And then there were five. After 24 races, five drivers have won three races and place themselves atop the Chase Grid with only a couple of events remaining before the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins.
Joey Logano was the latest driver to earn his third victory at Bristol as he narrowly escaped a hard-charging Brad Keselowski. The two teammates make up one of the best duos in NASCAR and sit near the top of the Chase standings.
But the race was not void of controversy, as Denny Hamlin was taken out from behind by Kevin Harvick. Hamlin, who led 28 laps on Saturday night, also collected Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Harvick riled up Junior Nation in the process.
With the Sprint Cup circuit now heading to Atlanta, several drivers are still in search of their first victory on the season. Just two races remain, so NASCAR fans can expect a wild result in the pivotal Atlanta race.
Here's a look at the standings, latest team news and top drivers for the Oral-B USA 500.
Oral-B USA 500 Information
Site: Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, Georgia
Date: Sunday, Aug. 31
Start Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Latest Team News
Harvick may have narrowly missed out on a top-10 finish at Bristol, but he came away with a potential budding rivalry on his hands.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver started on the pole, led 75 laps and sits sixth on the Chase Grid after the strong result. But the earlier wreck of Hamlin left the fellow driver furious on the course, as he threw his HANS device at Harvick's car.
Hamlin, who finished 40th during the race, spoke about the incident with Harvick, per Brad Norman of NASCAR.com:
I'm trying to think of when I've been this mad in the past. Maybe never. I wish I had some kind of car left so I could show him the favor back. He's a good driver. He knows better.
Mistakes happen in racing. Obviously, I believe Kevin made a mistake.
Though Harvick admitted fault in the accident, he'll have to deal with Hamlin on the track during the Chase. With both drivers locked into NASCAR's postseason, this will be a battle to watch moving forward.
While Earnhardt was caught up in the wreck, he remains with his Hendrick Motorsports teammates at the top of the Chase standings. He referenced the accident on Twitter after the race:
I really hate we wrecked. Racing @BMSupdates is frustrating but at the same time it's the funnest racing I get to do. Nothing compares.— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) August 24, 2014
We had a damn good car tonight. Real fast. Bristol was rough on us this year. Brand new car next week @amsupdates. We are ready.— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) August 24, 2014
Hendrick has been dominant all season, but Penske is challenging their authority with its own tandem of drivers.
Logano and Keselowski have been phenomenal this year and proved it yet again on Saturday night. The 2012 Sprint Cup champion spoke about the team's chances at a championship again this year, per Hank Kurz Jr. of The Associated Press (via The Boston Globe):
"I think the results speak for themselves and we just need to keep rolling," Keselowski said. "We’ve got two teams that are legitimate contenders by really every stretch of the imagination."
Trying to once again take down a powerful Hendrick team, Penske appears to be the most likely to do so this season. Heading into Atlanta, both will be looking to separate themselves yet again by having the first driver with four victories.
Drivers to Watch
If you're picking a driver to win in just about any racing discipline, Kyle Busch is a pretty safe bet.
The Sprint Cup driver has blistered both the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide events but has just one win in the premier series. Anger over his results at Bristol boiled over, with crew chief Dave Rogers telling Busch over the radio, "Park it behind the truck and take your whiny little ass to the bus."
Rogers also spoke about the heated conversation after the race, per Mike Hembree of USA Today:
Just a frustrating race. Tempers flare at Bristol. The bottom line is we've had really fast race cars the last four or five races and we've just come up short. The whole team is all frustrated.
Kyle was trying to communicate to me what was wrong with the car. I couldn't hear. It just led to more frustration. We came back here to the truck and had a great talk.
Even after those struggles recently, Busch heads to a track where he's extremely comfortable. Busch has won two races in Atlanta and has three top-six finishes in the last four events.
Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing, the 29-year-old has never finished worse than 25th at the track. As he looks for momentum heading into the Chase in the next few weeks, Busch will be a contender at Atlanta after a disappointing run at Bristol.
Busch may have the most recent win in Atlanta, but Gordon has been consistent at the track over the last three seasons.
The four-time NASCAR champion has started fifth in the last three races and finished sixth or better in each event. Though Bristol was not the result he wanted, Jeff Gordon Online provides a look at the recent results for the driver after sub-15 finishes:
For the record, Gordon finished 16th on the short track. To put that statistic into perspective, Danica Patrick has three top-15 results, while Gordon has finished outside of it just three times.
One of the best drivers on the circuit this season, Gordon is sitting at the top of the traditional points standings and Chase Grid. A win this weekend would secure the top spot in the Chase and give him the most wins before NASCAR's postseason begins.
Which driver will win at Atlanta?
A rough week for Hamlin at Bristol can easily be forgotten with another win in Atlanta.
The JGR driver experienced engine issues last season but won the previous race at the track in 2012. Along with the lone victory, he also has five top-10 finishes and has led 315 laps at Atlanta in 14 races.
Comfortably in the Chase with just two events remaining, Hamlin does not need a win at this point. But another victory would put him ahead of Busch in the standings and garner more confidence before the Chase.
Fellow Joe Gibbs teammate Busch might have the most recent win and a string of strong starts, but Hamlin is always a contender. If he can keep his car on the track this week, look for Hamlin at the top of the leaderboard throughout the race.
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