Handicapping the Chase Drivers: Atlanta Motor Speedway
by Chris Leone, Special To NASCAR news, fantasy racing advice and statistics On Pit Row
I do weekly Fantasy Pick'Em columns here at OPR, as well as the occasional opinion and analysis piece. I also provide the IZOD IndyCar Series coverage. For more on that, head to my site, OpenWheelAmerica.com. My Twitter handle is @christopherlion.October 24, 2008 9:27 pm UTC 1 Comment
I feel like a fool for picking Kyle Busch last week at Martinsville, when I had such obvious better choices in front of me (Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin… the list goes on). I take no consolation in the fact that I called them “easy” or “cop-out” picks, because the fact is that I should have gone with one of them. I’m not making that mistake again this weekend.
Atlanta may be the best track for the 12 Chase drivers overall, because the drivers with the top eight finishing averages at Atlanta (excluding active drivers and those with under five starts) are all eligible for the championship. Only one of them, Kevin Harvick, has an average finish worse than 20.0, and he started his Atlanta career 1-for-1 in one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history. The bottom line is, since every Chaser is so good here, one has to examine momentum coming into the event before making any predictions. As has been most of the Chase, it’s all about who’s got the momentum.
Here’s what to expect from each of the 12 Chase drivers this week at Atlanta:
1. Jimmie Johnson: Nobody has more momentum going into the final four races of the season than Johnson, and everybody knows it. He won this race last year as part of a four-race winning streak that propelled him to his second consecutive championship. He’s also won four of the last eight races on the tour, including last week at Martinsville. He has the best average finish of active drivers at Atlanta, a 9.6. It’s getting old to write the same sorts of things about Johnson every week, so take this word of advice: Johnson has one of the best chances to win of anyone this weekend. (Duh.)
2. Greg Biffle: Da Biff had his second-best career finish at Martinsville last week, a lead-lap 12th. Given his abysmal track record there, the team’s spirits are high coming into Atlanta. He won the pole for this race last year and finished 4th here in the spring. In 2004 and 2005, when his team last performed at this level, his average finish was 7.0 in four starts. Another solid finish for Biffle seems to be in the cards, but will he continue to lose points to Johnson?
3. Jeff Burton: Usually 16.5 is a solid average finish at a track, but not when eight of your championship rivals rank ahead of you. Such is Burton’s predicament. He’s not helped by last week’s struggle, in which he wound up off the lead lap in 17th. A total of 13 top 10s and no DNFs at Atlanta since March 2003 are both good signs, but Burton also hasn’t led more than five laps in an Atlanta race since spring 1994, in his fifth career Sprint Cup start. A win is unlikely; a decent finish, however, isn’t out of the question.
4. Carl Edwards: Cousin Carl would have won at Atlanta this spring if not for engine troubles. He’s only finished outside the top 10 at Atlanta twice, and although both of those were finishes of 40th or worse, Edwards is generally a pretty reliable bet here. Edwards seems poised to regain momentum after a 3rd place finish at Martinsville, and he certainly has a chance to capture win no. 7 of the season at Atlanta.
5. Clint Bowyer: Clint has finished 6th in his past three starts at Atlanta, which makes him a reliable bet to finish well here again. He hasn’t finished any worse than 12th since Michigan, and although he hasn’t finished any better than 5th in that span of nine races, he’s been consistently towards the front. Don’t expect that to change for any reason.
6. Kevin Harvick: Here’s a shocker. Since his dramatic win in the spring of 2001 and a 3rd place finish that fall, Happy hasn’t finished in the top 5 at Atlanta. He didn’t even finish in the top 10 again until this spring. His average finish of 23.3 here is worst of all 12 Chase drivers. One reason for hope, however, is the fact that Harvick’s only finished outside the top 10 twice since the debacle at Indianapolis.
7. Jeff Gordon: It has been five years since Gordon’s won at Atlanta, but that doesn’t mean he’s been a slouch here. Gordon’s average finish at Atlanta in his past six starts is a fantastic 6.0. Gordon’s led significant amounts of laps the past two weeks as well, and his desire to avoid his first winless season since 1993 is probably at its peak. Gordon could surprise this weekend – although, if you look at the team’s performance the past two weeks, it shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
8. Tony Stewart: Smoke finished second here in the spring. Since the fall race in 2001, he’s only finished outside of the top 10 twice – a lead lap 17th in spring 2005 and a 30th in this race last year after losing oil pressure in the middle of the race. Most of Stewart’s momentum from Talladega is gone, however, after a 26th place run last week at Martinsville. Stewart should keep up his stout Atlanta record, but a win for the hometown sponsor might be a lot to ask.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Junebug’s got a lot of momentum after having one of the strongest cars in the field at Martinsville. He has no chance at a championship, but he can certainly go out and steal some races from the contenders for the final month or so. His average finish of 8.7 in his past six starts here is certainly stout, and it would be higher if he didn’t crash late in this race last year and finish 25th. Important to note is that Earnhardt Jr. has four top 5s in those six starts, the best of which came at Atlanta in the spring. There’s no reason he can’t win this weekend.
10. Matt Kenseth: Kenseth’s average finish of 6.2 with four top 10s in his last six starts here is one of the best in the business. His Chase has been terrible, with Martinsville last week one of the lone bright spots, but that gives the team a push to do well in these final four races. Although Kenseth’s never won at Atlanta and has only led 12 laps here in the past six years, he knows how to get to the finish without too many issues.
11. Denny Hamlin: Atlanta is one of the few tracks in the Chase where Hamlin has not consistently run well over his brief career. An 8th place finish in this race two years ago is the brightest spot on a record that includes four finishes of 19th or worse. It’s important to note that while Hamlin has only failed to complete six laps in his career at Atlanta, he’s only finished on the lead lap once. You can’t win a race if you can’t finish on the lead lap.
12. Kyle Busch: Shrub’s record at Atlanta looks like his record at a few other tracks: Save a fantastic performance this spring, in which he won after leading 173 of 325 laps, he hasn’t done much in the way of top 10 finishes. However, he did lead 77 laps in this race last year, when he finished 20th. He also has three 12th place finishes, and has only failed to complete seven laps here since becoming a full-time Cup driver.
A brief aside: I feel really bad for Busch. Kyle’s 2008 has been one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history, and the Chase format has robbed him of a chance to win his first well-earned championship. In this age of NASCAR parity, winning 20 out of the 73 races he’s contested in the face of adversity is quite the accomplishment. One can only hope that we’ll someday see another season this dominant (from a driver other than Jimmie Johnson, anyway – this sort of year seems to come naturally to him).
So who would I pick to win this weekend (other than Jimmie Johnson)? I have to go with Jeff Gordon. He’s got the same equipment as Johnson, he’s had a similar sort of career here, and he desperately wants to avoid a goose egg in the win column for this year.