The rules in NASCAR may have been tweaked, but the dominance from the top drivers in the sport appears to have remained the same.
Prior to the 2015 season, NASCAR changed the amount of horsepower allowed from 850 to 725, but it was hardly noticeable in Atlanta. The cars were faster during qualifying, and the action during the race was just as intense.
By the end of the race, it was another familiar face in Victory Lane after just missing out at the Daytona 500. Jimmie Johnson, a six-time champion, clinched a win in just his second race of the season after having to wait until his 12th points race in 2014 to secure one.
Johnson also became the second driver to virtually secure a spot in the Chase along with Joey Logano. With the entire rest of the field looking to join them, here's a look at the latest team news and top drivers to watch in Las Vegas.
Latest Team News
One of the biggest stories Sprint Cup fans have been watching over the last two weeks has been the status of Kurt Busch. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver was indefinitely suspended ahead of the regular season by NASCAR.
While Busch is pursuing reinstatement from NASCAR, no word has been released about his possible return. NASCAR spokesman David Higdon referenced Busch's status, via Zack Albert of NASCAR.com:
There are certain things that need to happen within a certain period of time, but there's no timetable in terms of a return perspective. Secondly, before we put this in place when we worked with the experts on it, they were very adamant about saying the most important thing if you pursue any type of action in this area that you need to have a return-back program.
In the meantime, Regan Smith has kept the seat warm for Busch. The full-time Xfinity driver has finished in the top 20 during both races to start off the season. That earned him the ride again in Atlanta, as the SHR official account notes:
Another massive story all season will be Jeff Gordon's performance during his final full-time season. So far, the numbers haven't been great for the NASCAR legend.
In Atlanta, his season hit a wall—a concrete one.
The week prior, Kyle Busch was seriously injured during a wreck into a wall without a SAFER barrier. Though measures were taken by Atlanta to increase the safety of the track, Gordon still found a concrete wall during a wreck.
After finding out his Hendrick teammate wasn't injured, Jimmie Johnson joked about the situation, via Jeff Gluck of USA Today:
Though they are costly for NASCAR, the barriers need to be added to every track. Sprint Cup teams have to pay massive amounts for safety equipment in multiple cars but can't protect their drivers from costly contact with a solid wall.
Drivers to Watch
Last season, Johnson's first win came in the 12th race. His second victory was in the 13th.
Just like 2014, Six-Time leaves Victory Lane at one track heading into another location where he's dominated. Johnson has the most wins among active drivers with four, but his last came in 2010. Over his last three races in Vegas, he's led a minimum of 34 laps.
Johnson pointed out that having that Chase spot secured leaves him feeling relieved heading into Vegas, via Jared Turner of Fox Sports:
It takes pressure off in some ways. We don't have the questions of, 'Are you going to win this year?' and the stuff that is from the fans and what goes on in here (the media center). It's nice to dodge that.
It's nice to know we're locked into the Chase. There's a lot of good things that come with it. We're pumped, excited, and looking forward to going racing next week.
Look for JJ to remain in top form in Las Vegas in his search for that special seventh title this season. It might still be early in the year, but making a statement now will pay dividends when the Chase finally rolls around.
The 2015 season has already been a roller-coaster ride for Brad Keselowski. A blown engine ruined any chance of a Daytona 500 victory, but he showed his championship form again in Atlanta.
Now he heads to the site of his first victory last season in Vegas. While it was a bit of luck that helped him get past Dale Earnhardt Jr., his win in Sin City sparked a season that saw him reach Victory Lane five more times down the stretch.
The biggest question now is: Can he do it again?
On the heels of a great performance in Atlanta, fans can expect to see the Team Penske drivers up front early and often. If Logano can't get the job done again like he did in Daytona, it will likely be Keselowski challenging for his first checkered flag.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
|Earnhardt Jr.'s Stats at Las Vegas|
|Team||Top 5||Top 10||Avg Finish|
He took a gamble last year and it cost him a win. Junior may have ran out of gas and finished second behind Keselowski last year, but he was just fumes away from his second victory of 2014.
This time around, Earnhardt will go all-in again in hopes of coming away with his first win in Vegas.
Since his switch over to Hendrick Motorsports, Junior has posted six top-10 finishes in seven races. He's also led over 50 laps in two of the last three races. In an era where finishing in the top five is considered "unlucky" for Junior, expect him to get lucky on Sunday.
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