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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 one and only visit of the 2012 season. The lightning-fast quad oval plays host to the AdvoCare 500 this Sunday night, and it will signal that time is winding down leading into the Chase for the Cup. Now, as the "regular" season comes to a close, we head to AMS for a very crucial event at the 1.5-mile track. Ranked 14th in the championship standings, our last Atlanta winner, Jeff Gordon, is clinging to Chase for the Cup hopes. Now, with just two races remaining until the start of the Chase format, the No. 24 Chevrolet team needs to prove that they can win and do it to make the field for this season's playoff. Gordon visits the perfect venue to make that statement this weekend. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran faces a tough challenge to stroll back into victory lane this weekend at the Atlanta oval, but that doesn't mean that he isn't worthy of fantasy racing consideration in the AdvoCare 500. Gordon is a five-time winner at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and sub-par seasons have not kept him from dominating in the past at this facility. In addition to Gordon, there are a couple other drivers with Chase hopes this season that have dominated recently at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards 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, Georgia.

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 2012 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 13 races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson8.14972614203,775109.5
Jeff Gordon9.75012192993,439104.1
Tony Stewart9.24742304943,181102.3
Carl Edwards14.44273393303,265101.8
Denny Hamlin17.53821682092,64996.2
Matt Kenseth9.14491612052,94296.2
Kurt Busch15.84422445192,57896.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.24052233002,82094.3
Greg Biffle16.04742352883,03392.9
Kasey Kahne20.53372303242,59391.0
Kyle Busch15.84031973192,42490.6
Martin Truex Jr.21.74701112072,92288.9
Juan Pablo Montoya16.940698341,96287.4
Jeff Burton14.13684042,62485.0
Kevin Harvick17.5371135772,09983.5
Clint Bowyer17.430160662,11783.3
Mark Martin19.229695502,24382.7
Brian Vickers14.63953982,00580.9
Brad Keselowski22.311819248076.1
Jamie McMurray20.23462301,62873.1

Given what has happened to-date on the intermediate ovals this season, it's almost certain that the Hendrick Chevrolet teams and Roush Fenway 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 Hendrick 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. Brad Keselowski won in our last 1.5-mile oval event at Kentucky earlier this summer, and he enters this weekend as one of the hottest drivers in the series. 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 Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., with Earnhardt being the lead team of the pair. While the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet's only win at AMS came a long time ago (2004), right now Earnhardt is one of a handful of drivers showing up every weekend with race-winning potential cars. 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

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson was winless in the first 10 races of the season, but he's racked up three wins in the last 14 events. The Hendrick Motorsports star needs 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. The five-time champion has finishes of second- and third-place in his last two trips to AMS, and that helps boost his eye-popping 55 percent Top 5 rate at this track. Johnson should be in the mix for the victory in the AdvoCare 500.

Greg Biffle -
The Bif' has been absolutely dominant on the intermediate oval circuit this season. He has one victory, four Top-5 finishes and nearly 300 laps led in the five events thus far. Atlanta has not held a great deal of success for the Roush Fenway Racing star, but we believe the championship standings leader will buck that trend this weekend. Charlotte Motor Speedway probably best mirrors Atlanta Motor Speedway of any of the tracks on the circuit. Biffle led over 200 laps there and finished fourth earlier in the summer. We expect the No. 16 team to roll that same chassis off the hauler this weekend.

Kasey Kahne -
The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports 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. Additionally, his intermediate oval performances have been excellent this season. With a victory at Charlotte and runner-up finish at Kentucky this summer, Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have been zeroed-in on these 1.5-mile ovals. The driver of the No. 5 Chevy's upside is simply too good to ignore in this 500-mile event.

Brad Keselowski -
The hottest driver in the series ran into a kink at Bristol this past weekend. Keselowski will attempt to put his short-track heartache behind him at Atlanta this Sunday evening. He has one win and two Top-5 finishes in the five intermediate oval races this season. We note that the Penske Racing rising star doesn't have much to show for in his three career visits to AMS, outside of his sixth-place finish in this race one year ago. Keselowski should redefine his Atlanta resume with a challenge for the win in this Sunday's AdvoCare 500.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt is a perfect five-for-five in Top 10s on intermediate ovals this season. He's not led that many laps at these facilities, but his finishes have gotten progressively better with a season-best of fourth-place at Kentucky recently. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet should be elated to visit Atlanta this Sunday. He is a one-time winner at this facility and has 10 career Top-10 finishes at the mid-Georgia speedway. Earnhardt's consistency on the intermediate ovals is a major reason why he is championship contention this late in the season, so the Hendrick star should be dialed-in for a good Atlanta run.

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. Seven of Kenseth's last 10 trips to Hampton, Georgia have yielded Top 10s. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has four intermediate oval Top 10s on the season, and that includes 10th- and seventh-place finishes at Charlotte and Kentucky during the summer. Kenseth is a true solid play for the 500-mile event at Atlanta.

Jeff Gordon -
He is still searching for that elusive victory to put the No. 24 team in the wildcard spot for the Chase for the Cup field. Gordon will have utmost urgency this weekend at AMS, and we should see the results on the track. He won this event one year ago under the lights, so that should be a big morale boost heading into the AdvoCare 500. The Hendrick Motorsports icon has a career 63 percent Top 10 rate at Atlanta Motor Speedway. With finishes of seventh- and fifth-place this summer at intermediate ovals at Charlotte and Kentucky, we should expect similar results this Sunday evening at the Georgia oval.

Denny Hamlin -
The big Bristol win this past weekend has breathed new life into this team. Not only was that Hamlin's first Bristol win, but it also ended several weeks of poor performances for the No. 11 Toyota team. Now we turn to intermediate oval racing and that's one thing Hamlin has been very proficient at this season. His win earlier this season at Kansas was closely followed by second- and third-place finishes at Charlotte and Kentucky. Hamlin doesn't have the best career numbers at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but he does boast over 200 laps led in 12 starts and an eighth-place finish in this event one year ago.

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

Carl Edwards -
The back-flipping Roush Fenway star has been on the comeback trail in recent races. With Top 10s in two of the last four races, Edwards is battling hard to secure a berth in the Chase for the Cup. It could all begin with a victory this Sunday evening at Atlanta. The No. 99 Ford is usually among the leaders when we visit these 1.5-mile ovals. Edwards has had a sub-par season, but he has managed a decent record on the intermediate ovals. Top 10s at Las Vegas, Fort Worth, Kansas and Charlotte are a good sign coming into the AdvoCare 500. Edwards' three career wins and stellar 71 percent Top 10 rate at AMS help boost our confidence too.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has a love/hate affair with Atlanta Motor Speedway. While he has only three Top 10s in 14 starts at AMS, several of his outings were flirtations with winner's circle. Busch has led well over 300 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 well over 170 laps in his last two outings (Charlotte and Kentucky) with third- and 10th-place finishes to show for. The way Busch is performing right now, he has to be a stealth favorite for the AdvoCare 500.

Marcos Ambrose -
While Ambrose and his No. 9 Ford team are outside looking in on the Chase for the Cup field, there still should be plenty of motivation to race well at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He enters this weekend on a three-race Top-5 streak and performing as well as ever in his five-year career. The Aussie qualified second and led 20 laps at the similar oval in Charlotte during the summer. Ambrose has been pretty consistent on these style ovals in 2012. With Top 11's in two of his last three trips to Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver is confident and riding a huge wave of momentum into Sunday night's race.

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 13 Top 10s this season have come on the cookie cutter ovals, and Truex is fresh off 44 laps led and a solid 11th-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway. Atlanta has held some success for the veteran driver in recent seasons. Truex has one pole position and four Top-15 finishes in his last six trips to central Georgia. Considering his laps led and great performances on the intermediate ovals this season, Truex has the potential to post a career-best finish at AMS this time around.

Paul Menard -
The Richard Childress Racing driver is performing great entering this weekend's AdvoCare 500. Menard has Top 10s in his last two races (Michigan and Bristol) and has no finish worse than 17th since late June. He comes to an Atlanta track that has been somewhat of a puzzle for him over the years, but there's good reason to be optimistic this weekend. Menard has finished as high as fifth (2010) at the speedway just outside Atlanta. Additionally, he's been pretty solid on the 1.5-mile tracks with an average finish of 14.0 this season on these fast tracks.

Trevor Bayne -
Bayne put on a show at Michigan recently by racing in the Top 10 in the late stages and looking great. However, it all went up in smoke when the No. 21 Ford cut a tire down with the finish line practically in sight. The young Wood Brothers Racing driver should rebound this weekend at Atlanta. Bayne has never made a Sprint Cup start at the lightning-fast quad-oval, but don't let that concern you. He has one Top 10 in thee intermediate oval starts this season. Besides, Bayne is the best upside driver in many weekly lineup league formats this weekend.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Tony Stewart -
Atlanta Motor Speedway has been a great track for Smoke over the years. Stewart is a three-time AMS winner and has led close to a thousand laps at the intermediate oval for his career. Our reigning champion has fallen on hard times of late and nothing seems to be going right. Nothing illustrates this better than Stewart's sub-par car at Bristol last weekend and subsequent helmet tossing incident after his crash and DNF. Outside of Stewart's victory at Las Vegas early on in the season, he has four very forgettable efforts on the intermediate tracks in 2012.

Kurt Busch -
Another three-time Atlanta winner to cross off your fantasy racing lists this weekend is Phoenix Racing veteran Busch. He's had a very tough season with only two Top-10s to this point in the year. Even though Atlanta Motor Speedway has yielded a ton of results (three wins and nine Top-10 finishes) we have to back down from the driver of the No. 51 Chevy in the AdvoCare 500. Busch has no finishes inside the Top 20 in the last seven races. We don't expect that trend will change this Sunday night.

Mark Martin -
Although this season has been like a real lift in morale and boost in confidence for Martin, the veteran driver is likely one to steer clear of at Atlanta. The driver of the No. 55 Toyota has only one Top-10 finish in four intermediate oval races this season and two DNF's due to engine failures. Martin has had fast cars at these style ovals, but has really not picked up the finishes expected. The veteran driver has only one Top 10 in his last eight trips to Atlanta Motor Speedway, so this facility has been quite a challenge for Martin in the later stages of his career.

David Ragan -
While Ragan was a proficient driver on the intermediate ovals last season for former boss Jack Roush, he's been a complete disaster in 2012 with new team Front Row Motorsports. Ragan picked up 11th- and 12th-place finishes at Charlotte and Fort Worth at the end of last season, but he's been a different story completely this season. Ragan has only one finish inside the Top 25 this season on the intermediate ovals and a woeful average finish of 30.0 at these style tracks. The driver of the No. 34 Ford has only one Top 10 in nine career starts at AMS, and that does not bode well going into the AdvoCare 500.