How fitting is it that one of the final two races before the Chase is a cookie cutter track; very fitting considering all seven similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks are different, but the effort to go fast on each of them is comparable and that allows drivers and teams to carry momentum from one to the other.
NASCAR travels this week to Atlanta for its first and only visit of the season. And that is significant for two reasons. First, while Atlanta is obviously unique compared to the other doglegged or double-doglegged mile-and-half tracks, it requires a similar approach in terms of power versus handling. It’s not a short track on which teams can get by with slightly less horsepower so long as handling makes up for the difference, or a superspeedway on which the engine is maxed out for an entire lap. Secondly, because this is the only time NASCAR will visit Atlanta in 2011, teams have to react quickly and get the handling perfect with year old notes that may not be 100 percent reliable.
This is the next-to-last race of the regular season and on paper, Atlanta should require unique skills compared to Richmond. Even though Richmond is only half the distance of Atlanta, the two tracks are not that dissimilar, however. The three-quarters-mile short track in Virginia is wide and has a sweeping front stretch that allows drivers to keep their momentum. Someone who gets on a roll this week is liable to run strong next week as well. Everyone currently in the top 20 in points knows they can make the Chase if they can put together two perfect races and the pressure has rarely been greater.
So let’s get down and dirty! It’s time to unveil the Favorites, Dark Horses and Under Dogs of Atlanta.
Carl Edwards makes the list of favorites. Not only did Carl’s first Cup win come at Atlanta, he has long considered the track one of his favorites. In his first attempt, he qualified fourth. No one expected him to stay there, but he ran with the leaders all afternoon and finished third. Just because Carl has had some recent bad luck, I wouldn’t count him out just yet.
Brad Keselowski is definitely the Ace of the pack. His racing and winning speaks for itself when he keeps finding a way to win with a broken leg. Brad isn’t going to sit on the Wild Card, watch for him to race his way into the Top Ten in points.
Kurt Busch is like a Katy Perry song. His season has been hot and cold, but he has been consistent on one track type. The No. 22 team is the only one in the field to sweep the top 10 at Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte, Kansas, and Kentucky. Only one of those races resulted in a top-five when he combined speed and fuel mileage in the Coke 600. And with the remaining four events ending in either ninth- or 10th-place finishes, there are others in the field with a better average on the cookie cutter courses. At this stage of the season, however, fantasy owners should be willing to give up dominance for consistency, and that makes Busch a very compelling pick. If they make the right calls in the pits, Busch could be worth much more than a simple top-10 finish. Last year, he won one of Atlanta’s races and finished sixth in the other.
The silent dark horse of the Chase is Matt Kenseth. He is hitting on all the cylinders and Matt’s timing couldn’t be more perfect. Plus, Matt rocks the cookie cutter tracks; dating back to the 2009 NASCAR Banking 500 at Charlotte, he has amassed a near-perfect record of top-15s on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks. His only poor result was a 20th at Texas last spring, but since then he has an average finish of better than eighth in his past 11 attempts on this track type. A win and a second-place finish at Texas this spring and last fall respectively, makes him even more appealing because these two tracks are among the most similar on the circuit and regularly battle one another for the top speed record. Kenseth knows how to stay out of trouble and that comes in handy at Atlanta.
Marcos Ambrose got off to an excellent start on this track type with three consecutive top-10s at Vegas, Texas, and Charlotte, but his two most recent efforts at Kansas and Kentucky fell flat just when a Tasmanian-themed bandwagon was starting to form. His victory at Watkins Glen rejuvenated interest in the No. 9 team. They failed to capitalize on the momentum at Michigan the following week, but Ambrose was strong at Bristol and finished in the top 10.
Kasey Kahne has continued to prove that if given the best equipment Red Bull has he will run in the Top Ten and be a threat to top competitors. Atlanta has been one of Kasey’s best tracks throughout his career. I look for Kasey to have another break out race at Atlanta and even fight to get Red Bull a win in the 2011 season and find himself in contention for a Wild Card bid.
Grab those belts and pull tight, ya’ll! It is about to get wild and crazy at Atlanta and look for tempers to flare and sparks to fly!