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Atlanta Motor Speedway Preview: Countdown to the Chase

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

We return from the off-week and head to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the season's second race at the Intermediate oval. The lightning-fast quad oval will host the Emory Healthcare 500 this Sunday afternoon, and a signal that time is short heading into the Chase for the Cup. It's been a long six months since the season's first Atlanta race, the Kobalt Tools 500. We've seen Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon battle at the top of the standings during this time. So a lot has happened in the six months since the series last visited Atlanta Motor Speedway, and now as the “regular” season winds down, we head back to intermediate oval just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Despite being ranked 10th in the championship standings, Kobalt Tools 500 winner, Busch is still well within championship contention. Now, with just two races remaining until the start of the Chase for the Cup format, the No. 2 Dodge team needs to prove that they can win and challenge for this season's championship. Busch visits the perfect venue to make that statement this weekend. The Penske Racing veteran may not stroll back into victory lane this weekend at AMS, but that doesn't mean that he isn't worthy of fantasy racing consideration in the Emory Healthcare 500. As Busch showed us at Atlanta earlier this year, he can be the driver to beat on these intermediate ovals.

The intermediate oval is the most frequent type of track found on the Sprint Cup Series circuit. 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. Here are the loop stats for the last 11 races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson9.13742233823,220109.5
Jeff Gordon10.23651551532,857101.8
Carl Edwards16.43162912842,62999.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.11.83632223002,65798.7
Tony Stewart10.53441623182,59798.7
Kurt Busch17.73422335092,22397.0
Matt Kenseth8.93651381412,58896.5
Greg Biffle14.53532142882,64795.0
Denny Hamlin15.93161331302,18194.5
Kasey Kahne18.22662102932,26193.3
Kyle Busch16.13051423002,00988.7
Martin Truex Jr.23.43331092042,30687.6
Juan Pablo Montoya18.328884341,52286.8
Mark Martin19.227895502,18685.7
Jeff Burton15.12763742,32284.9
Clint Bowyer16.420457581,61281.8
Kevin Harvick17.1240101771,56881.1
Brad Keselowski36.04510016476.5
Jamie McMurray21.02431001,33671.6
Ryan Newman20.317815121,06971.0

Atlanta Motor Speedway is another in a series of 1.5-mile “cookie cutter” ovals that are in the schedule of the Sprint Cup Series. It's a given that Dodge and Ford teams will be battling for the win this weekend. We expect the race winner to most likely come from one of these two manufacturers since Penske, Roush and Petty drivers have captured the last four AMS victories. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have been very competitive on the intermediate ovals this season, so they should throw their hats in the ring as well. There will only be a few drivers to contend with these stables at Atlanta Motor Speedway. We expect the “outside threat” to come from the Michael Waltrip Racing duo of David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr., with Reutimann being the lead team of the pair. Reutimann's recent win at Chicago as well as his Top 5 in this event one year ago are fresh in our memory. 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 Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Carl Edwards –
Edwards has been an intermediate oval ace the last few seasons in Sprint Cup racing. The No. 99 Ford is usually among the leaders when we visit these 1.5-mile tracks. Edwards has not visited victory lane yet in 2010, but he has managed to turn around his slow season in recent weeks. He owns three career victories at AMS, and close to 300 laps led, so it will be an excellent opportunity for Edwards to rack up his first win of the season.

Kurt Busch –
The winner of the last two spring races at Atlanta Motor Speedway returns this week and will attempt the season-sweep at the fast Hampton, Georgia track. Busch dominated the Kobalt Tools 500 by leading 129 laps and running away with the win, his third at this oval. The No 2 Dodge will be fast and the notebook will come in handy this Sunday. If Busch doesn't win, he should easily crack the Top 10 like he has in three of his last four visits to this track.

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson is attempting to turn around his recent slump and build momentum as we quickly head into the Chase. He can shore up his championship standings position this Sunday at Atlanta and restore some confidence inside the No. 48 team. Johnson is a three-time winner at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but his luck hasn't been so good at the 1.5-mile track the last couple outings. The Hendrick Motorsports star is looking to rally, and he will be in the mix for the victory in the Emory Healthcare 500.

Kasey Kahne –
The No. 9 Ford team has shown us in the last few seasons why Kahne and the team should be feared on intermediate ovals. He has two career victories at Atlanta Motor Speedway with one of them coming in this race one year ago. In Khane's last two visits to the intermediate oval he's led over 200 laps. The Richard Petty Motorsports star has finishes of fourth, fifth, and sixth at Las Vegas, Fort Worth and Chicago this season, so he'll be up front in this night race at Atlanta.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are a near lock for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Tony Stewart –
Atlanta Motor Speedway has been a great track for Smoke in recent seasons. Stewart is a two-time AMS winner and has led close to 800 laps at the intermediate oval for his career. His recent intermediate oval performances bear examination prior to this week's race. Stewart racked up a Top 10 recently at Chicago, and he's posted a string of nine Top 10's in the last 11 races. The No. 14 Chevrolet team is on fire.

Greg Biffle –
Although Biffle has never won at Atlanta, he's been pretty remarkable at the speedway the last few years. Precariously perched in Chase contention at 11th-place in the standings, he will make the best possible effort this weekend. Biffle has a career 60 percent Top 10 rate in 15 Atlanta races. Four of his last five trips to the oval in Hampton, Georgia have resulted in Top-10 finishes. Biffle posted a solid eighth-place finish in this season's Kobalt Tools 500.

Jeff Gordon –
He is still searching for the magic to push the No. 24 team from consistency into victory lane and championship contention this season. Gordon will use this start to fine tune the team for a championship run in this season's Chase for the Cup. While it has been many years (2003) since the last of Gordon's four wins at AMS, he's been competitive in recent races at the oval. The Hendrick Motorsports icon has led 78 laps and cracked the Top 10 in five of his last six Atlanta outings.

David Reutimann –
One of our favorite sleepers this season on the intermediate ovals has been Reutimann and the No. 00 team. The numbers are an unmistakable endorsement of his ability these 1.5-mile tracks. Reutimann captured his second career Cup win at Chicago recently when he out-dueled Jeff Gordon for the win. The Michael Waltrip Racing star finished a stellar fourth in this race one year ago, and we see a similar performance on tap for this weekend.

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

Kevin Harvick –
The championship standings leader appears poised to cruise into the Chase with the points lead and a good setup for a run at his first championship. Harvick won his first career Sprint Cup Series victory at the oval, so you know he loves the place. In recent years, the No. 29 team has been very consistent at the intermediate oval. Harvick has four Top 10's in his last five visits to Atlanta Motor Speedway, including a stellar runner-up finish in this event one year ago.

Matt Kenseth –
While Kenseth has had a rather lackluster year despite being ranked eighth in the championship standings. The veteran Roush Fenway driver has always been proficient at AMS, so he should shore up his Chase position after a run at Atlanta this weekend. Six of Kenseth's last eight trips to Hampton, Georgia have yielded Top 10's. That includes his awesome second-place effort (one of his best finishes of the season) in this spring's Kobalt Tools 500. The No. 17 team is riding a two-race Top 10 streak into Atlanta, and we're willing to bet Kenseth will extend that streak to three.

A.J. Allmendinger –
Steady yet unspectacular best describes this Richard Petty Motorsports driver at Atlanta. While it has been an up-and-down season for the No. 43 team, Allmendinger has managed to post good finishes at his best tracks. In five career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway he has managed to crack the Top 20 in all five events. Allmendinger posted his career-best Atlanta effort with a sixth-place finish in the Kobalt Tools 500 earlier this year. It's clear that he loves this intermediate oval.

Jamie McMurray –
The Earnhardt Ganassi teams have shown at times this season, they can be as fast as anyone on the track. McMurray has been especially surprising and impressive. He has only four career Top 10's at AMS, but don't let the resume cloud your judgment. McMurray grabbed a pole position and finished fifth in his last intermediate oval race at Chicagoland Speedway, so watch out for the No. 1 Chevrolet team this weekend.

Martin Truex Jr. –
While Truex and his No. 56 Toyota team are well outside the Chase for the Cup field, there still should be plenty of motivation to race well at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Truex will look to build more chemistry with his team for a better 2011 season, so the homework starts now. The team had a good car at Atlanta in the spring, but a late accident ruined their outing in the Kobalt Tools 500. Truex is likely capable of equaling the respectable 11th-place finish he posted at Chicago a few weeks ago.

Paul Menard –
The deep sleeper of the field would have to be Menard and the No. 98 team of Richard Petty Motorsports. He's been fantasy racing irrelevant for parts of the year, but has shown some signs of life as we approach the two-thirds marker of the season. Menard has posted 15th- and fifth-place finishes in his last two Atlanta races, and his recent Top 10 at Chicago grabs our attention as well. You could do far worse than to take a chance on the No. 98 team this weekend in the Emory Healthcare 500.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Kyle Busch –
Busch has a love/hate affair with Atlanta Motor Speedway. While he did win the spring race here in 2008, it was only his second career Top 10 in 12 starts at the intermediate oval. Luck has been a real problem for the Joe Gibbs Racing ace at this facility. His 25th-place finish in this spring's Kobalt Tools 500 isn't very inspiring despite the fact that he'll be racing to improve his Chase position on Sunday.

Ryan Newman –
Rocket Man is still looking to race his way into the Chase for the Cup. Ranked at 15th-place entering this event, it's not likely the No. 39 team will move anyone outside the Top 12 with two races remaining. Newman has been a pole specialist at Atlanta over the years, but not a good finisher. Three of his last four efforts at the speedway have been results outside the Top 15. Newman's 22nd-place finish at Chicago recently has us questioning the team's intermediate oval program right now.

Sam Hornish Jr. –
Hornish is in much the same category as Newman this weekend. He's been very useful to fantasy racing owners throughout the season, but there are weekends to pass on the No. 77 Penske Racing team. Five career starts at AMS have yet to yield a Top-20 finish for Hornish. Intermediate ovals have been a mixed affair for him, so don't take a chance this weekend.

Mark Martin –
We're gambling on the odds this weekend by placing Martin in the flops list. While he's a two time Atlanta winner and has 23 career Top 10's at the Georgia speedway, his recent history at AMS has been anything but stellar. Martin has only one Top 10 in his last six Atlanta races. That includes his crash and DNF here in this season's Kobalt Tools 500. The slumping No. 5 team isn't a good option for this event.