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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Atlanta Emory Healthcare 500 Preview: By the Numbers...and Beyond

Atlanta Motor Speedway, located just south of Atlanta Georgia, is a 1.54 mile quad-oval that Sprint Cup drivers will make their way around 325 times on Sunday afternoon. 2010 is the first year the race has been sponsored by Emory Healthcare; previously the Labor Day Cup race has been the Pep Boys 500, the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, the Napa 500 and others. Until 2001 this race was the last race on the NASCAR Cup Series calendar. This weekend 47 drivers will attempt to qualify for the field of 43 that will start the Emory Healthcare 500.

Previous winners that appear in the entry list are Mark Martin, Bill Elliott, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, and Kasey Kahne. Kurt Busch won the 2010 Spring race at Atlanta this year, as well as the Spring 2009 Kobalt Tools 500 and could use a win at this point in the season. Kurt has been sliding backward through the Sprint Cup Points standings, losing six spots since the halfway mark in the season. He hasn't seen a win since back-to-back victories at the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 in May. After a top ten finish at Bristol two weeks ago Kurt needs to have another solid performance in Atlanta to avoid losing more spots in the points.

Jimmie Johnson is one to watch this weekend. Johnson claims two previous wins at this race, in 2004 and 2007. Johnson also won the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2007. With three wins at this track, Jimmie has proven he can be a front-runner. Jimmie is now in fourth place in Cup Series Points after a disappointing 35th place finish caused him to drop four places in the standings. The Lowe's Team has proven that they can bring the competition in the later part of the season over the past four years; I expect that "up-the-performance" show to start from Knaus and Johnson about now.

Carl Edwards is another repeat winner at Atlanta. Carl took home wins from the fall race in 2005 and 2008 and also won the spring race in 2005. Carl's 12th place finish two weekends ago at Thunder Valley did not hurt his season; he moved up two places in the points. With his place in the Chase to the Championship secure Carl will have no problem going out this weekend and taking some chances to get himself to the front of the pack by the end of the race. Watch for Carl to drive aggressively on his way to the front.

Bobby Labonte is not a name we have recently seen in many top ten pick lists but I'm going to include him in mine this weekend. Bobby is a four-time winner of the fall race in Atlanta; he has wins in 1996, 1997, 1999, and 2001. Labonte has had a rough season with uncertainties regarding sponsorship for this and next season. Now that his ride for 2011 is secure with JTG/Daugherty Racing and he is racing the rest of this season in the number 71 TRG Racing Chevrolet, I think he will settle into a more comfortable zone. He has been very good at this track at times, this is the week to watch Labonte for a comeback high-place finish.

Kevin Harvick won this race in 2001, his only win at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Cup Series racing. Sitting comfortably atop the leader board in the Points, Harvick has nothing to lost in this race. His 14th place finish at Bristol only lost Kevin 14 points off his lead on second place in the standings. With a 279 point lead, Kevin should be feeling confident; when Kevin feels confident he generally performs well. Harvick could very well have a top three showing this weekend.

Jeff Gordon is still chasing that elusive win. Finishing 11th at Bristol, he stayed in second place in Series Points. Jeff is driving a paint scheme designed by his daughter Ella, in conjunction with the legendary Sam Bass, this weekend. A win at this race would mean not only an end to his 53 race winless streak but would also be more special with him in a car of his young daughter's design. Jeff posted wins at this race in 1998 and 2003. He also has wins from the spring Atlanta race in 1995 and 1999. Can Jeff make this the week he stands in victory lane?

Kyle Busch has been on fire the last few weeks. With a Sweep at Bristol and a Truck Series win last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway Kyle has some serious momentum. Another driver who is a threat when he is feeling confident, Kyle can claim no wins at the fall race at Atlanta but does have one mark in the win column at Atlanta from the spring race in 2008. Kyle moved up five places in the Points Standings after winning the Bristol Night Race; Kyle Busch will be out on Sunday trying to overtake the 72 point lead that Jeff Gordon has on him the the Cup Series Standings.

Mark Martin is still chasing that 12th spot in the Chase. 102 points back from Clint Bowyer, Mark needs to post a strong finish to continue to hope to make the Chase just two weekends away. Martin earned five bonus points for leading a lap at Bristol but finished a dismal 23rd. If there's one thing that Mark does not lack, however, it is the desire to win. His team is shocked by the 2010 season thus far and have not given up on that 12th spot yet. Mark has had two wins at Atlanta and 14 top five finishes. He needs to make this a 15th top five finish if he is to keep his Chase for the Championship hopes alive.

Clint Bowyer is not going to give that 12th Chase spot up easily. Bowyer has had his ups and downs this season but with a fourth place finish at Bristol he now has a 101 point lead over 13th. Bowyer has been consistent this year and his current place in the Chase shows it. Clint cannot relax yet though; with two races to go til the cutoff and three drivers within 125 points Bowyer will have to post better than his 16.4 average finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway. We should see Clint in the top ten again by the end of Sunday's 325 laps.

Jamie McMurray is hanging onto the 13th spot in Cup Points by the skin of his teeth. Just one point in front of Mark Martin, Jamie Mac has moved up six spots since the Summer Daytona race and moved up two spots after his third place finish two weekends ago. Jamie has proven this season that he can win the high-stakes races. McMurray posted wins at the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400; this race could determine whether he will go into Richmond with a chance of making the Chase or not. Could it get any more high-pressure? Watch for Jamie to be a strong contender on Sunday.

My top ten picks include Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer, and Jamie McMurray. My pick for the win is Jeff Gordon, with Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson rounding out the top three. I am going to go with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to finish just outside the top ten, and the battle for the 12th spot in the Race to the Chase to go down to the wire at Richmond with less than 75 points separating 12th from 14th after this weekend's race at Atlanta.

Don't forget to tune into SPEED Channel on Saturday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. for NASCAR Cup Series Practice from Atlanta Motor Speedway. Qualifications will air on SPEED Saturday at 4:30 p.m. The Emory Healthcare 500 will be on ESPN at 7:30 p.m. for Sunday night Labor Day weekend Racing. Watch to see how it all unfolds then check back for a weekend wrap-up Monday night!

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