This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.
The intermediate oval is the most frequent type of track found on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. This event should set the tone for these style ovals for at least the first third of the season. 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 2016 at this track and just the second race of the season, 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 17 races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||11.8||585||253||301||3,707||94.3|
|Martin Truex Jr.||18.5||663||149||247||3,991||90.9|
Given what has happened at Atlanta Motor Speedway in last season's February debut for the oval, it's almost certain that the Stewart Haas Racing teams, Penske Racing teams and Joe Gibbs Racing teams will be battling for the win this weekend. We expect the race winner to most likely come from one of these three stables since Stewart Haas and Gibbs drivers have won three of the last six events at AMS, and the Penske teams have been the closest to upsetting them. However, we can't count out the Chevrolet teams of Hendrick Motorsports either. Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were excellent on these style tracks last year and can pull the upset any given weekend. 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 Furniture Row Racing star Martin Truex Jr. The veteran driver has performed well in recent races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and the driver of the No. 78 Toyota finished sixth in this event one year 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 Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 at Atlanta.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Joey Logano - The resume at Atlanta Motor Speedway isn't the greatest, but it's coming on in recent races. More importantly, Logano was one of the strongest drivers in the series on cookie cutter ovals last season. The No. 22 Ford team grabbed two victories (both in the Chase) and seven Top-5 finishes in the 11 events of 2015. Logano's 561 laps led on intermediate ovals last season was second only to his teammate Brad Keselowski. The Penske Racing star won the pole and finished fourth in this event one year ago, so you could say he has some unfinished business at Atlanta. He'll be one of the top contenders to win the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.
Kevin Harvick - The Stewart Haas Racing star was painfully close to winning last season at Atlanta. Harvick qualified on the outside pole and led a whopping 96 laps before finishing runner-up to Jimmie Johnson. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet should be elated to visit Atlanta this Sunday afternoon. He won his first career Cup victory at AMS in 2001, and he's finished in the Top 10 in four of his last five trips to Atlanta's oval. Considering that the Stewart Haas Racing star led laps and finished runner-up at the Homestead season-finale, the No. 4 team is on their "A-game" on these cookie cutter ovals. That's something to underscore before making out your fantasy racing lineups this weekend.
Kyle Busch - Our reigning Sprint Cup Series champion only raced part of the season due to injuries in 2015, but what a season it was for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota. Busch claimed two of his five victories on the intermediate ovals last season in just seven starts on those style tracks. That included a victory in the season finale at the 1.5-mile track in Homestead, Florida. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a two-time Atlanta winner, including this event in 2013. While AMS has been a mixed bag for Busch over the years, right now he's hitting on all cylinders with his team and particularly on these style ovals. He should carry the momentum of late last season into race number two of the 2016 campaign.
Jimmie Johnson - Johnson owns four-career wins at the oval in Atlanta, including this race one year ago. These intermediate ovals were good to the No. 48 team in 2015. Four of their five wins last season came on cookie cutter tracks. As we get the 2016 season underway, this is a great venue for the Hendrick Motorsports star to have second in the schedule. Johnson owns well over 500-career laps led at this facility. That complements his excellent 63-percent career Top-10 rate at AMS. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet had his issues last season, but they didn't come on intermediate ovals, as his four victories and six Top 10s on these style tracks in 2015 attests. Johnson is poised to extend his success at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin turned in some of his best intermediate oval performances of last season during the 10-race Chase for the Cup stretch at the end of 2015. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota led 9 laps and captured the win at Chicago to kick off the Chase. He then collected fourth- and second-place finishes at Charlotte and Kansas. Then Hamlin won the pole and finished 10th in the season finale at Homestead. Couple that with his recent Atlanta success, and you have a perfect storm of sorts brewing for this weekend. Hamlin's recent AMS resume holds 236 laps led, one pole, one win and three Top 10s in his last six trips to Atlanta Motor Speedway. If you're looking for a sleeper pick among the top contenders to win this weekend, you couldn't do any better than Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team.
Brad Keselowski - The Penske Racing star was the most consistent driver in the Sprint Cup Series on intermediate tracks in 2015. He was the only driver in the series to sweep the Top 10 in all 11 cookie cutter oval races of last season. Those 11 Top-10 finishes included a ninth-place finish in this event one year ago. Keselowski's Atlanta resume is a bit spotty, but he has managed three Top 10s and 38 laps led in his last five visits to the central Georgia track. DNF's have cut short two hopeful attempts at AMS in each of the last three seasons. If anyone is coming to Atlanta Motor Speedway with a chip on their shoulder and with something to prove this weekend it's Keselowski and his No. 2 Ford team.
Carl Edwards - The back-flipping Joe Gibbs Racing star has been a steady performer on intermediate ovals over his career at Roush Fenway Racing. He seems to be carrying that success forward to his new No. 19 Toyota team, based on last season's results. Edwards has three Top-5 finishes and 82 laps led in his last six trips to central Georgia. The veteran driver is a three-time winner at this oval, and his loop stats in the chart above show that he's one of the top performers in the Sprint Cup Series at this facility. Considering that the Edwards cracked the Top 10 at a 64-percent rate on these 1.5-mile ovals last season, there's good reason to give him a fantasy racing start this week.
Kurt Busch - The Stewart Haas Racing star is a three-time Atlanta winner and he has close to 700 laps led for his career at this facility. Busch has been strong with all the different race teams he's competed with over the years at this Georgia speedway. Aside from the victories, he's posted 10 Top-10 finishes in 24 starts at AMS. That checks in at about a 41-percent rate, but that's been rising in recent years. Busch has six Top 10s in his last nine visits to Atlanta for a sizzling 67-percent rate. He kicked off the season right with a Top 10 at Daytona last weekend, so he should ride the momentum right on into Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Atlanta who can provide a solid finish
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 hit the ground running on this intermediate oval. Kenseth was one of the more consistent drivers on these style ovals last season with seven Top 10s in 11 starts. Four of his last five trips to Hampton, Georgia have yielded Top-10 finishes, including a pair of Top-5 efforts. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has 316-career laps led at AMS with a strong 59-percent Top-10 rate at the oval. Kenseth is a very dependable play in this 500-mile event at Atlanta.
Ryan Newman - The Richard Childress Racing veteran carved out quite a reputation early in his career at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Newman claimed six-straight pole positions at the track from 2003 to 2005. His seven-career poles at AMS lead all active drivers by a wide margin. While he's never been able to convert those poles into wins, Newman has managed nine Top-10 finishes and three-straight coming into this weekend's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Newman's chances of ticking off that first-career win at Atlanta this weekend are slim, but he should continue to build on his solid and steady numbers at the facility. He posted a 45-percent Top-10 rate on the 1.5-mile tracks last season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Due to some mistakes at the end of the Daytona 500, the No. 88 Chevrolet team came away with a DNF instead of a win. Earnhardt will look to hit the rest button this week in Atlanta. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has been a steady performer on these intermediate ovals the last few seasons. He racked up a strong sixth-place finish at the similar oval in Texas at the end of last season. As for Earnhardt's recent Atlanta history, well it has some color too. With seventh-, eighth- , 11th- and third-place finishes in his last four visits, AMS ranks as one of his better cookie cutter ovals. Earnhardt could be a Top-5 threat Sunday afternoon in Hampton, Georgia.
Martin Truex Jr. - Coming off a bitter-sweet runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, Truex will refocus and set his plan in motion to make the Chase again in 2016. Now the Furniture Row Racing veteran comes to one of his favorite tracks for the second event of the season. Truex has one career pole, 247-laps led and five Top-10 finishes at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Most of this success has piled up in just the last four seasons as his earlier career at AMS was sub-par to say the least. Since joining FRR, this veteran driver has become quite a force on the intermediate ovals. His seven Top-10 finishes in 11 starts on 1.5-mile tracks last season demonstrate this fact well.
Chase Elliott - After the crash and DNF in the Daytona 500, the rookie Hendrick Motor Sports driver will look to rebound this week at Atlanta. This will be his first-career start at the 1.5-mile quad-oval near Atlanta, so we don't have any historical Sprint Cup stats to point towards. However, his two-full seasons of racing in the Xfinity Series have some good performances to review. Elliott's two-career starts in AMS in this division of NASCAR yielded one pole, 36 laps led and a pair of Top-5 finishes. That coincides with his intermediate oval numbers the last two years in the Xfinity Series. Between Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas, Chicago and Kentucky alone, Elliott piled up two wins and 13 Top-10 finishes in just 18 starts. The No. 24 team will rebound this week in Atlanta.
Aric Almirola - The Richard Petty Motorsports driver will be making his sixth-career Atlanta start this weekend. The driver of the No. 43 Ford posted a steady 12th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and looking to continue his good start to the season at AMS. His performances at this oval have been improving year-on-year. The last two seasons have yielded ninth- and 11th-place finishes for the No. 43 team. Almirola posted a pair of Top-10 and three Top-20 finishes in the intermediate ovals of last season's Chase for the Cup. This veteran driver and team should carry that momentum into the second race of this season in this 500-mile battle at Atlanta.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Kasey Kahne - Despite being a three-time winner at Atlanta, we have to slot Kahne in the slow down list this week. His performance outside of those victories has been less than reliable in recent years at AMS. Four of his last six finishes at the Georgia speedway have been finishes outside the Top 30. Kahne's intermediate oval resume last year was not a pretty picture at all. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet only broke into the Top 10 twice in 11 tries on 1.5-mile tracks in 2015. That worked out to an average finish of 19.1. That's certainly less than what we expect from this driver and team on tracks where Kahne has won and been strong in the past.
Clint Bowyer - Bowyer didn't have the best debut with his new HScott Motorsports team at Daytona last week. They spent most the race mired in the back of the field without much forward momentum. Bowyer finished a distant 33rd in the Daytona 500. We now come to a track that has presented career-long problems for the veteran driver. Bowyer sports a lowly 33-percent Top-10 rate at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He hasn't cracked the Top 10 there in his last five starts. Bowyer struggled at this intermediate ovals last season, failing to break into the Top 10 in any of the 11 events of 2015. The history and current level of performance are too low for any expectations of success with his new race team.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - The Roush Fenway Racing driver hopes to hit the reset button on these intermediate tracks in 2016, but the jury is still out until he turns in a good performance. Stenhouse was 0-for-11 in Top-10 finishes on the 1.5-mile tracks in 2015. He averaged a lowly 20.3 average finish at these tracks, including his crash and DNF in this event one year ago. Outside of winning the pole position at Atlanta in his rookie season, Stenhouse hasn't had much to get excited about in this race. The No. 17 team is coming off a sub-par 22nd-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. It's going to an uphill battle for this driver and team to reverse their Atlanta fortunes this weekend.
Austin Dillon - Dillon has only three-career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but they've been difficult performances to say the least. He has one Top-20 finish and one outside the Top 35. The third lies somewhere in between and works out to a 27.3 average finish across the span. The Richard Childress Racing driver hasn't finished on the lead lap yet in an Atlanta race, despite qualifying at least fairly well. Dillon posted only one Top-10 finish on the cookie cutter ovals last season, so these have been facilities full of struggles for the No. 3 Chevrolet team. The indicators don't look very good for Dillon coming into this Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.