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AdvoCare 500 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.

This weekend we head to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the season's first race at the Intermediate oval. The lightning-fast quad oval will host the AdvoCare 500 this Sunday night, and it will signal that time is short heading into the Chase for the Cup. Since NASCAR shuffled the schedule this season, we no longer have the two Atlanta dates. The September race that sets up for the Chase is the only date remaining at the Georgia oval. Now, as the "regular" season winds down, we head to AMS for a very crucial event at the 1.5-mile track. Currently ranked 10th in the championship standings, our last Atlanta winner, Tony Stewart, is clinging to Chase for the Cup contention. Now, with just two races remaining until the start of the Chase format, the No. 14 Chevrolet team needs to prove that they can win and challenge for this season's championship. Stewart visits the perfect venue to make that statement this weekend. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran won't likely 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 AdvoCare 500. Stewart is a three-time winner at the Atlanta oval, and sub-par seasons have not kept him from dominating in the past at this facility. In addition to Stewart, there are a couple other drivers with Chase hopes this season that have dominated recently at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch are two names that come to mind right away. Both have a lot on the line in this Sunday's 500-mile event outside Atlanta.

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 2011 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 12 races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson8.64372433903,545110.1
Tony Stewart9.73902124942,922102.3
Carl Edwards15.23623163162,952101.2
Jeff Gordon10.44341581533,125100.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.73982233002,81896.9
Kurt Busch16.83682365192,30095.6
Denny Hamlin18.43261472042,32494.7
Matt Kenseth9.13901391412,63094.5
Greg Biffle16.33962342882,79593.7
Kasey Kahne19.33322173092,56193.1
Kyle Busch15.23611823002,24490.6
Martin Truex Jr.22.43961092042,63189.2
Juan Pablo Montoya17.136395341,82388.7
Jeff Burton14.23303842,46485.3
Mark Martin19.329295502,23284.1
Clint Bowyer15.525657581,87982.6
Kevin Harvick18.4300117771,79381.1
Brian Vickers14.93473981,84380.5
Jamie McMurray20.52922301,49672.9
Ryan Newman19.323825211,31772.9

Atlanta Motor Speedway is another in a series of 1.5-mile "cookie cutter" ovals that are in the Sprint Cup Series schedule. It's a given that the Roush Ford teams and Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 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 Gibbs and Roush drivers have captured the majority of the victories on intermediate ovals this season. However, we can't count out the Dodge teams of Penske Racing either. Kurt Busch has three career wins at this quad-oval, and the surging Brad Keselowski picked up his first career intermediate oval win earlier this summer at Kansas Speedway. So there's a good chance that the manufacturer Dodge will 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 Chevrolet duo of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, with Johnson being the lead team of the pair. The defending Sprint Cup Series champion's three career victories at AMS 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 AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Carl Edwards
If Edwards hopes to turn around his recent skid, it could all begin with a victory this Sunday at Atlanta. The No. 99 Ford is usually among the leaders when we visit these 1.5-mile ovals. Edwards has only one win in 2011, but it came at the intermediate oval in Las Vegas this spring. He owns three career victories at AMS, and well over 300 laps led, so it will be an excellent opportunity for Edwards to rack up his second victory of the season heading into the Chase for the Cup.

Kyle Busch
Busch has a love/hate affair with Atlanta Motor Speedway. While he has only three Top 10's in 13 starts at AMS, those three outings were flirtations with winner's circle. Busch actually cashed in and got the win in Atlanta in the spring of 2008, so it's clear that he can dominate at this facility. Busch's last outing at the 1.5-mile quad oval yielded a stellar fifth-place finish. With the way the Joe Gibbs Racing star is performing right now, he has to be the odds-on favorite for the AdvoCare 500.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson has had trouble winning races in 2011. That's no joke. The Hendrick Motorsports star will have to rediscover his race-winning form if he hopes to win yet another 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. Our reigning Sprint Cup champion is looking to rally, and he will be in the mix for the victory at AMS this Sunday night.

Matt Kenseth
While Kenseth has never visited victory lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway, we can't overlook him in our fantasy picks this weekend. The veteran Roush Fenway driver has always been proficient at AMS, so he should shore up his Chase position after a great run at Atlanta this weekend. Five of Kenseth's last nine trips to Hampton, Georgia have yielded Top 5's. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has two victories on the season, with one being at the intermediate oval in Fort Worth. Kenseth is a stealth contender for the 500-mile event at Atlanta.

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

Kurt Busch
The winner of the last two spring races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and three-time winner at the track, Busch, comes to central Georgia this weekend looking for a boost before the Chase starts. The Penske Racing star has had a rough month of July and August, with tons of inconsistency and bad luck. Hopefully, the intermediate oval that has yielded so much success for Busch will turn things around for the No. 22 team. If Busch doesn't win, he should easily crack the Top 10 like he has in four of his last five visits to this track.

Tony Stewart
Atlanta Motor Speedway has been a great track for Smoke in recent seasons. Stewart is a three-time AMS winner and has led close to a thousand laps at the intermediate oval for his career. His last start at the 1.5-mile quad oval was one of the more dominant outings of his Sprint Cup career. Stewart led 176 of the 325 laps and walked away with his third career Atlanta trophy in this event one year ago. The No. 14 Chevrolet team is battling consistency issues right now, but the friendly confines of Atlanta Motor Speedway should produce his 15th career Top 10 at this oval.

Ryan Newman
Rocket Man is still looking to clinch a spot in the Chase for the Cup. Ranked at seventh-place entering this event, it's very likely that the veteran driver will shore up a spot in this season's playoff field. Newman has been a pole specialist at Atlanta over the years, but not a consistent finisher. His seven career pole positions at AMS are quite an accomplishment. The last couple seasons, Newman's ability to finish races at the intermediate oval has started to parallel his qualifying prowess. Two of his last three trips to the 1.5-mile track have netted Top-10 finishes.

Jeff Gordon
He is still searching for the magic to push the No. 24 team from consistency into 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 a career 62 percent Top 10 rate at Atlanta Motor Speedway. With finishes of fourth- and 10th-place this summer at intermediate ovals in Kansas and Kentucky, we should expect similar results this Sunday evening in the AdvoCare 500.

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

Kevin Harvick
The Richard Childress Racing star hopes to recapture some momentum heading into this season's Chase for the Cup. He's been well off most folks' radar screens most of the summer, with his last victory coming in May at Charlotte. Harvick won his first career Sprint Cup Series victory at this oval, so you know he loves Atlanta Motor Speedway. In recent years, the No. 29 team has been very consistent at the intermediate oval. Harvick has three Top 10's in his last four visits to AMS, so it should be racing downhill for the Budweiser Chevy this weekend.

Brad Keselowski
The hottest driver in the series is on a tear heading to the quad-oval just outside Atlanta this weekend. Fresh off his third win of the season at Bristol, Keselowski has two wins, a second- and a third-place finish in his last four starts. We note that the Penske Racing rising star doesn't have much to show for in his two career visits to AMS, outside of flying air born into the front stretch fence after a payback hit from Carl Edwards last spring. Keselowski should redefine his Atlanta resume with yet another Top-5 finish in this Sunday's AdvoCare 500.

Kasey Kahne
The No. 4 Red Bull Racing team 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. While his intermediate oval performances have been sub-par this season, we have to look past that this weekend. Kahne's upside is simply too good to ignore in this 500-mile event. At the very least the Red Bull Racing star should crack the Top 15 at Atlanta.

Martin Truex Jr.
One of our favorite sleepers the last few weeks has been Truex Jr. and his Michael Waltrip Racing team. Three of his eight Top 10's this season have come in just the last six races, and Truex is fresh off a stellar runner-up finish at Bristol Motor Speedway. Atlanta has held some success for the veteran driver in recent seasons. Truex has one pole position and three Top-15 finishes in his last five trips to central Georgia. He has the potential to post a career-best finish at the oval this Sunday night.

David Ragan
Ragan comes to Atlanta this weekend looking to snap out of a six-race Top 10 drought. The trip to AMS comes at a great time for the Roush Fenway Racing youngster. Ragan has been pretty strong on intermediate ovals this season, with finishes of seventh, second, 13th and eighth at Texas, Charlotte, Kansas and Kentucky. His last visit to Atlanta yielded an unspectacular 19th-place finish in this event one year ago. We're willing to bet he does much better this time around.

Marcos Ambrose
While Ambrose and his No. 9 Ford team are well outside the Chase for the Cup field, there still should be plenty of motivation to race well at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Ambrose will look to build more chemistry with his team for a better 2012 season, so the homework starts now. The Aussie picked up 11th- and 10th-place finishes at the quad oval in 2010 while racing for former boss JTG Daugherty Racing. With Top 10's at Charlotte and Fort Worth earlier this season, there's little doubt that Ambrose and the No. 9 team can perform on these intermediate ovals.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jamie McMurray
Coming off the big Top 5 at Bristol, it's a bit of a bold move to put McMurray in the flops list this week. Still, we have to look at the body of work this season (four Top 10's to this point) and come back to Earth coming to Atlanta Motor Speedway. When we look at his career numbers at this 1.5-mile track, we come even more pessimistic of the No. 1 team this weekend. McMurray has a scant 24 percent Top 10 rate at AMS, and his last four trips to the track have yielded a lowly 21.8 average finish.

Paul Menard
We're not quite sure about what has happened to Menard and this No. 27 team, but it's clear they've run out of mo-jo, momentum, good luck or something. The Richard Childress Racing driver has fallen on hard times of late with three finishes outside the Top 25 in his last three starts. Despite racing well for most of the season, Menard's success has come pretty much everywhere but intermediate ovals. When we couple that with his 22.0 career average finish at AMS, you can see why we're recommending the bench this week for Menard.

Brian Vickers
The 2011 season can't end soon enough for the struggling No. 83 Toyota team. Vickers' return to NASCAR's top division after the 2010 illness has been anything but easy. He enters this race ranked a lowly 27th in the series standings, with only five Top-10 finishes thus far. Despite being a consistent performer at AMS in recent years, Vickers' intermediate oval performances this season have been dismal. We expect a rough ride for the veteran driver this week at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Clint Bowyer
While we normally like Bowyer when we visit the intermediate ovals, we have to give him the major downgrade this week. The No. 33 Chevy team limps into this event, with only one Top 10 in their last eight starts. Despite a respectable career 50 percent Top 10 rate at Atlanta Motor Speedway, we can't recommend him for the AdvoCare 500. Ongoing contract negotiations with owner Richard Childress have drug on through the summer and the pressure of trying to make the Chase field are conspiring to torpedo this usually dependable driver.
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