By Brant James
September 01, 2011

Carl Edwards has already clinched a spot in the Chase for the Championship. He could ride around Atlanta on Sunday night and graze carefully for points, maybe even exploit one of his most fruitful tracks for three bonus points heading into the final week of the Sprint Cup regular season.

"Atlanta is always really special to me and to our team," he said. "We have run well there and had a lot of really great days there. It is an indicator of how your chances are going to be at the mile-and-a-half's after that."

For Edwards, good things seem to happen at Atlanta. The Roush Fenway driver broke onto the scene in 2005 by nipping Jimmie Johnson by .028 seconds to win his first Cup race after taking the Nationwide event the day before. Edwards, who had previously been known as the promising Truck Series driver that earned money as a substitute teacher and passed out business cards to anyone who'd take them, went on to sweep both Cup races at Atlanta in 2005. He soon became a frequent fixture on Victory Lane and finished third in points in his first full Cup season.

Now he's back, hoping that one of his most successful and noteworthy venues will launch him toward a bid for a first Cup title.

In 13 career Cup starts at the 1½-mile speedway, Edwards has three wins, seven top-fives and nine top-10s. He led on a final restart last fall at Atlanta, but was passed by Tony Stewart and settled for second place. According to NASCAR statistics, Edwards has produced a series-best 316 fastest laps since his first start there.

Atlanta was also the scene of one of Edwards' more infamous on-track incidents last spring, his ramming and subsequent flipping of adversary Brad Keselowski in the final laps.

On Sunday, any driver who finishes the Sprint Cup race at Atlanta more than 49 points ahead of 11th place will clinch a Chase berth. The top four in driver points -- Kyle Busch, five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Edwards -- are assured top-10 spots. Kevin Harvick (three wins) and Jeff Gordon (two wins) have locked up at least wild-card spots and are within easy reach -- barring disaster finishes -- of clinching a top-10 spot. That top 10 is crucial, as only drivers in those spots will be awarded three points for each victory after their scores are reset to 2,000. Though securing a wild-card spot was just a few weeks ago a priority for Brad Keselowski, it would almost be a consolation now. His three wins, which are tied for second-best in the series with Harvick, would yield no bonus points in the Chase if he is unable to finish in the top 10.

Top-10 Chase clinch scenarios, according to NASCAR:

Harvick: At 93 points ahead of 11th-place Keselowski, he can lock up a top-10 spot with a finish of 40th, 41st if he leads a lap or 42nd if he leads the most laps. Not to wish ill fortune upon anyone, but that last scenario would be interesting to watch.

Gordon: The four-time series champion faces the same manageable path as Harvick. And if everything went wrong, he would still clinch a top-10 spot unless Keselowski or currently-winless Clint Bowyer win at Atlanta and Richmond.

Ryan Newman: At 73 points ahead of Keselowski, Newman seals a top-10 billet by finishing 20th, 21st with a lap led or 22nd and most laps lead.

Kurt Busch: At 60 points ahead of his Penske Racing teammate (it sounds more foreboding that way, doesn't it?), Busch has less margin for mayhem, and he's been involved in plenty lately, crashing in consecutive races before finishing 17th at Bristol. Busch can cement a top-10 position by finishing seventh, eighth and leading a lap or ninth and leading the most laps.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: At just 39 points ahead of his former employee, the newly minted long-term employee of Hendrick Motorsports cannot clinch a spot with his performance alone.

Tony Stewart: At 21 points away from the abyss (both he and Earnhardt Jr. are winless) Stewart also needs outside help to secure a spot.

Geoff Bodine will attempt to qualify a Tommy Baldwin Racing entry for the Sprint Cup race this weekend. If he could replicate his track-record lap of Nov. 15, 1997, he should be in the show, no problem. At all. Then again, no driver has approached his standard of 197.478 mph (28.074 seconds) set on a smooth and freshly reconfigured track, and none is likely to anytime soon.

"I was trying to run around there wide open," he said. "And we did. I put a speed down that won't be broken for quite a while, if ever. That was crazy. My fellow racers said 'What were you thinking? That's insane.' It really was. It was a thrill to hang on ... and hold my breath for a lap. I could feel the tires wanting to let go through the corners. It turned out great. I didn't hit anything."

Dr. Dean Sicking, director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska and one of the developers of the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barrier credited with revolutionizing racing safety, said both NASCAR and the Izod IndyCar Series are funding the development of a similar system to cover pit walls. Sicking said that while catchfence integrity and car-intrusion crashes remain areas of concern, mitigating danger on the long concrete walls that separate the racing surface and pit road at some tracks is more pressing. Impact against these barriers often involves cars traveling at high speeds or out of control because of braking issues or contact.

"When you hit there, it's usually pretty nasty," Sicking said.

Sicking said the NASCAR-wide improvement of seats and restraint systems has improved safety greatly since the death of drivers Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty and Tony Roper from 2000 to '01, but "T-bone" crashes remain a concern.

"They made a big step forward with the 'Car of Tomorrow'," Sicking said. "Now they're trying to make the step to 'The Car of the Day After Tomorrow,' I guess. They've been working on that quite a bit. ... Now we need to think of car-to-car crashes and the first thing that comes to mind is T-bone, where you get a car that is more or less stopped on the track hit by a car going, say, 100 mph ... That's a tremendously difficult energy management problem and NASCAR is working on that problem now. We're trying to help them as best we can. It's a real challenge. What you have to do is get the stopped car up to the speed of the impacting car with available crush distance, which is about six or eight inches. That's a tremendous amount of structure to make that happen. They're not there yet, but they're moving a lot closer."

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