It's Week 4 of the NASCAR season, and already things are starting to look an awful lot like last year. Jimmie Johnson is ridiculously dominant, Dale Earnhardt Jr. can't string together two decent finishes, and the preseason favorite (Denny Hamlin) is struggling mightily. Will it be more of the same this weekend in Atlanta? We'll see on Sunday.
Atlanta Motor Speedway is a 1.54-mile quad-oval track with 24 degrees of banking in the corners. Opened July 31, 1960, AMS cost the princely sum of $1.8 million to build and has played host to 102 Cup races. Sunday's 325-lap, 500(.5)-mile race is the last before the first off weekend of the season, so it's imperative for those who've been struggling so far in 2010 to pick themselves up, dust off, and run like a reincarnation of Ricky Bobby.
Jimmie Johnson:I'm going to be straight up here: I suggested JJ was "one to avoid" last week based in large part on the numbers -- Johnson finished 24th and 29th in two previous visits to Las Vegas Motor Speedway before winning Sunday. I guess, as Mark Twain once opined, there are: "Lies, damned lies, and statistics." So don't worry, I won't make that mistake again until we get to Michigan, where Johnson looks almost mortal (just two top-5 efforts in 16 attempts). This weekend, you should activate him without as much as a second thought. In fact, activate him just about every week; it's hard to see how it will be a bad decision.
By the numbers: Johnson's average finish at AMS is 10.7. Remarkably, this ranks as his 11th best track in terms of finishing position -- a sure sign of his dominance these past few years.
Carl Edwards: New father Carl Edwards won his first ever Sprint Cup race at Atlanta five years ago, in just his 17th race. To commemorate that victory, Edwards' No. 99 Ford Fusion will be sporting a "throwback" Scott's paint scheme this weekend. For Edwards, results at AMS have been very much a case of feast or famine: He's won three times, finished second (once), third (twice), and has a pair of seventh place efforts. On the flip side, he has 40th and 42nd place finishes plus one of 37th in the second of the two races last season. For the most part, however, Edwards is a solid choice this weekend for a strong finish.
By the numbers: In winning his first ever Cup race at AMS, Edwards' margin of victory was just 0.28 seconds -- one of the closest in NASCAR history.
Jeff Gordon: The original four-time champ led 219 of 267 laps last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But on the final pit stop, crew chief Steve Letarte gambled on two tires, while Johnson took four, and the rest, as they say, is history. More important, after a mediocre start to the season, Gordon's third-place finish underlined the fact that the perennial contender has the stuff to challenge once again in 2010. But whether it will be enough to unseat Johnson remains to be seen -- and, for my money, no one can hold a candle to the No. 48. Regardless, Gordon should be a threat again this weekend on a track at which he has already accrued 35 starts.
By the numbers: Gordon has an average start of 12.7 at AMS and an average finish of 12.3.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.:Of all the active drivers, only Johnson has a better average finish at AMS (10.7 to Junior's 11.9) so don't be surprised to see the sport's most popular driver run strong this weekend. Some would argue that his start to the season (last lap charge at the Daytona 500 aside) has shown he's not going to improve on last year's poor showing, but I'd argue it's far too early to define just how his season will go. What is for sure, though, is that he's running into a stretch of tracks that suit him and his driving style. If he fails to pick up some top 10s these next couple weeks, starting this Sunday on the high banks of AMS, he's going to be in trouble. For now, though, activate him this weekend and expect positive results.
By the numbers: Junior has one win, 8 top 5s, and 11 top 10s in 21 starts at AMS.
Kevin Harvick: "Happy" still leads the overall points standings, despite Johnson's back-to-back victories, but it does feel a little hollow given the four-time champ's current form. The good news for Harvick, though, is that RCR appears to be back on form after a trying 2009, with teammates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer also running well. Statistically speaking, AMS is not one of Harvick's best tracks, but a 2nd and a 4th-place finish last year, not to mention the positive momentum he's generated this season, leads me to believe he'll have another strong run this weekend.
By the numbers: Harvick led 66 laps in the September 2009 race at AMS.
David Reutimann: The Reut has made a good start to 2010: Fifth at Daytona, 15th at Fontana, and 13th last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Headed back to a track where he finished fourth in the second race of 2009, the amiable Reutimann is solidly ensconced in the top 12 in points, and I don't see that changing this weekend at AMS. The Reut turned the 4-0 this past Tuesday, but as Mark Martin has shown, age doesn't necessarily have to be an impediment. Admittedly, his four previous runs at AMS have not been especially stellar (outside the fourth place last September) but as I said with JJ, the stats can sometimes be misleading.
By the numbers: In 103 Cup starts, Reutimann has 1 win, 6 top 5s, 15 top 10s and 3 poles.
Who'll win?Jimmie Johnson. I'm backing double JJ to make it win number 50 -- and a third straight -- this weekend. The scary thing for the rest of the field is that he typically starts slowl y... so if he's this good now ...
Next up: The first of four off weekends in the Cup Series before we head to the modern day coliseum of NASCAR that is the venerable Bristol Motor Speedway.