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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.

We stay on prime time television this week, but we head to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the one and only visit of the 2013 season. The lightning-fast quad oval will host the AdvoCare 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 25th in the championship standings, our last Atlanta winner, Denny Hamlin, is all but eliminated from Chase contention this season. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is struggling with back pain, so the chances of his defending this race title are slim to none. With just two races remaining until the start of the Chase format, the No. 11 Toyota team is thinking towards next year. 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 Furniture Row Racing veteran Kurt Busch. The driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet enters Atlanta weekend 12th in the Chase for the Cup standings and fighting to keep his playoff hopes alive. Busch is a three-time winner at AMS and two of those victories have come since the 2009 season. We've been waiting all season 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 Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. Gordon is a five-time winner at AMS, and Truex nearly won the race here one year ago were it not for an untimely caution late in the event. Both are a tantalizing 13th- and 14th-place in the Chase standings and have the urgency of time running out. For many drivers, there's a lot to race for this weekend in the AdvoCare 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 2013 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 14 races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson9.95322724204,043108.3
Jeff Gordon9.15492383053,765104.8
Tony Stewart10.14902335023,231100.2
Carl Edwards15.94793413303,48499.8
Denny Hamlin16.24032413142,97699.7
Matt Kenseth9.14961642053,26896.4
Kurt Busch15.64612555192,62894.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.74312233002,89793.3
Kyle Busch15.14462173852,75192.8
Greg Biffle15.95092372893,24992.6
Martin Truex Jr.20.35061422473,21790.8
Kasey Kahne20.63412343242,60988.9
Kevin Harvick16.64001791782,40986.4
Juan Pablo Montoya17.340698341,96384.9
Jeff Burton13.94004042,76384.6
Brad Keselowski17.516323278883.7
Mark Martin18.535197502,55583.5
Clint Bowyer18.233662662,25583.0
Brian Vickers14.63953982,00580.9
A.J. Allmendinger14.420919179174.4

Given what has happened to-date on the intermediate ovals this season, it's almost certain that the Hendrick Chevrolet teams and Joe Gibbs Toyota 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 Gibbs 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 Ford teams of Penske Racing either. Brad Keselowski and the streaking Joey Logano are racing well on these style tracks and can pull the upset any given weekend. So there's a good chance that the manufacturer Ford 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 Michael Waltrip Racing duo of Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers, with Truex being the lead team of the pair. The Toyota duo has performed well in recent races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and the driver of the No. 56 Toyota had a major brush with victory lane here 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 AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

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 Joe Gibbs Racing driver has always been proficient at AMS, so he should shore up his Chase position after a great run at Atlanta this weekend. Kenseth has been the most dominant driver in the series this year on the intermediate ovals, with three victories. Three of Kenseth's last four 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 58 percent Top-10 rate at the oval. Kenseth is a true contender for the win in this 500-mile event at Atlanta.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson has four victories for the season, but he's racked up two of those wins in the last 11 events. The Hendrick Motorsports star needs to rediscover his race-winning form if he hopes to win that elusive sixth 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 three trips to AMS, and that helps boost his eye-popping 52 percent Top 5 rate at this track. Johnson should be in the mix for the victory in the AdvoCare 500.

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 runner-up finishes at Las Vegas, Kansas and Charlotte, Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have been zeroed-in on these 1.5-mile ovals. Only Matt Kenseth has been a smidgen better, and that's been the difference in victory. The driver of the No. 5 Chevy's potential is simply too good to ignore in this 500-mile event.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has a love/hate affair with Atlanta Motor Speedway. While he has only four Top 10s in 15 starts at AMS, one of those was a victory in 2008. Busch has led close to 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 263 laps in those five races and has one win (Fort Worth) and three Top-5 finishes. The way Busch is performing right now, he has to be a stealth favorite for the AdvoCare 500.

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

Kurt Busch -
Another three-time Atlanta winner to add to your fantasy racing lists this weekend is Furniture Row Racing veteran Busch. He's had a very good season with six Top 5s and 11 Top 10s through the first 24 races. Atlanta Motor Speedway has yielded a ton of results (three wins and nine Top-10 finishes) over his career, so we have to give a hearty recommendation to the driver of the No. 78 Chevy in the AdvoCare 500. Busch has finishes of third- and sixth-place (Charlotte and Kentucky) in his last two intermediate oval starts, so we expect big things for this veteran driver at Atlanta Sunday night.

Martin Truex Jr. -
One of our favorite sleepers every time we visit Atlanta has been Truex Jr. and his Michael Waltrip Racing team. Five of his 9 Top 10s this season have come on the cookie cutter ovals, and Truex is fresh off a strong seventh-place finish at Kentucky Speedway just a few weeks ago. Atlanta has held some success for the veteran driver in recent seasons. Truex has one pole position, 111 laps led and one Top-5 finish in his last four trips to central Georgia. Considering his laps led and great performances on the intermediate ovals this season, Truex has the potential to mount an outside run at victory lane this weekend.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver has had a great mid-season run in 2013. It started with his Top-5 finish at Charlotte in late May and has culminated in a victory at Michigan earlier this month and totaled four Top 5s and 10 Top 10s during the summer months. The driver of the No. 22 Ford is riding a five-race Top-10 streak into Atlanta this Sunday night. Logano has struggled in past seasons at the 1.5-mile quad oval, but not this time around. Recent intermediate oval outings show three Top 5s in five events in 2013. An energized and purposeful (the Chase) Logano will be racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend, and we'll see that in the results.

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 the utmost urgency this weekend at AMS, and we should see the results on the track. He won this event two years ago under the lights, and he finished runner-up in last season's AdvoCare 500. The Hendrick Motorsports icon has a career 64 percent Top-10 rate at Atlanta Motor Speedway. With finishes a finish of eighth in his last intermediate oval race at Kentucky Speedway, we should expect similar if not better results this Sunday evening at the Georgia oval.

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

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick has one victory and three Top-10 finishes on these ovals this season. He's not led that many laps at these facilities, but his finishes have been well above the norm with an average finish of 9.0. The driver of the No. 29 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 five of his last six trips to Atlanta's oval. Harvick led a staggering 101 laps and finished fifth in this race one year ago. He should be up to the task of a good performance in Sunday's AdvoCare 500.

Brian Vickers -
The new full-time driver of the No. 55 Toyota has a strong career record at the mid-Georgia speedway. Vickers hasn't made a start there since the 2011 season, but his last three finishes are seventh-, seventh- and 11th-place. It's quite clear that he likes racing this very fast quad oval. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver owns an eighth-place finish at the similar oval in Texas earlier this season. That was in relief duty for Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 Toyota during his back injury hiatus. Given the level of the MWR stable and their excellence on these intermediate ovals, Vickers should have a good outing in this 500-mile event.

Carl Edwards -
The back-flipping Roush Fenway star has been on the comeback trail on intermediate ovals of late. After a pair of Top 5s to start the season on the cookie cutter ovals, Edwards has cooled off in the last three races on these style tracks. The No. 99 Ford team is usually among the leaders when we visit Atlanta Motor Speedway. Edwards has three career wins and stellar 67 percent Top 10 rate at AMS over 15 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.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
He may be looking for a job in 2014, but that may just be the reason why he's racing the wheels off the No. 42 Chevrolet at the moment. Since it was announced that Montoya wouldn't be returning to the EGR team next season, he's been absolutely on fire. Three of his six Top-10 finishes this season have come in the last five races. Montoya has always liked racing the oval in Atlanta. He sports three Top 10s in five career starts at the 1.5-mile track. Montoya's last start on an intermediate oval was a steady 16th-place effort at Kentucky Motor Speedway just a few weeks ago. We're betting he'll be much better than that Sunday night in Atlanta.

Clint Bowyer -
Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr. aren't the only Michael Waltrip Racing drivers that will be making waves at AMS this weekend. Bowyer brings solid career stats at this oval to Sunday's AdvoCare 500, and he also brings a strong season resume on the 1.5-mile oval circuit. His last three starts on this style track have netted fifth-, eighth- and third-place finishes at Kansas, Charlotte and Kentucky. Bowyer's Atlanta record shows five Top-10 finishes in 12 career starts which work out to a respectable 42 percent rate. All indicators point towards a likely Top-10 finish in the AdvoCare 500.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The journeyman driver will continue his part-time schedule this weekend in the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota. The intermediate ovals have been few and far between for Allmendinger this season with only one start, but it's his career record at Atlanta that gets us excited. He owns two Top 10s and seven Top 20s in seven career starts at the Georgia quad oval. Allmendinger's last trip to AMS yielded an impressive 10th-place finish. While we don't think he'll be up to that task this Sunday night, we certainly believe a Top-20 finish is quite likely.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Denny Hamlin -
The big Bristol pole position this past weekend turned out to be nothing more than a head fake. The bottom line is that Hamlin's ailing back hurts and it's proven to be a huge impact on his racing 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 only one Top 10 in three starts on the 1.5-mile ovals and an 18.0 average finish over that span.

Jamie McMurray -
Atlanta Motor Speedway has always been tough for this Earnhardt Ganassi Racing veteran. In 19 career starts, McMurray has only claimed four Top-10 finishes. That works out to a lowly 21 percent rate. He's only cracked the Top 15 once 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 AdvoCare 500, but it's probably best played to keep McMurray benched this weekend.

Mark Martin -
Although the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran has been named relief driver of Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet, he is likely a name to steer clear of at Atlanta. Despite two wins and 24 Top-10 finishes at Atlanta, Martin has struggled there in recent seasons. The veteran driver has only two Top-10 finishes in his last nine trips to Atlanta Motor Speedway, so this facility has been quite a challenge for Martin in the later stages of his career. With the new team and unfamiliar surroundings of Stewart Haas Racing, we're not convinced things will be any different this time around.

Danica Patrick -
The Patrick rebound is going to take a brief pause this weekend. After finishes of 20th-, 23rd- and 26th-place in the last three events, hopes had grown high for some good finishes late in the season for the No. 10 team. Atlanta doesn't hold that promise. In fact, intermediate ovals have been very tough on NASCAR's top female driver. Four of her five starts on the 1.5-mile ovals this season have been finishes outside the Top 25 for an average finish of 27.6. Patrick's only career start at Atlanta Motor Speedway came in this race one year ago, a disappointing 29th-place finish.