Atlanta: Series round four preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Atlanta Harvick Has The Lead, But Johnson Has The Bonus Points Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) has ridden consecutive runner-up runs to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points lead. Jimmie...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Atlanta

Harvick Has The Lead, But Johnson Has The Bonus Points

Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) has ridden consecutive runner-up runs to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points lead.

Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) has ridden consecutive victories to a potential 20 bonus points, to start the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Collectively, those two situations represent what's needed to capture the series championship.

Consistency remains a vital component, but these days that's not enough.

An increased "emphasis on winning" initiative now awards Chase drivers 10 bonus points for each race win during the "regular season" -- the 26 races prior to the season-ending 10-race Chase. When the Chase begins, all drivers who qualify have their points "reset" to 5,000, whereupon bonus points are added to create the Chase seedings.

Since it seems safe to assume that Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, will be one of the 12 drivers who qualify for the Chase, it's worth noting that 20 points could be a significant boost come "playoff" time. Bonus points certainly didn't hurt Johnson last year; he got 30 extra and a 5,030 starting total, second-best behind top seed Mark Martin (No. 5 Hendrickcars.com/GoDaddy.com Chevrolet).

Harvick is returning this week to the race track where he got his first victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, in March 2001, in only his third start after replacing the late Dale Earnhardt in Richard Childress Racing's flagship car. Harvick edged Jeff Gordon on that memorable, emotional day, by .006-seconds.

Harvick has been buoyed by his team's fast start and talked optimistically at Las Vegas about the prospects of challenging Johnson's team over the course of this season

"We can run with them and they know it," Harvick said.

The importance of winning races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will require that -- and more. Johnson acknowledges the threat posed by Harvick, which he sees as a group effort by the Richard Childress Racing organization. After all Harvick and Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet) are 1-2 in points for the second straight week and the third Childress driver, Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet), is seventh.

"You can't ignore that those three have a ton of speed," Johnson said.

Rivalry In Waiting: Johnson-Gordon Has Makings Of A Classic

This past Sunday's race at Las Vegas offered tantalizing glimpses of a dream rivalry that has surfaced only occasionally in recent years: Jimmie Johnson vs. Jeff Gordon.

Now that both are four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions, perhaps the time is right for a head-to-head season-long battle.

Call it the "Drive For 5" running two-wide.

Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) did everything except win at Las Vegas, leading a race-high 219 laps and coming away with a Driver Rating of 144.2 (out of a possible 150) along with a third-place finish.

Gordon, 13th in the series standings, already is concerned with Johnson's early hot streak and the Chase boost that could result.

"I don't like giving those guys bonus points," Gordon said. "I'm kind of hoping they peak early this year and that some of us can gain the momentum as we get to the Chase."

Adding to the intrigue of a possible duel between the two four-time champions in the fact that Gordon is a part-owner of Johnson's car. He likes to joke that he is at least benefiting financially when he's losing to Johnson.

But you can bet Gordon would take a pay cut, if it meant winning another championship.

Loop Data: Newman Wants To Overcome Slow Start -- Again; Atlanta May Or May Not Help That Cause

Ryan Newman can look at the bright side: He's not off to as bad a start as last season.

Newman, 32nd in points after three consecutive finishes outside the top 15 (two of which were outside the top 30), is actually having a better start to the 2010 season than he did the 2009 one.

After three races last season, Newman was 33rd in the points.

Clearly, slow starts don't much matter to Newman, who easily made the Chase in 2009 and ended the season ninth.

Last season after three races, Newman's Driver Rating was 60.0. Currently, he has a 66.1.

Though the climb back up the standings is once again a daunting one, Newman can take solace in the fact that he has run much better than his statistics would suggest.

In all three races this season, Newman has had a better Average Running Position than his finish. On average, his finishes have been nine positions lower than his in-race position.

Below, see Newman's Average Running Position in each race, compared to his finishing position.

Also like last year, Newman's turnaround might have to wait.

Though he qualifies well at Atlanta -- his seven poles there are tied for most all-time -- Newman's finishes have all been mostly crooked numbers.

Since the inception of Loop Data in 2005, a span of 10 races at Atlanta, Newman has posted just one top-10 finish (a ninth-place run in September of last season).

His best Driver Rating at Atlanta was just 88.7 in a 14th-place finish in March of 2008.

His overall Driver Rating of 71.2 makes Atlanta his fifth-worst track, behind only Kansas, Texas, Indianapolis and Michigan.

Earnhardt Update: Improvement Leads To Encouragement As Season's First Month Winds Down

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet) has gone "2-for- 3" thus far this season, a second-place effort in the Daytona 500 followed by a 32nd at Auto Club Speedway and a 16th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

That translates to a 15th-place standings in the series points, which looks considerably better than last year, when he was 29th after three events.

Qualifying efforts have likewise been encouraging. Earnhardt qualified second at Daytona and fourth at Las Vegas.

I think we've made a lot of improvements," car owner Rick Hendrick said. "We didn't get to show the car was coming back well at California ... we broke an axle ... I feel they've made a ton of improvement on that team and I think we're going to have a really good year. I'm looking forward to Atlanta."

As he should. Earnhardt has the series' fourth-best Driver Rating at AMS (99.8). The only track where Earnhardt has a higher Driver Rating is New Hampshire Motor Speedway (100.7).

Earnhardt has an average finish of 11.9 at Atlanta with 10 top 10-finishes in 21 starts. That includes his sole AMS win, in March 2004.

Under Construction: Logano Has Home Depot-Sponsored Car Back In Spotlight

In NASCAR, the cars are somewhat the stars along with the drivers, especially those machines fortunate to have a long-standing sponsors. The list of iconic sponsorships is long, perhaps best personified by the relationship between Richard Petty and STP for many years.

Over the last 10 years, the Home Depotsponsored No. 20 Chevrolet of Joe Gibbs Racing has achieved that sort of fan-favorite status, mainly because of its former driver -- two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart.

Stewart left JGR after the 2008 season to form his own organization -- Stewart-Haas Racing. And that left rookie Joey Logano to start fulfilling lofty expectations regarding his future, in one of NASCAR's most recognizable hot rods.

Logano did a fine job toward that end last season, winning the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title. En route, he became the youngest driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, winning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in June, at the age of 19 years, one month, four days. He finished 20th in the series points.

Three races into the 2010 season, Logano is an impressive eighth in the series standings. Nice timing. Atlanta, site of this week's events, is home to Home Depot's corporate headquarters

"Last year was tough for me," Logano said this week during Texas Motor Speedway's annual media day. "The cool part was how we improved throughout the season and how we've come out of the gates this year with one top five and two top 10s right off the bat. It's pretty exciting for a driver and for the whole Home Depot team. After last year... we did a good job at the end of the season to bring it home 20th in points but now sitting in eighth in points ... we've definitely gained some momentum going into the season.

"We all knew it was going to be tough going into the 2009 season. It happened a year early [than expected] and we knew it was going to be a hard deal. But it was cool to see how we improved, and I think everybody is excited about that. Definitely everybody's pumped up about how we've been running the last couple of races."

Reutimann For Real: Early-Season Showing Nice Follow-Up To 2009

Last season, David Reutimann (No. 00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota) had a nice start, but naysayers predicted a fade. Then he got his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, in one of NASCAR's "majors" -- the Coca-Cola 600. That got sort of downplayed as well, partly because the race was shortened by rain.

Even though he failed to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, at season's end, Reutimann stood 16th in the final series points and that was clearly the biggest accomplishment of his auto racing career.

Now all he needed was a follow-up. So far this season, he has provided just that. Reutimann goes to Atlanta this week ninth in the series points, still riding the wave of a fifth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500.

"You got to go out there and perform every week," Reutimann said after the 500. "You're only as good as your last race. That's how our sport is."

At Atlanta Motor Speedway, Reutimann has one top five in five starts -- last September when he finished fourth.

Scott's First Start Being Celebrated This Week, At Atlanta

Pioneering African- American driver Wendell Scott is being honored this week in Atlanta, via the celebration of his first start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, on March 4, 1961 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

All vehicles competing this weekend in the NASCAR Sprint Cup and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will have a commemorative decal (shown above) baring the familiar picture of a waving Scott, who died in 1991, leaving a legacy of achievement and dignity.

Wendell's daughter, Sybil Scott, will attend this weekend's races as will NASCAR Drive for Diversity driver Jason Romero, the 2009 winner of the Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award, given annually to a female or minority driver in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series who has excelled on and off the race track.

Scott, a Danville, Va. native, started racing in 1947. In his first race, he finished third in a borrowed car and won $50. In the next few years he won 128 Hobby, Amateur and Modified races, on the old Dixie Circuit and outlaw tracks.

In 1959, Scott logged his best season ever. He won 22 races and captured the Richmond track championship as well as the Virginia State Sportsman title.

On Dec. 1, 1963 at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, a one-mile dirt track, Scott became the first African-America to win on NASCAR's highest level, a distinction he still holds.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

Ryan Newman (No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet) is set to make his 300th career start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Two days beforehand, he'll try to become the all-time leader in Coors Light Pole Awards at Atlanta. He currently is tied with Buddy Baker for the all-time lead, with seven. Newman had an incredible run of six consecutive poles at AMS from 2003-2005. The footnote here is that Baker was an early mentor of Newman's. ...

A couple of other guys are on the verge of personal milestones. Jimmie Johnson's next victory will be his 50th. Same goes for Mark Martin's next pole. Johnson's 49 wins is 12th-best all-time. When he hits 50 he'll be tied with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 10th place. Martin is tied with Bobby Isaac for eighth all-time in poles. ...

Car owner Jack Roush needs one more victory to reach a total of 400. His current 399 includes stock car and sports car victories in a variety of series -- NASCAR, ARCA, Trans-Am and the old International Motor Sports Association's Camel GT Series.

The Scott Speed (No. 82 Red Bull Toyota) train keeps rolling. Speed finished 22nd at Las Vegas and stands 16th in points, seemingly destined to be safely inside the top 35 coming out of Bristol, when this season's owner points start determining weekly guaranteed starting spots. ...

Chevrolet has the early advantage in the manufacturers' championship standings.

Fast Facts

The Race: Kobalt Tools 500
The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway (1.54-mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, March 7
The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)

Race Distance: 500.5 miles / 325 laps

TV: FOX , 12 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128

2009 Polesitter: Mark Martin
2009 Winner: Kurt Busch

Schedule prior to race day:
Friday -- Practice, 2:30-4 p.m. Qualifying. 6:10 p.m.
Saturday -- Practice, 11-11:45 a.m. and 12:20-1:20 p.m.

-source: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Ned Jarrett , Richard Petty , Scott Speed , David Reutimann , Junior Johnson , Clint Bowyer , Jack Roush , Buddy Baker , Joey Logano , Mark Martin , Wendell Scott
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing , Joe Gibbs Racing