Note: The quotes in this article are fictional.
1. Kevin Harvick: With 72 laps remaining at Atlanta, Harvick suffered a flat left-front tire, which eventually shredded before he could reach the pits, severely damaging the left fender of the No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevy. Harvick eventually finished 33rd, 16 laps behind. He still maintains a sizable 219-point cushion over Jeff Gordon.
“I may be a favorite for the Cup title,” Harvick said, “but it remains to be seen whether my regular-season magic carries over into the Chase. I’m sure the magic will be there Saturday night at Richmond, when after the race, I’ll make my points lead vanish into thin air.”
2. Jimmie Johnson: Johnson officially clinched a spot in the Chase with a third-place finish at the Emory Healthcare 500, capturing his ninth top-five finish of the year. Johnson is now seventh in the Sprint Cup point standings, and with five wins this year, will likely start the Chase tied with Denny Hamlin on top.
“We still have plenty of work to do if I’m to claim my fifth consecutive Cup championship,” Johnson said. “But we’re not afraid of work. Obviously, with four consecutive Cup titles, what we’ve done in the past ‘works.’
“I reiterated my belief that Kevin Harvick is the favorite to take home the Sprint Cup. By saying that, I place all the pressure on Harvick and none on myself. So, I like my chances. Everybody knows that Jimmie Johnson is hard to beat under pressure.”
3. Tony Stewart: Stewart took charge on the final restart and pulled away from Carl Edwards, validating a dominating day at Atlanta with the win at the Emory Healthcare 500. Stewart led 176 of 325 laps, and claimed his first win since October 2009 at Kansas. He improved two places in the point standings to fourth, and trails Kevin Harvick by 283.
“Now, when discussion centers on my last win,” Stewart said, “it’s safe to say ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore.’”
“Now it seems that I’m everyone’s favorite to win the Cup. That’s after one win that came 25 races into the season. It’s all hard for me to digest and comprehend, because I’ve never been anyone’s favorite anything.”
4. Kyle Busch: Busch overcame an early pit road speeding penalty to finish fifth at Atlanta, his seventh top-five result of the year. Nabbed by NASCAR on lap 49, Busch was sent to the rear of the field. Not long after, a troubling vibration sent him to the pits, from which he emerged 34th, one lap down. Later, with one of the fastest cars on the track, Busch roared back for a solid finish, and clinched his spot in the Chase.
“The only thing more satisfying to me than ‘punching a ticket,’ ” Busch said, “is punching Brad Keselowski. I should consider it. A wise man once told me that a true rivalry in NASCAR is borne of an exchange of punches, not punchlines.”
5. Carl Edwards: Edwards continued his recent surge (seven top 10’s in his last eight races) with a runner-up finish in the Emory Healthcare 500. Edwards led 32 laps in the No. 99 Aflac Fusion, but ultimately was no match for Tony Stewart, who pulled away on the final restart for the convincing victory.
“Although victory has eluded me,” Edwards said, “these solid finishes are a clear indication that we’ll see victory soon enough. So, you could say we’re ‘peeking’ at the right time.
“I like our chances to win the championship. Sure, with no wins, we’ll be starting at the bottom of the field, but as someone who has seen his share of probations, I know what it’s like starting in a hole.”
6. Jeff Gordon: After running as high as fourth at Atlanta, Gordon faded to a disappointing finish of 13th, derailed by poor-handling and shaky restarts. He remains second in the Sprint Cup point standings, and trails Kevin Harvick by 219.
“We’ve got one more shot for victory before the Chase starts in New Hampshire,” Gordon said. “We’ve been nothing more than average this year, and with no wins thus far, we’ve truly put the ‘regular’ in ‘regular season.’ ”
7. Denny Hamlin: Hamlin started from the pole and led 74 laps early at Atlanta, but a blown engine on lap 143 ended his day. Three of Hamlin’s last four finishes have been 34th or worse. Although he’s clinched a spot in the Chase For The Cup, there is doubt that he can rekindle the momentum when he won five times in ten races.
“For someone who’s likely to be in the lead when the Chase commences,” Hamlin said, “we haven’t been very impressive lately. But, after finishing 43rd on Sunday, you could say we made a ‘last’-ing impression.
“The No. 11 Sport Clips Toyota was fast early, but ultimately, our day was like a bad haircut—not long enough.”
8. Jeff Burton: Burton finished fourth at Atlanta, taking advantage of a late caution to change four tires, thus allowing him to charge through the field. It was Burton’s fifth top-five finish of the year, and he improved one place in the point standings to sixth, 324 behind Kevin Harvick.
“I owe a lot of credit to my pit crew,” Burton said. “With the pressure on, they came through with quick stops and timely adjustments. In times past, when we’ve beaten ourselves in the pits, I haven’t been so complimentary. On those occasions, the No. 31 team was living proof that, like a true feline, a ‘Cat’ can lick itself.”
9. Kurt Busch: After missing the setup for Sunday’s race in Atlanta, Busch and the No. 2 Miller Lite team struggled with handling for a majority of the race. Constant adjustments throughout the night, as well as a key decision to stay on the track during a lap 265 caution, finally paid off with track position. Busch finished sixth, his 15th top-10 result of the year, and officially locked up a spot in the Chase.
“It’s one thing to be earmarked for purely cosmetic reasons,” Busch said. “But another to be earmarked for the Chase For The Cup. I’m two for two in the ‘2.’
“But I have just as good of a chance to win this thing as the next guy, assuming, by ‘next guy,’ you’re referring to Jeff Burton. He’s a threat, for sure, but only to behave like a true gentleman.”
10. Clint Bowyer: Bowyer, in the No. 33 BB&T Chevrolet, posted a solid seventh-place finish at Atlanta, one place ahead of Ryan Newman, his closest pursuer for the 12th and final spot in the Chase. Barring a major catastrophe, Bowyer will lock up the final Chase spot at Richmond.
“It’s a safe bet to say I’ll make the Chase,” Bowyer said, “so bet the farm. If disaster strikes and I fail to qualify, then I will have bought the farm.”