March 06, 2009

After two straight weeks on the West Coast, the Sprint Cup Series stays closer to home this weekend with the first of two trips to the fast paced Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500. This week marks the 100th Cup race held at Atlanta, and if history is an indicator, we should be in for a wild, close finish. Atlanta isn't for the faint of heart, either as a driver or a fantasy team owner. The frenzied pace and slick track can make for an interesting afternoon and white knuckle moments as you hope that your driver's equipment and nerves can stand up to the 500 -ile test.

Another key to Atlanta is qualifying. If you can hold off setting your lineup until after the field is set, you should definitely gain an advantage. Only four times this decade has the race winner started outside the top 10 (Tony Stewart, 11th in 2006, Jeff Gordon, 13th in '03, Bobby Labonte, 39th in '01 and Dale Earnhardt Sr., 35th in '00). But only once in that same span has the winner come from the pole (Kasey Kahne, '06).

So which drivers can help give a boost to your fantasy team before the first off weekend of the year? Continue on to read this week's favorites, sleepers and longshots.

Jimmie Johnson: Sitting 19th in the standings after three races probably wasn't the start the three-time Cup champion was planning for at the start of the year. With just one top 10 to his credit, Johnson heads to one of his best tracks just one week after he saw a strong run at Vegas foiled by a late race wreck. In only 15 starts at Atlanta, Johnson has been to Victory Lane three times and has finished sixth or better 10 times. Look for a big jump in the standings on Monday for Johnson after a good run on Sunday.

By the numbers: Johnson's average finish of 9.1 is the only one under ten among active drivers.

Carl Edwards: Over the last four years, two men have dominated at Atlanta. One is Jimmie Johnson and the other is Edwards. In his nine starts at the fast Atlanta track, Edwards has done his victorious back flip three times. He looked primed to do his flip at the end of the race last year, but a blown engine ended any hopes of celebrating at Atlanta once again. Edwards suffered that fate last weekend at Vegas, and I wouldn't place any bets on that happening two weeks in a row. Look for Edwards and the Aflac duck to be mixing it up at the front this weekend.

By the numbers: In his three wins at Atlanta, Edwards has started no lower than fourth.

Jeff Gordon: This weekend Gordon's "drive for five" takes on a different meaning. If he can manage to break his 44-race winless streak on Sunday, he will earn his fifth career victory at Atlanta at the same time. Coming into the weekend as the series point leader, Gordon has amassed an impressive seventh-place average finish in the first three races of the year, including a sixth place finish at Vegas last week.

By the numbers: Gordon has finished in the top 10 in 63 percent of his 33 starts at Atlanta.


Bobby Labonte: Raise your hand if you thought Labonte would be 10th in the standings heading into the fourth weekend of the season. Anyone? I didn't think so. In one of the surprise stories of the young season, Labonte scored his first top 5 since the fall of '06 last week at Vegas. When Labonte left Petty Enterprises many wondered what the future held for the former Cup champ; while it's still early, the future is looking pretty good. With Labonte's history of success at Atlanta and crew chief Todd Parrott's experience, don't be surprised if the No. 96 Ford is near the front of the field again this week.

By the numbers: Labonte leads all active drivers with six wins at Atlanta.

Tony Stewart: Another driver quieting the doubters is Labonte's former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart. Stewart's off to a strong start in his first year as owner/driver for Stewart Haas Racing, with two eighth-place finishes to open the year. He looked to be on pace to match that number last weekend at Vegas, before a vibration put him out of contention before ultimately finishing 26th. With other big name drivers ahead of Stewart in average finishes at Atlanta he might be someone you overlook. But if the preseason doubts about SHR have Stewart in a lower position, he'll be a good play for this weekend.

By the numbers: In the last 10 races at Atlanta, only once has the winner started outside the top 10. That was Stewart in '06 when he started 11th. Pay attention to qualifying, Stewart has been smokin' fast in qualifying, starting in the top 10 in each of the three races this year.

Kevin Harvick: Eight years ago Harvick came away the victor in one of the closest finishes at Atlanta Motor Speedway; and certainly one of the most emotional. Mere weeks after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr., his RCR team was back in Victory Lane with Harvick celebrating his first career win. But that race hasn't translated into long term success for Harvick at Atlanta. Since that day, Harvick has just two other top-10 finishes at Atlanta and has a measly average finish of 22.6. He is running well so far this year, but given his less than stellar track record at Atlanta, using him this week is a gamble you probably don't need to make this early.

By the numbers: In the last ten Atlanta races, Harvick has led just 11 laps and has finished outside the top 30 four times.

Mark Martin: Back-to-back engine problems and a 34th-place spot in the standings isn't what Martin had in mind for his debut at Hendrick Motorsports. I would be very surprised to see Martin have engine troubles three weeks in a row, but which Martin will make an appearance at Atlanta this weekend? Will he be the Mark Martin that finished four straight races at AMS in the top four in '04 and '05? Or will it be the one that finished 22nd in both races last year after finishing dead last in the fall '07 race? It's not that he doesn't have the potential to run well there, but there are just too many variables to make Martin a solid pick this week.

By the numbers: In 46 starts at Atlanta, Martin has 13 top 5 finishes. He also has 14 DNFs.

Next up: The Sprint Cup Series takes the weekend off before heading to the bullring at Bristol on March 22nd.

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