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Oral-B USA 500 Preview: Countdown to the Chase

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

We stay on prime time television this week, but we head to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the one and only visit of the 2014 season. The lightning-fast quad oval will host the Oral-B USA 500 this Sunday night, and it will signal that time is winding down leading into the Chase for the Cup. As the Sprint Cup Series regular season comes to a close, we head to AMS for a very crucial event at the 1.5-mile track. Currently ranked 17th in the championship standings, our last Atlanta winner, Kyle Busch, is all but eliminated from Chase contention this season. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is struggling with performance issues, bad luck and endless frustration, so the chances of him winning his first championship are slim to none. Thanks to the new Chase format, his lone victory is enough to get him to the table for the 16-driver field, but his performance woes are another thing all together. With just two races remaining until the start of the Chase format, the No. 18 Toyota team is scrambling to salvage this season. If there is a driver with a lot on the line this weekend and a whole lot to race for as it relates to the Chase, then it has to be Hendrick Motorsports star Kasey Kahne. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet enters Atlanta weekend 13th in the point standings, but 17th in the Chase Standings as it relates to the 16-driver field that makes NASCAR's playoff format. Kahne is fighting hard to get that first victory of the season and to keep his playoff hopes alive. Kahne is a two-time winner at AMS, but only one of those victories has come since the 2007 season. We've been waiting all year long for this veteran driver to break into the win column, and this Sunday night could finally be it. Two other drivers with strong records at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but also with major Chase hopes hanging in the balance are Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer. Neither has won at the 1.5-mile Georgia speedway, but the two have combined 14-career Top-10 finishes here. Both are a tantalizing 15th- and 16th-place in the Chase standings and have the urgency of time running out and zero margin for error. For many drivers, there's a lot to race for this weekend in the Oral-B USA 500.

The intermediate oval is the most frequent type of track found on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. While Atlanta has some minor differences that set it apart from tracks like Texas and Charlotte, there are still enough similarities to draw some comparisons. Still, we need to take a quick look at the recent loop statistics of AMS and get a feel for our driver group before we make any predictions for this weekend's race. Since this is the first race of 2014 at this track, we'll be drawing on some information from last season and beyond. So keep that little tidbit in mind when reviewing this electronic scoring statistics. Here are the loop stats for the last 15 races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jeff Gordon8.96072633224,083105.6
Jimmie Johnson11.15422754204,075104.8
Tony Stewart10.14902335023,231100.2
Carl Edwards16.15033703983,720100.0
Matt Kenseth9.35281902053,41596.5
Denny Hamlin17.84032493142,97796.2
Kurt Busch14.85252565192,91794.5
Kyle Busch14.14972294213,07294.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.44972263003,20493.3
Martin Truex Jr.19.15591462473,51791.4
Greg Biffle15.95182372893,30191.3
Kevin Harvick16.14511901782,71787.6
Kasey Kahne21.73512363242,63886.0
Clint Bowyer19.8358761142,44484.8
Brad Keselowski21.019342331,02584.7
Jeff Burton15.34324242,94283.3
Brian Vickers14.24404082,18481.1
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.16.015206177.2
A.J. Allmendinger14.42562211,02475.5
Ryan Newman19.434642241,74274.1

Given what has happened to-date on the intermediate ovals this season, it's almost certain that the Hendrick Chevrolet teams and Penske Ford teams will be battling for the win this weekend. We expect the race winner to most likely come from one of these two stables since Hendrick and Penske drivers have led the most laps and captured the majority of the victories on intermediate ovals this season. However, we can't count out the Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing either. Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are racing well on these style tracks and can pull the upset any given weekend. So there's a good chance that the manufacturer Toyota will throw their hats in the ring as well. There will only be a few drivers to contend with these super-stables at Atlanta Motor Speedway. We expect the "outside threat" to come from the Stewart Haas Racing duo of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, with Harvick being the lead team of the pair. The Chevy duo has performed well in recent races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet had a major brush with victory lane here two years ago. We'll give you a run down of the drivers you need this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and a few who could surprise in the Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver is on fire coming to Atlanta this weekend. Logano is fresh off his third win of the season and first-career victory at Bristol. For a team that has been nearly flawless on intermediate ovals this season, this is a great follow-up date in the schedule. The driver of the No. 22 Ford is riding a five-race Top-6 streak into Atlanta this Sunday night. Logano had struggled up until last season at Atlanta Motor Speedway. One year ago he led 78 laps and finished runner-up in this event for his first Atlanta Top 5. An energized and purposeful Logano will be racing at AMS this Sunday night.

Jeff Gordon -
He will look to rebound from a poor Bristol outing, but make no mistake, Gordon will be one of the top contenders to win this race. Gordon won this event three years ago under the lights, and he finished runner-up in the race two years ago. The Hendrick Motorsports icon is a five-time Atlanta winner and has a career 65- percent Top-10 rate at Atlanta Motor Speedway. With a victory this season at Kansas and runner-up finish at the similar oval in Fort Worth, we should expect the No. 24 Chevrolet team to unload a very fast race car this weekend for the Oral-B USA 500.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick has no victories, but has a pair of runner-up finishes and close to 250 laps led on these style ovals this season. He's been painfully close to winning on an intermediate oval in 2014, but just hasn't been able to close the deal. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet should be elated to visit Atlanta this Sunday. He won his first career Cup victory at AMS in 2001, and he's finished in the Top 10 in his last three-straight trips to Atlanta's oval. Harvick led a staggering 101 laps and finished fifth in this race two years ago. It's been a long time since his first Atlanta victory, so no better time than now to add to his trophy case.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star is our only multi-race winner on the 1.5-mile oval circuit this season. With his wins at Las Vegas and Kentucky and nearly 400 laps led, Keselowski has established himself as one of the top contenders when the Sprint Cup Series visits these style ovals. Keselowski's Atlanta resume is a bit spotty, but he has managed a pair of Top 10s in his last three visits to the central Georgia track. In this event one year ago, the No. 2 Ford looked fast and led 31 laps before an engine failure prematurely ended his night. This time around could be the finish he deserved one year ago.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Matt Kenseth -
While Kenseth has never visited victory lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway, we can't overlook him in our fantasy racing picks this weekend. The veteran Joe Gibbs Racing driver has always been proficient at AMS, so he should shore up his Chase points position after a great run at Atlanta this weekend. Kenseth has been the most consistent driver in the series this year on the intermediate ovals, with a perfect five-for-five in Top-10 finishes and starts. Three of Kenseth's last five trips to Hampton, Georgia have yielded Top 10s. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has 253 career laps led at AMS with a respectable 56-percent Top-10 rate at the oval. Kenseth is a very dependable play in this 500-mile event at Atlanta.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has three victories for the season, but he hasn't visited victory lane since June. Instead he's been fetching the solid and consistent Top-10 finishes. The Hendrick Motorsports star needs to rediscover his race-winning form if he hopes to win a seventh championship. As we head into the Chase, Atlanta Motor Speedway presents a great opportunity for the No. 48 team. Johnson is a three-time winner at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with well over 400 career laps led at the oval. The six-time champion has one victory and four Top 10s on ovals of this style this season. That complements his 59-percent career Top-10 rate at AMS.

Kurt Busch -
Another three-time Atlanta winner to add to your fantasy racing lists this weekend is Stewart Haas Racing veteran Busch. He's come on strong in the last several races with a pair of Top-5 finishes in the last three races. Atlanta Motor Speedway has yielded a ton of results (three wins and 10 Top-10 finishes) over his career, so we have to give a hearty recommendation to the driver of the No. 41 Chevy in the Oral-B USA500. Busch has finishes of fourth-, 13th- and fourth-place in his last three trips to AMS, and consider those results are spread across three different teams.

Kasey Kahne -
The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team desperately needs a good run this weekend, and Kahne is visiting Atlanta at the right time. He has two career victories at Atlanta Motor Speedway with over 300 laps led at the oval during his Sprint Cup career. Additionally, his intermediate oval performances have been excellent this season. With three Top 10s in the five races to-date, Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have been zeroed-in on these 1.5-mile ovals. Given his Chase for the Cup motivations, the driver of the No. 5 Chevy's potential is simply too good to ignore in this 500-mile event.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Atlanta who can provide a solid finish

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
While coming off some bad luck at Bristol and looking to rebound from the crash and DNF, Earnhardt comes to a good track to get him heading back in the right direction. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has been a steady performer on these intermediate ovals this season. He's racked up three Top-5 finishes in five starts. As for Earnhardt's Atlanta history, well it has some color too. With one win and 12 Top-10 finishes, AMS ranks as one of his better cookie cutter ovals. Earnhardt enters this weekend with a two-race Top-10 streak at Atlanta, so the current team notes are good.

Brian Vickers -
The driver of the No. 55 Toyota has a strong career record at the mid-Georgia speedway. Four of his last five starts at the oval have yielded Top-10 finishes. It's quite clear that Vickers likes racing this very fast quad oval. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver owns a fourth-place finish at the similar oval in Texas earlier this season. Vickers also posted a strong sixth-place finish at the intermediate track in Charlotte. Given his history at this speedway and his team's performance on ovals of this type this season, there should be another great run in store for Vickers in the Oral-B USA 500.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has a love/hate affair with Atlanta Motor Speedway, and given his recent struggles, it could be a volatile weekend in old "hot-lanta." While he has only five Top 10s in 16 starts at AMS, two of those were victories. One of those wins came in this event one year ago. Busch has led well over 400 career laps at the mid-Georgia speedway, so it's clear that he can dominate at this facility. Busch's body of work on the 1.5-mile tracks has been quite good this season. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led 94 laps in those five races and has one runner-up finish (Kentucky) and three Top-10 finishes. If he can shake his recent bad luck, Busch has a good chance to be a stealth favorite for the Oral-B USA 500.

Carl Edwards -
The back-flipping Roush Fenway star has been a steady performer on intermediate ovals of late. Edwards grabbed fifth-, sixth- and fourth-place finishes at Las Vegas, Kansas and Charlotte. While he wasn't a big threat to win those races, he was solidly placed among the leaders inside the Top 10. The No. 99 Ford team is usually among the leaders when we visit Atlanta Motor Speedway. Edwards has three career wins and stellar 63-percent Top-10 rate at AMS over 16 starts. He's been looking to get back into victory lane and this could be the place for the veteran driver to sneak up and steal one. Edwards certainly has the Atlanta pedigree to suggest that.

Paul Menard -
One of our favorite sleepers this season has been Menard and his No. 27 Chevrolet team. Three of his 11 Top 10s this season have come on the cookie cutter ovals, and Menard is fresh off a strong ninth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway, so the team is running well. Atlanta has held some success for the veteran driver in recent seasons. Menard has one Top 5 and two Top 10s in his last five trips to the central Georgia oval. Considering his steady performances on the intermediate ovals this season, the Richard Childress Racing veteran has some good odds to finish well this weekend.

Kyle Larson -
The dynamic rookie driver will get another chance to prove his skill this weekend in the Oral-B USA 500. Larson will be making his first career Sprint Cup start at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but that will be of little concern. He has one Top 5 and two Top 15s in his intermediate oval resume this season. While these style tracks are not his best, he's still steady enough to get the job done. There is little doubt he can perform at a high level at this oval. Larson cracked the Top 5 in his only career Nationwide Series start at AMS last season.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Denny Hamlin -
The fast Bristol car and laps led this past weekend turned out to be nothing more than a head fake. The bottom line is that Hamlin's bad luck and inconsistency are hurting his fantasy racing value this season. Now we turn to intermediate oval racing and that's one thing Hamlin has been very proficient at over his career. His one victory and five Top-10 finishes are good numbers for any driver at Atlanta Motor Speedway. However, his intermediate oval resume this season is a complete mess. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has no Top 10s in five starts on the 1.5-mile ovals and an 21.4 average finish over that span.

Jamie McMurray -
Atlanta Motor Speedway has always been tough for this Chip Ganassi Racing veteran. In 20 career starts, McMurray has only claimed four Top-10 finishes. That works out to a lowly 20-percent rate. He's only cracked the Top 15 twice in his last six trips to the lightning fast quad oval. The intermediate ovals have been a real mixed bag for McMurray this season, so you could say the indicators aren't that positive entering the Atlanta race weekend. He could pull a surprise performance in the Oral-B USA500, but it's probably best played to keep McMurray benched this weekend.

Danica Patrick -
Outside of a strong seventh-place finish at Kansas, the cookie cutter ovals haven't held much success for Patrick this season. Atlanta doesn't hold much promise either. In fact, her two prior starts at the Atlanta speedway have only yielded 29th- and 21st-place finishes. Considering that Patrick has only visited the Top 20 once in the last six races, the current level of performance is far from desirable. The Stewart Haas Racing driver is looking forward to more opportunities to prove herself down the stretch run of this season, but this isn't likely one of them.

Marcos Ambrose -
The Richard Petty Motorsports veteran is normally a strong performer on these 1.5-mile ovals, but this season something has been amiss in the No. 9 Ford team. Ambrose's finishes of 24th-, 20th-, 24th-, 29th- and 13th-place on the intermediate ovals lack a lot to be desired. As it pertains to Atlanta, his finishes have been inconsistent at best. With one Top-10 finish in eight career starts and an average finish of 20.2, hopes for a good performance this weekend are not great. It's best to keep the No.43 Ford team on the bench this weekend and deploy them on larger ovals in the upcoming weeks.