What To Watch for: KOBALT Tools 500 (Hotlanta)

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What To Watch for: KOBALT Tools 500 (Hotlanta)

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, welcome first and foremost to one of NASCAR's fastest—and most exciting—tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Hotlanta, the "Dirty South," whatever you want to call it, Atlanta Motor Speedway will be rumbling this weekend with 43 cars hauling you know what at speeds near 200 mph.

I love Atlanta.

Not only is it the home to my favorite NFL team, the Falcons, but it's home to one of my favorite tracks to watch in NASCAR.

What makes a track exciting?

High speeds? Check!

Competitive racing? Check!

Last minute passes? Double check!

Heading into Hotlanta, here are some things to watch for this weekend.

 

Fresh Faces in the Top 12 in Points

OK, we all know it's probably short lived, but heading into the KOBALT Tools 500 this Sunday, there are some different faces in the top 12.

Only five drivers who were in the top 12 at this point last year, are there now.

Three drivers that easily were considered long shots to be in Chase contention are David Reutimann, Bobby Labonte and Michael Waltrip—but nobody told them.

Reutimann had a career-best fourth-place showing last weekend at Las Vegas, and sits fifth in points. Last year at this point, Reutimann was 31st in points, clinging on to a guaranteed spot in the races each weekend.

 

 

Labonte had his first top-five performance since 2006 when he finished fifth at Vegas last weekend. He sits 10th in points, which isn't far off from his 15th last season three races in.

Waltrip remained in the top 12 for the third straight week.

Last year?

Waltrip was 34th in points, clinging to a spot much like his younger teammate. Clearly, Michael WaltripRacing has turned things around, and Waltirp seems more relaxed in his No. 55 Camry than ever before.

Remember, Waltrip said before the season began that he would consider retiring if his results didn't improve...did he know something then?

Whatever the reason for the new faces in Chase contention, it certainly has made for some interesting early-season conversation—and speculation on whether these teams can remain in contention through 26 races.

"It's pretty awesome," said Labonte following his run at Vegas. "I can't wait to get back in and go. We're taking it one race at a time, so I'm excited. I just feel like we've got all of this confidence on our side right now."

 

Jeff Gordon Leads the Point Standings

The No. 24 team has proven they are back where they believe they belong—sitting atop the points standings.

The four-time NASCAR Spring Sup Series champion finds himself in the top spot after three solid finishes to start the season.

Gordon is leading the points for the first time since Oct. 28, 2007. Even more surprising, it's the first time Gordon has led after the year's first three events since his championship season of 1997.

"Three weeks in a row, I've felt like we have had the car that can win and that quite a change from last year," said Gordon, who went winless in 2008, ending a 14-year stretch in which he won at least one race per season.

Gordon hopes to snap his 44 race winless streak that dates back to Oct. 13, 2007 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Atlanta has been a strong track for the No. 24 team and is the site that Gordon began his history Spring Cup career. His first start in the series came on Nov. 15, 1992 at the 1.54-mile venue.

In 33 career starts, Gordon has four wins, 13 top-fives, and 21 top-10 finishes.

Gordon sits sixth on the list of Spring Cup Series wins, with81. At Vegas, this past weekend, he eclisped the 20,000 laps led mark and heads into AMS ranked seventh all-time with 20,006 laps led.

 

Sunday Will be Race No. 100 for the Spring Cup Series at AMS

NASCAR fans can only hope that race number 100 at AMS will be as exciting and dramatic as the previous 99 races at the 1.54-mile high banked oval.

Some of the most memorable races at AMS include:

 

July 31, 1960—Fireball Robers wins the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at AMS.

Nov. 5, 1978—Richard Petty thought he had defeated rival Cale Yarborough to win the race, however, a scoring snafu was discovered afterwards and the victory was awarded to Donnie Allison.

Nov. 15, 1992—Alan Kulwicki may have finished second in the race, but it was good enough for him to overtake Bill Elliot and claim his first NASCAR Spring Sup Series championship by a slim 10-point margin. Many deemed this race to be one of the greatest NASCAR races ever.

It also marked the final race for Petty, and was the first career race for Gordon.

Mar. 12, 2000—Dale Earnhardt beats Bobby Labonte to the checkered flag by .01 seconds to record his ninth, and final, victory at AMS. Earnhardt's nine wins at the track is the most by any driver.

Mar. 11, 2001—Kevin Harvick holds off Gordon by .006 seconds to record his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory. The victory came on the heels of the tragic loss of Earnhardt a few weeks earlier.

Earnhardt's famed black Chevy had been painted white, and re-numbed 29, and rookie Harvick was given the daunting task of driving the late Earnhardt's car.

The win was an emotional one for owner Richard Childress, and marked the second straight win for his team at the Atlanta spring race.

 

Kyle Busch Retuns to AMS, as Defending Race Winner

Busch and his No. 18 team have proven again that they will be a team to beat each andevery weekend in 2009.

Busch drew a "Black-Jack" at Las Vegas last weekend and visited Victory Lane at his home-town track for the firs time in his career.

The win was his 13th in Sprint Cup—at 13 different tracks, by the way—and moved him up to sixth in the points standings.

Busch returns to AMS, as the defending race winner of the KOBALT Tools 500. He won a record 21 races across all three series last year, and eight times at the next 17 tracks that the series will visit.

"We didn't let Daytona haunt us," said Busch, who was caught up in the Dale Earnhardt Jr./Brian Vickers wreck and ended any chances of collecting that first Daytona 500 win. "We went to California and ran a smart race and finished third. We came here [Las Vegas] and ran a smart race and won.

"This could havebeen a 1-3-1 season thus far, but it is what it is. We're really looking forward to getting back to Atlanta this weekend and defending our race title."

 

Carl Edwards Could be Flipping This Weekend

If you make your weekly picks based solely on Loop Data, this weekend, you have no choice but to pick Edwards.

Though he has had a slower start to the season than most expected, the preseason media favorite to win the Sprint Cup Series title sits ninth in the point standings.

What happened to the guy who flipped three times in the final four races last season?

Atlanta could be the place Edwards and the No. 99 team return to the late-season fashion.

In nine career Cup Series races at AMS, Edwards has visited Victory Lane three times (including his first career victory), recorded five top-fives and seven top-10 finishes.

When it comes to Loop Data, Edwards ranks among the leaders in a number of categories. He has a driver rating of 107.4 (second best), an average running position of 10.312 (third-best), a series-high 260 fastest laps run, an average green flag speed of 174.094 (second-best), a laps in the top 15 percentage of 84.6 (second-best), and 250 quality passes (third-best).

Others you can bank on for good finishes at AMS are Earnhardt Jr., who has an average running position of 10.331 (fourth-best) at AMS, and Jimmie Johnson, who has a series-best average running position of 7.2 (he is the only driver below 10.0), and ranks fourth in fastest laps run with 183.

 

The Time Is Now, for Those Near Top 35 Cut-off

It's time to pick up the pace for a couple drivers dangerously close to falling out of the top 35 in points and being guaranteed a spot heading into the sixth race of 2009 at Martinsville.

With two weeks to go before the 2009 points go into effect, several drivers that have been guatanteed a spot thus far this season, are near (or outside) the top 35

The No. 20 Home Depot Toyota of Joey Logano is perhaps the most notable near the cut-off, in 32nd position. Among the other drivers are: the No. 39 Stewart-Haas Chevy driven by Ryan Newman in 33rd, and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy driven by Mark Martin in 34th.

Earnhardt Jr. had been in the 35th position prior to Vegas, but used a top-10 finish to springboard himself up six spots to 29th.

The news is bad for Junior Nation, however, as no driver has come back from that far back after three races to quality for the Chase. In fact, only three drivers have made the Chase from positions lower than 25th after three races—Jeremy Mayfield from 26th in 2005; Martin Truex JR. from 27th in 2007, and Matt Kenseth from 28th in 2005.

Earnhardt, however, remains optimistic that his luck, and finishes will turn around.

"We really needed that top-10 finish," Earnhardt Jr. said of Vegas. "We know that we have to put together six or seven good weeks to give ourselves a shot at getting back into the battle for the Chase. We've got some good tracks coming up where we can do just that. We've got to keep our heads on straight and be smart."

Earnhardt Jr. has one win (2004), eight top-fives, and 10 top-10 finishes at AMS.

 

News Briefs

History in the Making?

Ryan "Rocket Man" Newman looks to set a record on Friday at AMS. Newman will be shooting for his eighth career pole at AMS this Friday, which in turn, would move him past Buddy Baker for the all-time pole winner record at Atlanta. Newman has 43 career poles, a total that ranks 11th all-time.

 

Footnotes

Bobby Labonte has six victories at AMS, the most of any active driver.

Logano posted his best NSCS finish to date last week with a 13th place showing at Vegas.

Edwards has three wins at AMS, including his first career series win in 2005.

Kenseth blew an engine after only six laps at Vegas and dropped from firs to third in points.

 

Notebook

There have been 99 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at AMS, two races per year, except 1961, which had three.

Fireball Robers won the pole and race for the first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta in 1960.

Forty-three drivers have won a pole, led by Buddy Baker and Ryan Newman, each with seven.

Six of Newman's seven poles came in back-to-back races between March 2003 and October 2005.

Forty-two drivers have won a race at AMS; 20 have won more than once.

Dale Earnhardt scored nine victories, more than any other driver. Cale Yarborough is second, with seven.

Bobby Labonte heads the list of active drivers with victories with six. Labonte is tied with Richard Petty for third on the all-time Atlanta win list.

The Wood Brothers are the most productive car owners at Atlanta with12 victories. They last won there in 1993 with Morgan Shephard.

14 races at Atlanta have been won from the pole.

56 races at Atlanta have been won from the first five starting positions.

Bobby Labonte won the 2001 fall race from the 39th starting position, the deepest in the field that a race winner has started at Atlanta.

There have been seven season sweeps, most recently by Johnson in 2007.

There has been one green-white-checkered finish: 2007 Pep Boys Auto Parts 500 (329 laps).

 

Hot Facts

Atlanta has produced two of the seven closest finishes since electronic timing was introduced in May 1993. Both races occurred on the new configuration.

Dale Earnhardt finished 0.010 seconds ahead of Bobby Labonte, which is tied for sixth-closest race, on March 12, 2000.

Harvick beat Gordon by 0.006 seconds on March 11, 2002, the fourth-closest finish.

 

NASCAR in Georgia

There have been 158 NASCAR Sprint Cup races in Georgia.

167 NASCAR drivers all-time have their home state recorded as Georgia.

There have been 13 race winners from Georgia in NASCAR's three national series.

 

Track Facts

Race number four of 36.

Track size: 1.54-miles.

Race length: 325 laps/500.5 miles.

Banking/corners: 24 degrees.

Banking/straights: five degrees.

Frontstretch: 2,332 feet.

Backstretch:1,800 feet.

 

Qualifying/Race Data

2008 pole winner: Jeff Gordon (185.251 mph, 29.927 secs.)

2008 race winner: Kyle Busch (140.975 mph.)

Track qualifying record: Geoffrey Bodine (197.478 mph, 28.074 secs.)

Race record: Bobby Labonte (159.904 mph.)

Estimated pit window: 48-52 laps, based on fuel mileage.

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