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Thursday, September 2, 2010

NASCAR Race to the Chase: Driver Focus

As the race to the Chase winds down with just Atlanta and Richmond to go the Chase to the Championship Entry List is becoming more clear. Eleven of twelve spots are fairly secure. Kevin Harvick has a 279 point lead over Jeff Gordon for the top spot on the board and 235 points separate eleventh from thirteenth spot in the standings after Bristol.

Harvick has posted three wins this season, 11 top five finishes, and 16 top tens. He goes into the Emory Healthcare 500 with a 15.8 average finish on intermediate tracks. and a 19.8 average finish at Atlanta. With room to breathe, there is no pressure on Harvick to perform any better than average but with his drive to win it is more likely we will see Kevin go out both at Atlanta and Richmond as if on fire.

Jeff Gordon, in second place in points, has been without a win all season but has a good chance to finish strong this weekend. His average finish at Atlanta is 12.4 and at intermediate tracks he posts an 11.9 average finish. Jeff is driving with the uncertainty of next year's sponsor and needs to put on a a good show to put himself front and center. Jeff has a comfortable enough 72 point lead over Kyle Busch in the standings but as we saw at Bristol with Kyle, one can gain (or lose) a lot of spots in the standings in a hurry.

If either Kyle or Kurt Busch, in third and tenth spots in the Series Points respectively, were to come out of this weekend with a win at Atlanta I would not be a bit surprised. Between the two, the Busch brothers have led a combined 794 laps in the last five Cup Series races at Atlanta. Kyle has won one of the last three spring races at Atlanta and Kurt has won the other two. Neither has a recent win in Atlanta's fall race, however. Kyle has been on a roll lately, gaining five spots in the points after winning at Bristol while brother Kurt is simply holding steady in the tenth spot. Kurt could easily break into the top five places in Series points with a strong finish at Atlanta, as he is just 35 points behind fifth place Denny Hamlin.

Fourth place Carl Edwards already has three wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway with one win in the spring race and two here in the fall. Carl moved up two spot in the standings Bristol and is looking to improve his standings before the cutoff to the Chase. With 59% of Edwards' Cup Series starts at intermediate tracks resulting in top ten finishes, Carl would not surprise anyone to finish strong at Atlanta. When he arrives at Richmond he may not be as much of a threat. 32% of Edwards' starts at short-tracks have resulted in top ten finished for Carl.

Denny Hamlin, in fifth place in the points, has no wins in his ten starts at Atlanta. Denny's best shot at moving up in points may come next week at Richmond. Hamlin posts an average finish on short-tracks of 10.0 whereas his average finish at Atlanta has been 15.9. Denny is just five points behind Carl Edwards in Chase Points and only 13 points separates Denny's fifth place from eighth. The middle pack of drivers in the Race to the Chase are all very close in points.

One point behind Hamlin we find Tony Stewart in sixth. Just 7% of Tony's starts on intermediate tracks have resulted in wins, so it is unlikely we will see him finish on top of the board this week. His average finish at short-tracks shows to be 13.5; Stewart needs to perform better than his 27th place finish at Bristol both this and next week if he wants a better ranking before the Chase to the Championship begins.

Jeff Burton is holding steady in seventh position in the points only six points behind Stewart. With an average finish at intermediate tracks of 15.0 and at Atlanta Motor Speedway of 17.2 Jeff needs to find a way to get to the top five if he is to overtake the guys bunched just ahead of him in the standings. Not only does Burton have to keep an eye on the guys ahead of him, Jeff has three drivers behind him within 30 points breathing down his neck.

Another driver who is hanging right in there is Matt Kenseth, six points behind Burton in eighth place in Cup standings. Sunday will be Matt's 21st start at Atlanta; none of his previous 20 starts ended with a visit to Victory Lane. What Matt does have in his favor is that 52% of his starts at intermediate tracks have ended in top ten finishes. Finishing in the top ten this week could be enough to spring Kenseth ahead two or three spots.

Jimmie Johnson is in ninth place in current Series standings. After winning the last four season championships, many are surprised that Johnson has not yet been a threat to the points leaders. Johnson fell four places in points after a poor finish at Bristol caused by a lengthy trip to the garage to repair damage from a run-in with Juan Pablo Montoya. Jimmie won this race in 2007, has an average finish at Atlanta of 10.8, and has won 18% of the races he has started at intermediate tracks.

Greg Biffle resides in eleventh place in the standings, but just 62 points out of fourth place cannot give up on a top five in the Series Standings at the Chase cutoff. Biffle is another driver who has never won at Atlanta in Cup Series racing; he has claimed three top five finishes and nine top tens in his 15 starts at this track. Greg has a need to lead laps in both this and next week's races, with strong finishes both weekends to start the Chase to the Championship with a better standing than he currently has.

Clint Bowyer is the only real question mark in the way the standings currently lie. Two drivers, Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin are within 102 points of Bowyer. If Bowyer has trouble and either - or both - Mark or Jamie can find a top five finish in the next two weeks Clint could be out. Out of Clint's nine Cup starts at Atlanta four of them have been top ten finishes; half of his starts at short-tracks have resulted in top tens. Clint has a good chance to still be hanging onto the twelfth spot after the next two weeks.

McMurray and Martin come into the next two weeks trying to make up the points that have eluded them thus far in the season. 47% of Mark's starts at Atlanta have ended with top ten finishes, McMurray has finished in the top ten just 25% of the time at this track. Martin has the advantage over McMurray at short-track racing as well. McMurray's average short-track finish is 20th whereas Martin's is 13th. Both will be hoping for Bowyer to slip up over the next two weeks to give them the opening they are looking for.

With Kevin Harvick comfortably atop the Points Leaderboard, the real races for points over the next two weeks are the middle of the pack and the 12th spot in the points. Fourth through tenth place is extremely tight, separated by just 40 points. Those spots could belong to any one of six drivers by the end of the race at Richmond. The results of the Labor Day weekend will tell more about the twelfth spot and how close it will be going into Richmond. Any way you look at it, this is shaping up to be an exciting last two races before the Chase to the Championship begins, with drivers jockeying for position within the points race.

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