September 04, 2009

Another chapter will be written in the illustrious history of Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend when the Cup Series runs its first points-paying race under the lights. And even for a track that has survived two tornados and hosted last race for the King himself -- Mr. Richard Petty -- Sunday night will be something a little bit special, infused, perhaps, with a smidgeon of that old school Labor Day Southern 500 Darlington spirit.

Adding environmentally-friendly and NASCAR-sanctioned unleaded octane to the inferno, is the fact that Sunday's event is the penultimate race before the Chase cutoff occurs post Richmond, and with the drivers placed 7th through 14th separated by just 89 points, there's more than enough reason to believe the night cap might just live up to the track's self-styled moniker "Real Racing. Real Fast."

Aside from the excitement of seeing something different, from a Fantasy perspective this race is much harder to call as no one truly knows how the Cup car will react to the cooler weather and increased grip. On a track already renowned for three-wide racing, multiple racing grooves and raw, right on the raggedy-edge speed, it could lead to some intense action, especially on late-race double-file restarts right after the field has pitted for fresh rubber. One thing that should hold up despite the later green flag time is the need to qualify well. Only four times in the past decade has a driver started outside the top 10 and won the race. Conversely, though, in the same time period only one driver (Kasey Kahne, March 2006) has a driver won from the pole.

So how does this stack up in terms of team selection this weekend? Let's take a look, starting with the favorites.

Jimmie Johnson: With the possible exception of the road courses, Jimmie Johnson could be in this category every week. The wheelman of the No. 48 Lowes Chevy has three wins and 11 top 10s in 16 attempts at Atlanta, including a sweep in 2007. But after a couple of weeks of sub-par finishes (by his own very high standards, running out of fuel at Michigan and a pit road snafu at Thunder Valley), you get the sense that Johnson is keen to make amends and rack up those all-important bonus points before the Chase begins. As he is each and every race weekend, Johnson will be a huge threat on Sunday night.

By the numbers: Johnson has an average starting position of 8.1 and an average finish of 9.1 at the Hampton, Ga. venue.

Carl Edwards: While Carl is not definitively locked into the Chase, he would need to have a pretty epic collapse and have a lot of other results go against him to miss out on the elite field of 12 -- something that's only happened once (2006) in his four full seasons of Cup racing. Of course, the fact that he fractured his foot playing Frisbee doesn't help his cause; it's so ridiculous you couldn't make it up. But the word is that Carl is good to go, crutches or otherwise. Still winless on the year -- after an astonishing nine victories in 2008 -- Edwards heads to a track he loves, with 3 wins and 8 top-10 finishes in his 10 attempts on the 1.54 mile quad oval "cookie cutter." Could this be the race that Carl finally snaps his 24-race winless streak? Quite possibly. We won't see the back-flip though, on account of his foot but if Edwards takes the checkers I'm sure his fans will be OK with the change in celebration procedure.

By the numbers: Edwards won his first Sprint Cup race at Atlanta in March 2005, outdueling Jimmie Johnson (who else) by just 0.028 of a second.

Kurt Busch: The first race of the season at Atlanta was nothing short of spectacular for Busch. Leading 234 of 330 laps, Busch led 70 more laps that race than he had the entire 2008 season. The win also spawned a reverse victory lap that he later dubbed the "unwind lap." More importantly it vaulted Busch back into serious consideration for the title after a hugely disappointing 2008 season when he wound up (no pun intended) 18th in the final standings. Whether he can contend with Johnson, Stewart et al. for the title remains to be seen, but having won the inaugural Chase in 2004, Busch can win when it counts.

By the numbers: Busch has six straight finishes of 14th or higher at Atlanta.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: It's been a terrible year for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., with just two top fives and three additional top 10s all season long, despite driving arguably the best equipment in the NASCAR garage. The schism with his cousin and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. undoubtedly played a role in his poor season, and it was always unrealistic to expect Lance McGrew would turn things around right away. But over the past couple of weeks, we've seen the green shoots of recovery with a third-place run at Michigan and a ninth-place effort last Saturday night at Thunder Valley -- his first consecutive top-10 runs all year long. Look for NASCAR's most popular driver to make it three in a row this weekend.

By the numbers: Junior's average finish at Atlanta is 11.6 (20 races) making the track statistically his best (in terms of finishing positions) along with Bristol where he also has an average finishing position of 11.6

Mark Martin: It's hard to fathom that after four race wins -- the most he's had in a single season since 1998 -- Mark Martin is still very much on the bubble of Chase contention, a slim 60 points ahead of Kyle Busch in 13th. This slim advantage will be quickly eviscerated if Martin sees a repeat of his 31st-place effort at Atlanta in the fourth race of the season. In fact, Martin has scored just one top 10 in his past six races at Atlanta (36th, 10th, 43rd, 22nd, 22nd, 31st), so the numbers don't look pretty. But the switch to the night race might pay dividends as Martin has an average finish of 9.3 under the lights. He'd settle for that this weekend, no question, but he might just run even higher.

By the numbers: Martin's average finish of 17.2 (47 races) makes Atlanta his second-worst track on the current circuit; his worst is Daytona where he has an average finish of 18.1

Marcos Ambrose: It's been a fantastic debut season at the Cup level for the Launceston, Tasmania native who sits 17th in points, ahead of established stars like Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. As you might expect, Ambrose has shown dominant form at the road courses (both Cup and Nationwide), but more impressive, perhaps, was his third -lace run at Bristol a couple of weekends ago. His one area of weakness has been the cookie cutter tracks; he has a top finish of 11th at Chicagoland and nothing else higher than 20th on the mile-and-a-half circuits this season. If he can improve in this vital category, he'll make the Chase next year. For now, though, this is a week not to activate the amiable Aussie.

By the numbers: Ambrose has finished 29th and 38th in his two previous attempts at AMS.

Next Up: The sparks are sure to fly under the Saturday night lights as the Sprint Cup circus heads to Richmond for the crucial final race before the Chase field is locked in.

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