead singer for platinum-selling band Lonestar and will sing the national anthem. Campbell and Hatfield will perform mini-concerts before the race.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Milestones

Sunday's running of the KOBALT Tools 500 marks the 100th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Other career milestones this week include:

Bobby Labonte will be making his 550th start in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition.

Jeff Gordon will look to add to his 20,006 career laps led total -- currently seventh on the all-time list.

Clint Bowyer has the active running at the finish record (76) -- second on the all-time list. His last DNF was at Phoenix in November, 2006.

Up Next: Bristol Motor Speedway

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to its first short track of the 2009 season in Week 5 for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Sunday, March 15.

FOX will televise the race nationally, with pre-race coverage beginning at 1:30 p.m. Green flag will be shortly after 2 p.m.

Jeff Burton is the defending race champion, his first of two victories in 2008. Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) and Jeff Gordon lead active drivers with five wins apiece at this .533-mile highly-banked short track located in eastern Tennessee.

Burton overtook Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Toyota) on a green-white-checkered finish when Hamlin's fuel pickup burped in Turn 4 of the next-to-last lap. Kevin Harvick was second and Clint Bowyer was third, as Richard Childress Racing finished 1-2-3 for the first time ever in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event.

Fast Facts

The Race: KOBALT Tools 500
The Date: Sunday, March 8

The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway; 1.54-mile tri-oval
The Time: 2 p.m. ET

The Distance: 325 laps/500.5 miles

TV: FOX , 1:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN and Sirius Satellite; (Local PRN affiliate WEKS-FM 92.5)

2008 Polesitter: Jeff Gordon
2008 Winner: Kyle Busch

Schedule: (All times local ET)
Friday -- Practice, 3-4:30 p.m.; Qualifying, 6:45 p.m.
Saturday -- Practice, 11-11:45 a.m.; Final Practice, 12:20-1:20 p.m.

-credit: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Jeremy Mayfield , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Richard Petty , Kasey Kahne , David Reutimann , Martin Truex Jr. , Carl Edwards , Donnie Allison , Clint Bowyer , Denny Hamlin , Buddy Baker , Joey Logano , Cale Yarborough , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin , Alan Kulwicki
Teams Richard Childress Racing