Complete Preview of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Atlanta
On Sunday, NASCAR heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway—a track on the southern outskirts of metropolitan Atlanta, far enough away that many nearby residents don't really consider themselves denizens of Atlanta—for its 25th race of the 2013 season.
Most pressing in the story department is how the race will work out for the handful of drivers seeking a lock into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The 12-driver field will compete for the 2013 title over the final 10 races of the season, starting at Chicagoland Speedway in three weeks. The order will be set in stone following the race at Richmond International Speedway in two weeks.
But the Chase won't be the only story this week. One driver will be racing injured, while another will be racing as a lame duck. And, of course, all 43 starters will be hoping to spend the wee hours of Labor Day morning celebrating the fruit of their own on-track work in Victory Lane. Let's find out who may get there.
Hampton, Ga., will host the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' 25th race of the season Sunday. Here's the critical information:
Race: Advocare 500
Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway (1.5-mile, D-shaped oval)
Distance: 500.5 miles, 325 laps
Green Flag: Sunday, Sept. 1, 7:30 p.m. ET
2012 Winner: Denny Hamlin
First Race: July 31, 1960 (won by Fireball Roberts)
Breaking Down Atlanta Motor Speedway
Atlanta Motor Speedway hosted its first NASCAR event in 1960. It's changed quite a bit since then.
Most notable was the complete reconfiguration of the speedway completed in 1997 that converted the old frontstretch to today's backstretch. The old pit road and garage area remain but are no longer used.
The pavement laid down by track workers in 1997 is the same in use today, meaning it's the second-oldest track surface in use by NASCAR.
Age has done wonders for the track from a racing perspective. It grinds tires quickly and forces drivers to more effectively manage how they race throughout a green-flag fuel run. Preferred lanes may develop during the race, but drivers can search the entire track for a line featuring maximum grip.
Still, Atlanta remains plenty fast. Drivers soar into the 24-degree corners often over 200 mph. In 2012, Tony Stewart won the pole with an average lap time exceeding 186 mph
Keselowski promises revolutionary new Goodyear tire compound
The rough Atlanta surface, combined with NASCAR's new Gen-6 model car, has exacerbated occasional issues plaguing Goodyear's tire compound in use at Atlanta. As a result, NASCAR's official tire supplier will bring a brand new tire style that's never been seen before in NASCAR competition for the race weekend.
The tire, utilizing technology that affords two separate compounds to be in use on one tire, could be a turning point for NASCAR if it succeeds.
“I wish we could properly relate the importance of this new tire to our fans," said Brad Keselowski, via PaddockTalk.com. "In my opinion, this is one of the most important advancements for our sport to come along in some time. I truly believe that it has the ability to change our sport in a positive way and Atlanta will be our first race with it."
Martin Truex Jr. to race with broken wrist
The pain was evident in Martin Truex Jr.'s body language after a crash last Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. Tuesday, his Michael Waltrip Racing team announced it was more than just a temporary reaction to riding through a 120 mph car crash.
The team revealed that Truex broke a bone in his right wrist and had skipped a scheduled testing session for the team at Chicagloland Speedway this week, per Bob Pockrass of the Sporting News. Truex, however, has been fitted with a cast and remains committed to racing at Atlanta.
Defending winner looks for rebound
Denny Hamlin has won (once) since his win at Atlanta a year ago, but not in 2013. An early-season favorite to contend for the title, his season was derailed by a back injury that knocked him out of several races in the spring.
Hamlin came back firing and hoped to make the improbable rise to Chase competition. Instead, struggles struck that team in July and haven't entirely let go. You can bet he'll be gunning to repeat his 2012 Atlanta win.
Drivers on the Chase Bubble
Last year's final stretch of the regular season produced some incredible drama among drivers on the edge of qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The sport is in for more this year, with seven drivers in current contention for the final four spots.
9th—Greg Biffle, 698 points, 1 win*
Biffle needs to remain inside the top 10 or stay ahead of every one-win driver to qualify for the Chase. With two races left, he has a 12-point cushion on 11th.
10th—Joey Logano, 685 points, 1 win*
Logano is currently qualified in 10th and has a 22-point cushion on the next one-win driver. A win from Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch or Jeff Gordon would be his biggest obstacle.
11th—Brad Keselowski, 681 points, 0 wins
Currently on the outside looking in, Keselowski needs a win or a bump inside the top 10 in the standings in order to defend his title.
12th—Kurt Busch, 679 points, 0 wins
Busch will need an unreliable race car to carry him to a win or a bump to 10th in the standings in the final two regular-season races, despite announcing his plans to leave Furniture Row Racing next year.
13th—Jeff Gordon, 674 points, 0 wins
Jeff Gordon fiercely needed a late win to nail down a Chase spot in 2012, but he never got it. He still made it in, however, with impressive driving at Atlanta and Richmond and poor strategy from Kyle Busch. He's closer this year, but he still needs luck to fall his way.
14th—Martin Truex Jr., 663 points, 1 win*
Currently the first driver qualified for the Chase via the wild-card spot, Truex will now race with a broken wrist he suffered at Bristol. Maintaining, not winning, may be the name of his game.
15th—Ryan Newman, 659 points, 1 win*
Newman is the driver most vulnerable to losing his current hold on a wild-card spot.
* = Currently qualified for the Chase with two races left
Favorites at Atlanta
NASCAR's five-time champion has struggled in three of his last four races, likely just in time to explode with wins and top-five finishes as the title fight begins. He's locked into the Chase, which means Atlanta—the track where he owns the highest average running position (eighth) among all drivers in the last 14 races—could easily be the place where Johnson returns to form and ties Matt Kenseth for the overall series lead in total wins.
Hamlin has struggled even more than Johnson recently thanks to uncompetitive cars and not-his-fault crashes. But he's the defending race winner and carries the third-best average running position (11.1) among series drivers in recent races. Hamlin has led laps in six of the last seven Atlanta races.
The 2011 race winner, Jeff Gordon finished a close runner-up one year ago. It's obvious that Atlanta's worn-out track meshes well with his style of driving that procured so many titles and wins in the late 1990s. He'll get to use notes from teammate Kasey Kahne's recent test at the track as well.
Martin Truex Jr.
With the broken bone in his right wrist wrapped in a cast, things won't be easy for Martin Truex Jr. on Sunday night. Sometimes, though, it's adversity that brings out the best in NASCAR drivers. Truex has been competitive on 1.5-mile tracks all season and nearly won at Atlanta's sister track in Texas back in April. Even with a broken suspension piece, he finished second.
Kurt Busch may just pull off the odd occurrence of announcing his intentions to leave a team one day and then winning for said team just days later. Neither, of course, has much to with the other in terms of car performance, but it would certainly make for an interesting story—the exact thing Kurt is known to do.
At a similar Darlington track this season, Busch started from the pole and led lots of laps early. Atlanta may just be the perfect place to get his first win of 2013.
The defending series champion has been held winless through the first 24 events of 2013, and it seems remarkable that he could potentially miss the Chase as a result. Atlanta could be the place to change that for Keselowski, as he's finished sixth and third in his last two outings at the Georgia track.
Advocare 500 Prediction
Sunday night's race has plenty to offer, and that's without even putting Chase for the Sprint Cup considerations on the front burner.
For teams, the new tire that Goodyear will bring to the venerable speedway could be the single-biggest question mark of the season. The tire promises more grip, more drop in speed during the course of a fuel run and, most importantly, less chance of a failure.
Many drivers will take to the track for practice uneasy and looking for assurance in the small patch of rubber holding their car to the race track.
Should the tire work as planned, the 500-mile race promises to be one of the best of the season thanks to the multiple grooves drivers can use around the track and the smart driving they'll have to display in order to remain fast throughout the race. All of this, of course, plays right to the hand of the one driver and crew chief combination who seem to have a leg up on the competition any time anywhere: Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.
Winner: Jimmie Johnson