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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kansas Price Chopper 400 Preview: Beyond the Numbers
On this, the first weekend of October, NASCAR travels to the Midwest for a stop at Kansas Speedway. The Price Chopper 400 presented by Kraft Foods will get underway Sunday afternoon, where Cup Series driver will make a scheduled 267 laps around the 1.5 mile D-Oval. The third race in the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship is pivotal for drivers like Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, and Tony Stewart who reside at the low end of the current point standings.

In his nine Cup starts in Kansas, Kevin Harvick has placed in the top ten on three occasions. In the 2009 race at Kansas, Kevin was only able to post a 24th place finish. His 2010 season has been more consistent than last year, however. Harvick claims a 9.8th place average finish for the 2010 season and historically, he finishes nearly 40% of races at intermediate tracks in the top ten. After sliding back three spots in the Chase standings to the 5th spot, Kevin will be out to prove he is still a contender and can make his way back to the top of the board.

Jeff Gordon won the first two races at Kansas back in 2001 and 2002 but hasn't seen a win there since. Going into the weekend Jeff posts an impressive 8.9 average finish at Kansas, the best among Chase drivers. In Gordon's nine Cup starts at this track he has finished outside of the top ten just twice. Eighth in Championship Points, Jeff is likely to move up with a strong weekend performance.

Another two-time winner at Kansas that NASCAR fans should keep an eye on this weekend is Tony Stewart. After winning the 2009 Price Chopper 400 but having back-to-back 39th and 40th place finishes the two years prior Tony shows 13.2 as his average finishing spot at Kansas Speedway. 162 points behind the Chase leader, Stewart will be driving for another win in Kansas this weekend.

After his win last week at Dover raised him to second place in the Chase standings, Jimmie Johnson is again a valid contender for the Championship. Johnson won at Kansas in 2008, has finished outside the top ten in just two of his eight starts, and shows a 10.2 average finish. Jimmie will be looking for Victory Lane again this weekend with hopes of getting to the top of the Chase Leader Board.

 Points leader Denny Hamlin has five Cup starts at Kansas Speedway; just one of those has given him a top ten finish. With momentum and confidence in his court I cannot see how Denny will not find his way to a competitive race on Sunday, however. Hamlin has proven he is more than competent on the smaller ovals this year and with his win at Richmond, a ¾ mile D-oval, he should be able to transform his small track skills to the larger D-oval in Kansas.

Mark Martin comes to Kansas showing four top ten finishes in nine Cup Series starts at this track. Martin has won at this track once, and placed in the top five on one additional occasion. At Intermediate tracks, Mark has ended his day of racing in the top ten 56% of the time. 2010 has not been a great year for Mark by any means, but this could be his weekend to get back into the headlines.

Jamie McMurray has not seen a top ten finish at Kansas since his first two Cup races there in 2003 and 2004. Jamie qualified in the 4th position in 2009 but finished in a disappointing 31st place. Just on the edge of the Chase for the latter part of the regular season, McMurray finished just outside of the top ten last week in 13th place. Jamie has proven his worth this year on the big tracks but is under his average for the Intermediates. Throughout his career McMurray has historically finished in the top ten in 30% of his races at Intermediate tracks. With another good qualifying run at the Kansas Speedway and a mistake-free day in the pits, the #1 Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet should be in the top ten by then end of his 400 laps.

 Martin Truex, Jr. is my surprise top ten finisher of the week. In his four Cup Series starts at Kansas his best finish has been a 11th in his freshman year of 2006. Truex made his way to a 16th place finish in the 2009 Price Chopper 400. What may work in Martin's favor is his 8th place performance this year at the August Michigan race. The Michigan two mile track has similar banking to Kansas all the way around and the same five degree banking on the long backstretch. The #56 NAPA Toyota Team should find that a similar set-up will find them running competitively throughout the day.

Greg Biffle, in 9th place in Chase standings, has the second best average finish at Kansas with a 9.0, just one-tenth behind Jeff Gordon. Greg won the 2007 race in Kansas, has finished in the top ten in another four of his eight career Cup starts at the track. With over 42% of Biffle's starts at Intermediate tracks ending with top ten finishes, and 62.5% of his starts at Kansas resulting in top tens, Greg should be coming to the Midwest with a good amount of confidence.

Juan Pablo Montoya has started three Cup Series races at Kansas. During each of three appearances he has improved his finish from the previous year. In 2007 Juan finished in 28th place, in 2008 he finished in 20th place. In 2009 he finished the day in the 4th spot. Almost 25% of Montoya's starts at Intermediate tracks have resulted in top ten finishes.

 My winner pick for the Price Chopper 400 Presented by Kraft is Greg Biffle with Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin finishing in second and third. The remainder of my top ten includes Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex, Jr., and Juan Pablo Montoya. I am calling for another week of stress induced mistakes by the Clint Bowyer team as they await the next round of appeals hearings and predict that both Busch brothers will be non-contenders in this race.

Sprint Cup Series practice will air on SPEED Channel Friday beginning at 1 p.m. and qualification begin at 4:30 p.m., also on SPEED. The first practice on Saturday, starting at 12:30 will not be televised and although the second practice begins at 1:50 p.m. it will not air until 6:30 p.m. Saturday evening on ESPN2. NASCAR RaceDay begins Sunday on SPEED at 10 a.m. And NASCAR Countdown can be seen on ESPN2 starting at Noon. The Price Chopper 400, Presented by Kraft Foods will come on air at 1 p.m. On Sunday. Tune in to see how the Chase Leader Board gets shaken up this week!

Amy McHargue

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bowyer's Distraction

 After it was announced that the #33 RCR Cheerios Team was losing 150 owner points, would pay a fine of $150,000, Crew Chief Shane Wilson would serve a six week suspension, Car Chief Chad Haney would serve a six week suspension, and driver Clint Bowyer was to lose 150 driver points the questions started to fly. Everyone was asking what the violation had been and NASCAR wasn't saying. Richard Childress was the first to announce that the penalty handed down was due to the rear of the chassis being sixty-thousandth of an inch outside of specified tolerances. Bowyer elaborated today and said that the rear quarter panel was the piece of the car outside of specifications.

Clint Bowyer put that measurement into perspective during Friday's Media conference. “Sixty-thousandths of an inch, folks. Grab a quarter out of your pocket. Less than the thickness of that quarter right there is worth a 150-point fine?” Not to mention the other penalties. Clint went onto say that he does not believe the team did anything wrong. He made it clear he was going on the record as saying that, and that he felt his fans needed to hear him say it.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR

To further make his feelings clear, Clint said “There's a lot of integrity that goes into this sport, I'm damn proud to be a part of this sport, I love this sport, and I wouldn't cheat to win a race in this sport. We have a lot more integrity in the race team and RCR.” Coming out of the media session, Bowyer headed to the first weekend practice at Dover International Speedway. Admitting that he has had trouble focusing on this weekend with the incident looming overhead as RCR awaits an appeal hearing in the next week or so, Clint went to the first practice session at Dover under extreme pressure.

The first practice session closed with Bowyer in fourth place on the leader board with a speed of 155.072, just .123 seconds behind the fastest car in practice on Friday. Qualifications did not turn out as well. When qualifications wound down and found Jimmie Johnson atop the leader board, Bowyer was way back in 24th place. Bowyer's speed of 153.997 was .261 behind Johnson, the 43 qualifiers were separated by less than nine-tenths of a second in Qualifications.

Bowyer now must come out during the two Saturday practice sessions and forget the happening of the past week and focus on what is going on this weekend – a race to gain invaluable lost points. With an average finish at Dover of 14.7 Clint will have to come out on Sunday and perform better than average to make up some of the lost ground. Although the appeal is in process and will be heard before officials sometime, hopefully in the next week Richard Childress made it clear that the team is not counting on winning the appeal. Childress said “ the history of RCR don't think we have been but to maybe three appeals. We didn't win any of them."

Amy McHargue

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

AAA 400 at the Dover International Speedway...By the numbers and Beyond

This week NASCAR heads to Dover International Speedway, a one-mile track located just west of Delaware Bay and north of Dover. The AAA 400 will run Sunday afternoon as the second race in the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship. Drivers will navigate the oval at Dover 400 times before the checkers fly.

Mary Schwalm /AP Photo
After Clint Bowyer's impressive run last week at Louden that moved him from 12th to second in the Chase standings, his car failed post-race inspection. NASCAR officials determined that the rear end of the RCR chassis did not meet NASCAR-approved specifications. The team was penalized through a suspension for Crew Chief Shane Wilson for the next six races, and more importantly 150 points. This penalty takes Clint from second place back down to 12th, 185 points behind points leader Denny Hamlin.

Although Clint has not won at this track, he has finished in the top ten in three of the nine Cup races at Dover. Bowyer finished in seventh place at this track in the spring. With an average finish at Dover of 14.7 Clint will have to step up his game to finish near the front of the field and regain some of his lost points. As Clint said after his win last weekend, “...if we can continue to ride that momentum wave through this Chase, we can have a shot at it just like we did in 2007.”

Jeff Gordon comes to Dover in the fifth place in the Chase standings after a sixth place finish in New Hampshire helped him move up three spots in the standings. Without a win this season, Gordon is hungry for victory. Gordon has two wins at Dover, but the last was in 2001. Through 1995 and 1996 Jeff won three in a row at Dover. In the spring race this year Gordon posted an 11th place finish. With Jeff's 35 previous Cup races at Dover International Speedway lending their experience, this could be week he ends his losing streak.

After losing five spots in the Chase standings last week with a disappointing 25th place finish last week at Louden, Jimmie Johnson has to come to Dover to prove he is still the man to beat. Johnson has claimed five wins in his 17 Cup starts and 11 top ten finishes at Dover. Jimmie and his #48 Lowe's Team have the knowledge to tame this mile track, come out with a top ten finish this week, and move back up toward the top of the Chase leader board.

AP Photo/Steve Helber
 Not giving up the number one spot in the Chase standings easily, Denny Hamlin will likely come out as a man on a mission this weekend. With nine Cup starts at this track, he has claimed three top ten finishes but no wins. Hamlin has finished fourth twice at Dover, including in this year's spring race. Denny has been a solid performer at almost every track this year, his all-around racing ability will likely gain him another top ten this week, and keep him at least near the top of the Chase leader board.

Tony Stewart is another driver who lost five spots in the Chase standings after a bad finish last week. After running out of gas with the white flag in sight while leading the race, Stewart finished 24th in New Hampshire. Coming into Dover, Tony has to feel confident that his team can put together another strong run. Stewart has finished in the top ten in his last three appearances in Delaware for Cup racing, and in his 23 Cup starts at Dover International Speedway has posted five wins and 15 top ten finishes. Watch for Tony to try to move up the leader board a few spots with a solid run on Sunday.

Gaining momentum last week is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after a fourth place finish last week. Out of the Chase the only pressure Dale feels is the pressure to win the race for his Hendricks #88 Team. In 21 Cup starts at this track Earnhardt has finished in the top ten seven times and went to Victory Lane once. Dale finished 30th in Delaware in the spring and has not seen a top ten finish here since the first Dover race in 2007. Earnhardt should be able to put together a good run this week and crack the top ten again.

Greg Biffle slipped two spots in the Chase standings after finishing 17th last week. He has proven himself able to stay with the competition at this track in the past, however. With 10 top ten finishes, six top fives and two wins at Dover Greg could be a contender for the top spot this weekend. With a 10.5 average finish at Cup races in Delaware, Biffle should finish strongly and gain back a place or two in the Championship standings.

Kevin Harvick has not seen a win in his 19 starts at Dover International Speedway. Harvick has claimed seven top ten finished and two top fives at this track during his Cup career and will be looking to perform strongly on Sunday to move back up the leader board from his current third position in Chase standings. Kevin only posts three top ten finishes at Dover in his last ten starts; Harvick will have to run better than his norm in order to meet his goals for the week.

Kyle Busch has claimed a finish in the top five in more than half of his starts at the Delaware oval. Six of his 11 starts have resulted in top five finishes; the other five Cup starts have ended with Kyle outside of the top ten and just one of those gave Kyle a finish in the top 15. Kyle's last four Cup starts have ended with top five finishes; provided that Kyle stays out of any wrecks that occur nearby his position he should come out of Sunday's race with at least a top ten under his belt.

AP Photo
 Carl Edwards has one win at this track, what's more impressive is that in his 12 Cup starts at Dover he has finished in the top ten eight times. After his 11th place finish last week Carl gained a spot in the standings and is now in eights place in the Chase. Carl finished eighth here in the spring and has only finished outside the top ten twice in his last ten Cup starts in Delaware. Wanting to make up more ground in his Chase for the Championship, Carl should run for a solid top ten this week if he performs as his 7.9 average finish indicates that he should.

My pick for the win this week is Jeff Gordon, with Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle close behind. The remaining seven drivers I have picked for top ten finishes are Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Carl Edwards.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice will air on SPEED Channel on Friday at 11:30 a.m.. Qualifications are on ESPN beginning at 3 p.m. Friday. The Saturday 12:30 p.m. Practice session will air on SPEED, but the later 1:50 p.m. Practice session will not be shown on television. NASCARaceday on SPEED is on the air Sunday morning at 10 a.m. and runs until Noon. NASCAR Countdown picks up on ESPN2 at Noon and AAA 400 coverage from Dover International Speedway will air on ESPN beginning at 1 p.m. Don't miss any of the exciting action in this week's second race in the Chase to the Championship.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Team Focus on Richard Childress Racing

Team History and Richard Childress
Debuting in 1969 at the Talladega 500 Richard Childress Racing entered the NASCAR scene during a boycott by the majority of drivers due to a lack of tire grip from the Goodyear tires. Other drivers not a part of the Professional Drivers Association stepped in to race on that September day in Alabama, including Richard Childress where Childress finished 23rd out of 36 drivers in his first race in his own car.

Over twelve years of racing at the Cup level in NASCAR Richard Childress competed in 285 races. Beginning in 1969 and closing in 1981 Childress earned 76 top ten finishes, six top fives, and no wins. In 1981 Childress handed some of the driving over to drivers Dale Earnhardt and Kirk Shelmerdine. 1982 brought Ricky Rudd to RCR but the first win for the team did not occur until 1983 with Rudd behind the wheel. Dale Earnhardt took over full-time driving rights for RCR in 1984 and won 67 races for Richard Childress Racing over the next 18 seasons.

RCR has raced during 37 seasons; over those years the team has seen 1,985 starts at the Cup Series level as of the start of today's Truck Series Race. RCR's starts have resulted in 92 wins, 399 top five finishes, 818 top tens, and 42 starts from the pole. The team has won over $218 Million through its 41 seasons and has an average finish of 15.7th place. RCR drivers have driven more than three-quarters of a million miles at the Cup Series level. After having all three Sprint Cup drivers for 2010 make the Chase to the Championship there is a strong possibility that RCR will have another Championship to add to the previous six that RCR drivers have earned at the Sprint Cup level.

Kevin Harvick (Cup #29)
The #29 car has been sponsored by Shell/Penzoil for 2010 but will be bringing Budweiser on board for 2011. Harvick has 10 seasons under his belt in Cup Level Racing and posts 14 wins, 72 top five finishes, 147 top tens, and has started from the pole seven times.

Harvick and wife DeLana started Kevin Harvick Incorporated in 2007 for the NASCAR Trucks Series, although Kevin had raced his own truck in prior years. KHI Racing now has entries in both the Truck Series and Nationwide Series. Harvick has proven himself to be effective as both a driver and team owner through his accomplishments in Cup Series racing and through his KHI Team performance in other series racing. Truck Series driver Ron Hornaday brought home the Championship for KHI in 2009 and Kevin has made the Chase for the Championship in Cup level racing for RCR in four of the last five years.

Jeff Burton (Cup #31)
Racing at the Cup Series level since 1993 and full-time since 1997 Jeff has 573 starts, 21 wins, 127 top five finishes, 235 top tens, and has started from the pole six times. Burton is another driver for RCR who has made the Chase for the Championship four of the last five years. A solid performer in 2010 Jeff has 13 top ten finishes and starts the Chase in the 10th spot with a 12.7 average finish thus far in 2010.

Clint Bowyer (Cup #33)
2010 is Bowyer's 7th season at the Sprint Cup level, his 6th year as a full-time Cup Series driver. Clint has posted season finishes in the top twelve three of the last four years, his best season being 2007 when he finished third in season points. Over his 171 Cup Series starts Bowyer has claimed two wins, 24 top five finishes, 75 top tens, and two starts from the pole.

Bowyer also has a full-time dirt track late model team that races under Clint Bowyer Racing. Carrying over momentum from this year's Sprint Cup Series successes, dirt driver Dale McDowell posted a win just two weeks ago for Clint Bowyer Racing, earning a $20,000 check at the Pepsi 75 River Days Rumble at Portsmouth Raceway Park in Portsmouth, Ohio on September 4th. It was McDowell's third win of the season for Clint Bowyer Racing.  It seems that Bowyer is a success both on and off the track.

#21 Nationwide Series Car
The #21 car has had Clint Bowyer, Morgan Shepard, Scott Riggs, and John Wes Townsley behind the wheel in 2010 and has earned seven top ten finishes in 2010, no top fives, and no wins. The #21 car for RCR has been in the Nationwide Series, at least on a part-time basis since 2000. At the end of August the team developed a partnership with Morgan Shepard to form Shepard Racing Ventures to keep the #21 car on the track for the remainder of the season.

Austin Dillon (Trucks #3)
The Grandson of Richard Childress, Austin Dillon is in his rookie season in the Camping World Truck Series. An impressive start in his first full-time season Dillon has one win, five top five finishes, 12 top tens, and is 6th in season points standings. Austin participated in four different series in 2009 as part of his development from RCR; Dillon raced in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series along with K & N Pro Series starts and ARCA races. With wins in the Nationwide, Camping World Truck Series, and K & N Dillon has proven he can be competitive in various series and his freshman year in the Camping World Truck Series has shown he can hold his own on the track with the more experienced drivers.

Development and the Future of RCR
The future is taken seriously at Richard Childress Racing. From the #21 Zaxby's car in the Nationwide Series down to dirt track racing RCR involvement with many talented drivers to step up into the higher series' as their skill is developed. Names to watch for in the future with Richard Childress Racing include Ty Dillon, Ryan Gifford, Blake Koch, and Tim George, Jr.

Richard Childress Racing announced earlier this year that the team will be adding a fourth car to its Sprint Cup Series stable for 2011 with driver Paul Menard; this addition will come with Menard's Sponsorship. Menard will be joining RCR veteran drivers Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, and Clint Bowyer. With just the three cars guaranteed starting spots based on owner's points carryover from 2010, Menard will have to qualify in on speed to begin the 2011 season. Next year will prove to be another pivotal year at RCR with the strong 2010 season to answer to.

*All stats current as of PRIOR to Louden Race

Photo Credits
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Photo 4: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images
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Saturday Racing in Louden: Camping World Truck Series Preview

The track at Louden is just over a mile long and the trucks will make 175 laps around the circuit in this years 175, shortened from the previous 200 laps. For today's Saturday afternoon CWTS Race Kyle Busch will start from the pole in New Hampshire. Kyle also won the 2009 fall race at Louden and has the Trucks race record, also from 2009. Busch has had a stellar season in the Camping World Truck Series, winning four of his ten starts, and finishing in the top ten in eight of his CWTS starts in 2010.

Todd Bodine still leads the points in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with a 261 point lead. With just seven races to go in the CWTS Season time is running out for anyone to catch up with Todd. For Aric Almirola to have any hopes of taking over the top spot in the standings Bodine will have to make several large mistakes; Todd Bodine usually doesn't do that.

Kevin Harvick's #2 Chevrolet will start in the second spot with teammate Ron Hornaday starting the #33 Truck in third. Harvick has some pretty impressive stats of his own in the 2010 CWTS Season; with four starts, Kevin has posted three wins. In the one race Harvick did not end the day in Victory Lane he came home with the runner-up spot. Watch for another atrong Harvick run today and a finish in the top three.

Hornaday is another driver to watch today; he has starts in all 18 races so far this season and 11 top ten finishes. Ron has won twice before at this fall race in New Hampshire, in 2007 and 2008. With just one win in the 2010 Season thus far Hornaday may not be a favorite to win today but is definitely a driver who is likely to end up in the top five at the end of the 175 laps.

Johnny Sauter owns the third place in CWTS Standings, 318 points back from leader Bodine. Sauter starts seventh in today's race and will need to run strong to remain in the hunt for the Championship. Although highly unlikely that Sauter can catch Bodine over the next seven races a strong performance today by Sauter and a less than excellent day by Almirola, Sauter could take over the second place slot in the standings.

Aric Almirola starts in the sixth spot for the 175 today. Aric has two wins this season, and 14 top ten finishes in his 18 starts. Almirola has been consistent for the most part of the season, finishing outside of the top 15 in just two races. Almirola should be a strong competitor today and I would not be surprised to see him come out of today's race with a top five finish.

James Buescher should be a contender today, as well. Buescher is the highest ranked driver in the NCWTS Points Standings who has not started all 18 races. With 15 starts James is in 13th place coming into this weekend. With no wins this season and six top ten finishes in his 15 races, James has put together a good season for a driver who has been unable to start all races. Missing the first three races of the season has taken Buescher out of contention for the Championship for sure, but it has been a season to be proud of. Watch for James Buescher to be a name we hear a lot of in today's race at Louden.

With all of these strong competitors along with others like Matt Crafton, Austin Dillon, and Mike Skinner it is a tough race to pick a winner. On this short track the action is liable to get turned up a notch as the drivers feel the season winding down. After the beating and banging is complete through 175 laps watch for a win by Kevin Harvick, a runner-up finish by Kyle Busch, and a third place finish by points leader Todd Bodine. The CWTS Race is on SPEED Channel this afternoon from Louden, New Hampshire starting at 2:30 p.m. EST. The race will also be aired on MRN Radio Networks.

Photo Credits
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Photo 3: AP Photo/
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

New Hampshire International Motor Speedway Sylvania 300 Preview

The New Hampshire International Motor Speedway is located Northwest of Concord, New Hampshire in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by forests and State Parks, there is just one route in and out of the Speedway area. Expecting over 37,000 vehicles to arrive for the race on Sunday afternoon, the New Hampshire State Police, track officials, and local authorities have traffic control plans in place and posted on the Speedway web site.

This, the first race in the Cup Series Chase to the Championship is an important one for all the Chase drivers. Some are bound to improve his standing in the Points and some are bound to come out of this weekend with disappointment. With just 60 points separating Denny Hamlin, as the top seed and Clint Bowyer as number 12 major moves among the twelve Chase drivers will likely occur. This is not a race anyone will want to miss! Sunday will find our favorite - and not-so-favorite - Cup Series drivers taking 300 laps around the 1.058 mile oval for a total of 317.4 miles.

With two wins, 11 top ten finishes, and a 13.3 average finish Ryan Newman is a non-Chase driver that we should keep an eye on this week. Newman has been on the edge of the Chase throughout the closing weeks and although he did not make the top twelve Ryan has proven himself to be a performer when he has the car to do so. Ryan has finished strongly in recent competition with just one finish outside of the top twelve over the last six races.

Kevin Harvick lead the Series Points throughout most of the Race to the Chase. With Hamlin's win last week at Richmond, and Jimmie Johnson's five season wins, Kevin finds himself going into the Chase in third place. Determined not to let that last very long, Harvick should come out with a plan to finish ahead of both Hamlin and Johnson this weekend. With one win and 10 top ten finishes at NHI in his 19 starts, Harvick has proven that he can hold his own at this venue. Harvick has finished in the top ten in four of the last seven Cup Series races; this weekend should give him number five out of eight.

Jimmie Johnson looked to be the Chase top seed favorite going into last weekend with his five race wins and higher Points standings than Denny Hamlin. Hamlin's win at Richmond knocked Jimmie into the second place spot for the beginning of the Chase. Looking for his fifth Championship in a row Johnson comes to New Hampshire with a win in June of this season, three total wins at NHI, an average finish at this track with a 9.0, and 12 of his 17 starts here ending in top ten finishes. Look for Johnson to be near the front of the pack as Sunday's 300 laps wind down.

Clint Bowyer has everything to prove and nothing to lose this weekend. At the post-Richmond media press conference, Clint said “I feel like this is the best shot we've ever had since I've been there to win a championship. You know from here, it's ten races and it's all in.” In 2007 Bowyer started from the pole and won this race; with three top ten finishes and one win in Bowyer's nine starts at the New Hampshire track Bowyer and his team should feel some confidence going into the weekend. This years June race at Louden found Clint with a 7th place finish at the end of the day. If he is able to repeat or better that performance he will assuredly move up from his 12th place starting spot in Cup Series Points Standings.

With 23 starts at NHI Tony Stewart has some experience under his belt at this track. Tony has visited the winner's circle twice, came in second at this track in June, and has finished in the top ten in 14 of his Cup starts at Louden. With an average finish at this track of 11.9 Stewart will have to dig to find that little extra bit of speed he needs to crack the top ten by the end of the day on Sunday. Seven of Tony's last ten starts have ended in top ten finishes; Stewart has the momentum to get the job this weekend if he has the equipment to get to the front of the pack.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has never won at Louden. He has seen nine top ten finishes in his 22 starts at NHI and has the hunger for another. Not making the Chase gives Dale the green light to prove what he can do these last ten races of the season. We've seen the aggressive side of Earnhardt a few times this season, I expect to see it back this weekend on the Magic Mile. Dale had four consecutive third place finishes from 2003 to 2005 but has not performed strongly here in recent races. I see Dale turning things around this week and finishing in the top five.

Juan Pablo Montoya has historically not been good at this track. With just one top ten finish in his seven Cup Series starts at Louden Montoya might seem a strange top ten choice for this race. Juan has momentum going into this weekend and confidence goes a long way at NHI - he holds the track record for qualifying from 2009, has started from the pole twice, and has finished in the top five in his past five starts. Watch for a strong performance and a top five finish for Montoya at the end of the race.

Kyle Busch has one win, five top ten finishes, and an average finish of 15.2 after 11 Cup Series starts at NHI. With four of his last five races resulting in a top ten finish, Busch should be feeling confident that he can hold onto his fourth place standing in Chase Points. Kyle will have to keep his temper in check through the 300 laps on this one mile track, however. There is likely to be much beating and banging going on as the race progresses and I think Kyle's aggressive racing will cause him several skirmishes and to finish outside of the top five but within the top ten.

Mark Martin is another driver who didn't make the Chase but who should not be counted out for this weekend. Martin has one win at this track and 14 top ten finishes; his 11.1 average finish at New Hampshire is one of the best among all drivers competing this weekend. With 27 starts at NHI, Mark has the experience to come out and show what he has learned about how to tame this track. With the Team's less than stellar finishes over the past several weeks this is a track at which Mark should perform strongly. Mark took the checkered flag at this race in 2009, can he make it a repeat?

Denny Hamlin is coming to New Hampshire this weekend to prove he deserves the top seed spot in the Chase. With just nine starts at NHI he posts an impressive 8.2 average finish. Denny won here in 2007 and claims five other top ten finishes at Louden. Coming off of last week's win at Richmond, Hamlin is going to have to come out guns blazing to hold off the remainder of the field and hang on to that top seed spot in the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship.

My pick for the win at this weekend's Sylvania 300 is Kevin Harvick followed by Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer. Rounding out the top five will be Juan Pablo Montoya and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The remainder of the top ten will include Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson,  Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, and Denny Hamlin. Kenseth will be plagued with mechanical issues throughout the race, and I call for a multi-car accident to occur in the last 50 laps that will cause a red flag situation for clean up.

Practice for this weekend will be aired on ESPN2 Friday at 11:30 a.m. Qualifying begins at 3:00 p.m. Friday, also on ESPN2. SPEED Channel will show Saturday practices at 9:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. The Sylvania 300 will be on ESPN Sunday at 1:00 p.m., with NASCAR Raceday being aired on SPEED Channel beginning at 10:00a.m. Don't forget to tune into the first race of the Chase to the Championship, this will be action you won't want to miss!

Photo Credits
Photo 1: Getty Images
Photo 2: Getty Images
Photo 3: Getty Images
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Photo 5: Getty Images

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mark Martin: 784 and Counting

As of the end of this season, Mark Martin will have had 794 career Cup starts. Through the first 26 races of the 2010 season, Martin has had 40 race wins, 259 top five finishes, and 420 top tens. Mark has finished in the top ten for Season Cup Points in more than 60% of his years in NASCAR Cup Racing, including 12 consecutive seasons from 1989 through the 2000 season. The 2011 season will be Mark Martin's 29th season in Cup Series Racing.

Mark says he will compete in NASCAR at least through the 2012 season. With his contract at Hendrick Motorsports expiring after the 2011 season it is unclear what team Martin will race for in 2012. Martin refuses to talk about retirement; he tried it on a part-time basis in 2007 and 2008, didn't like it, then returned in 2009 to full-time racing for his fifth runner-up season finish. Martin has brought up the idea of driving in a situation similar to Tony Stewart driving for a team for which he holds 50% team ownership. It would not be the first time Martin drove a car he owned; he drove his own car for the five races he particpated in for the 1981 season, and as partial owner in six races over the 1982 and 1983 seasons.

Racing in the upper level series since 1981 Martin has seen racing change through four decades. He has raced against the best of the best - Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Dale Earhnhardt, Cale Yarborough and many, many others. He has seen safety develop from minimal safety requirements to today when the cars are safer than they have ever been. With everything that Martin has seen change, one thing remains the same; Mark has finished in the runner-up spot in the Championship five times but has never brought home the top spot.

What does Mark Martin have to do to bring home a Championship? After his second place finish in the 2009 season it was expected that Martin would have a strong showing this year and be a strong contender for the Championship. After the Chase cutoff at Richmond, Mark finds himself outside the Chase looking in. Next year will be Martin's last year with Hendrick Motorsports. With all that Mark feels Rick Hendrick has given him over the past two seasons it is surely important to Mark that he finish strong in his third and final year with Hendrick Motorsports.

Since 1988 Martin has only finished outside the top 12 four other times. In the next year after each of those times Mark came back to finish in the top five for the season, including two of his runner-up finishes. Based on past performance, next year should be a good year for Martin's team. It could even be the year that Mark finally brings home the Championship. If not 2011, he still has 2012 to try again. If not 2012, I don't think anyone would be surprised to see Martin stay through a couple more seasons. Determination is not a trait that Mark lacks.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Clint Bowyer: News Conference Notes

Morning practice for the NASCAR Nationwide Series at Richmond found Clint Bowyer on top of the leader board. Clint has hopes that he can carry this morning's practice speeds into Nationwide Qualifying later today and into Cup practice and Qualifying later this afternoon. Pulling double-duty this weekend, Bowyer is in the precarious 12th Cup Chase spot and needs a good showing in Cup Series racing. With an average finish at Richmond International Raceway of 10.2 and 44% of his Cup starts at RIR ending in top ten finishes Bowyer should feel confident going into the Cup race that the 12th Chase spot will be his at the end of Saturday night.

At Clint's morning media session at Richmond International Raceway he came in with a smile on his face. Bowyer opened with comments that he has had fun at RIR so far and has a great Nationwide car. He says he is fairly comfortable with his lead over the 13th spot in Cup Points and if something happens to keep him out of the Chase “it was just not meant to be.” With a 117 point lead over Ryan Newman, Bowyer does have a bit of a cushion going into this weekend's Cup event although he is definitely not assured of a Chase spot quite yet.

Bowyer said that the team's struggles in the middle of the Atlanta race were rough but when they got the car straightened out by the end of the race for a 7th place finish it was a big sigh of relief to widen the gap between Clint's 12th spot and Newman's 13th spot in Points. One media member present said that he had spoken with Bowyer's Crew Chief Shane Wilson earlier in the morning. Wilson had stated that he thought Clint was more nervous than himself going into this weekend. Clint laughed and said he is nervous but he has a good feeling going in with a 100+ point lead. Bowyer went on to say that “being part of the Chase is very relieving, very gratifying, it's a pretty elite crowd.”

When asked if drivers can try any harder than they have all season when they have nothing to lose Clint talked about taking chances on tire and fuel strategy. Bowyer says that he expects teams to take chances at the end of the race Saturday night but that every driver at this level gives 110% at every track.

Shannon Spake from ESPN asked Clint how nervous he is compared to how confident he is that he will be in the Chase Bowyer answered that anything can happen. He said he was nervous about running Nationwide the past few weeks because he wasn't sure how it would affect his Chase performance but that he has been pleasantly surprised how well the two compliment one another. Bowyer also said he thinks that he has a shot at “winning this thing tonight.”

When asked about the have-at-it-boys policy Bowyer said “Respect goes a long way in this sport. I feel like I respect drivers on the race track and they respect me back...I'm proud of that.” Clint said he is looking forward to a good race; he is here to win the race. He said RIR is his favorite race track. Short-track racing is an opportunity for Clint to run well and to have a good time doing it, as he says that Short-track racing is fun for him, as it is for most drivers.

Asked if there is any strength in numbers with teammates also in the Chase, Clint answered “Absolutely.” He said that learning from teammates can be a big advantage and that he needs to finish better like teammate Kevin Harvick. Bowyer also said that if all three drivers can put it together and learn from one another during the last ten races RCR has a real shot at winning the Championship.

“Consistency always wins Championships”, Bowyer stated. He made a comment that “Superman” (referring to Jimmie Johnson) has struggled and he expects that going into Homestead there will be four or five cars in contention. According to Bowyer finishing consistently well will be the key to winning the Championship. Clint closed with comments that going into the Chase in 12th place he has no where to go but up; Bowyer will be racing to gain spots from here on out in the 2010 season.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Richmond Air Guard 400 Preview: By the Numbers and Beyond...

Richmond Virginia, home to Richmond International Speedway. RIR is a .75 mile D-shaped oval...get ready for short-track racing on Saturday Night. Kyle Busch is the only current driver to hold a track record at RIR, Busch holds the record for best average finish with a 5.5 place average. Richard Petty has the most wins, top fives, top tens, starts, laps completed, laps lead, and is tied with Bobby Allison for most pole starts. Two drivers, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne, got their first Cup Series career wins at RIR.Tony has two other wins at RIR after the first whereas Kasey has just the one win here.

Kyle Busch has won two races at Richmond International Raceway, including this year's spring race. He has been building momentum throughout the middle of the season and is likely to come to Richmond looking for another win. With his sweep at Bristol we know that Kyle is coming into this short-track with a lot of confidence. In third place in the Sprint Cup Points, Kyle would love to finish out the Race to the Chase this weekend by taking over the second position from Jeff Gordon. However, nothing but a win will likely give Kyle the edge he needs to come into the Chase seeded third in front of current points leader Kevin Harvick. Both Kyle and Kevin have three wins this season.

With Tony Stewart's win at Atlanta last week and his three previous wins at Richmond he is another driver likely to come into this weekend with a good amount of confidence. From history, when Stewart is confident he runs hard and near the front of the pack, come hell or high water. Tony had a disappointing 27th place finish at the Irwin Tools Night Race, the most recent short-track race for Cup drivers. Stewart has had 6 Cup career wins on short-tracks and shows an average finish of 10.9 at RIR.  If Tony can keep the restarts clean and his temper under control we should look for Tony to pull a top five finish out this week.

Jeff Gordon wants to hang onto that second spot in Series Points. Gordon is 41 points ahead of Tony Stewart; Stewart could take over that second spot if Gordon finishes 21st or lower and Tony brings in a top eight finish. Gordon will likely go out this weekend driving conservatively. Jeff doesn't want to do anything that will raise the risk of having a bad finish on Saturday. We saw Jeff bring home an eleventh place finish at Bristol, he finished second in the spring race at RIR, and posts an average eleventh place finish at this week's venue. Jeff will be driving smart and that is likely to get him to the front of the field.

Gordon's teammate Jimmie Johnson will be another driver to watch this weekend. Johnson typically runs strong late in the season but we haven't seen that push from he and his team as of yet. Many people are surprised to see Johnson in seventh place in Cup Points but no one should count Jimmie out of the Chase yet. Jimmie is no stranger to winning at RIR; he has three previous wins at this track with two additional top ten finishes. With a tenth place finish here at Richmond International in the spring, Johnson will be looking to improve that finish and guarantee his top seed in the Chase to the Championship. 

Clint Bowyer finished 12th in the spring race at RIR this year and he is fending off Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray for the coveted 12th spot in the Race to Chase with time winding down. Clint has a 117 point lead over Newman and will not want to give up a single point to either Ryan or Jamie this week. Coming off of a seventh place finish last week at Atlanta and a fourth place finish three weeks ago at Bristol, Clint has momentum and confidence coming into this weekend. His team has been working together well, putting together good pit stops, and making few, if any mistakes on the track. McMurray and Newman will be hard pressed to catch Clint at Richmond, as Bowyer has an average finish at RIR of 10.2 to Jamie's 25.5 average. Newman will be Bowyer's biggest competition, with an average 11.4 finish at RIR.

Greg Biffle should show up and race strong this weekend. With a disappointing 36th place finish last week at Atlanta Biffle is  in 11th place in Series Points, 37 points behind Denny Hamlin. Biffle has no wins at Richmond but does have five top ten finishes. With an average finish of 16th place, Greg will need to come into this weekend with a top ten finish in mind if he wants a chance to get more points to improve his place in Chase Seedings.

Denny Hamlin has proven this year that he can perform on the short tracks this year with a spring win at Martinsville. Hamlin also claims an 8.8 average finish at RIR in addition to the win he had here in 2009. He has had five wins this season; the only thing that will get him ahead of Jimmie Johnson in the Chase Seedings in another wins this week. With four top five finishes out of nine races at RIR, Hamlin should be a force to be reckoned with on Saturday night. Motivation and desire to win goes a long way.

Points leader Kevin Harvick claims one win and 12 top ten finishes out of his 19 starts at Richmond. Harvick struggled last week and ultimately finished 33rd after a tire blow-out shredded the left front corner of his car. After posting a third place finish at RIR in the spring, Kevin will likely come into this weekend looking for a repeat, or better performance. A win this weekend would all but guarantee him the third seed in the Chase over Kyle Busch.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. may see a good finish this week. With three prior wins at Richmond, an average finish here is 13.2, and a 12.9 average finish in short-track racing Dale could bring home a good finish this week. Earnhardt is itching for a win; he hasn't had one since June of 2008. In 19th place in Cup Points standing, Dale can come out and go for broke. He can't make the chase but he might as well have a win to his credit for the season. Earnhardt did not have a good race here in the spring, finishing 32nd. He is likely to post a much better finish than that come Saturday night.

Carl Edwards has not made a trip to Victory Lane at RIR. He brought home a fifth place finish here in the spring, and sitting in fifth place in the Series Points, Edwards would like to finish the Race to the Chase strong. Carl finished second last week at Atlanta and is within closing distance of both Tony Stewart in fourth place and Kyle Busch in third in Points. Four out of Carl's twelve starts at Richmond have ended in top ten finishes. I expect to see him add another one Saturday night.

I am picking Carl Edwards for the win on Saturday night under the lights, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for second place, and Kyle Busch to finish third. Remaining top five picks are Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon. Finishing out the top ten picks for this week will be Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, and Kevin Harvick. A mid-race accident will take Matt Kenseth out of the race, Kurt Busch will run in the middle of the pack most of the night, and Ryan Newman will finish in the low-20's, ending his Chase hopes for this year.

Coverage for NASCAR Cup Series Practice at Richmond International Raceway will air on SPEED Friday at Noon and 2:45 p.m. Qualifications can be seen on SPEED Friday at 5:30 p.m. Racing on Saturday night comes on ABC with NASCAR Countdown at 7:00 p.m. and the green flag scheduled to drop around 7:30 p.m. (All times EST)

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

News Conference Notes from Saturday Morning: Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon was to kick off the Saturday round of news conferences with an early 9:45 a.m. time slot. Atlanta Motor Speedway media leaders seemed to have forgotten to change the back drop behind the seating for interviewees however and changes to the backdrop delayed the beginning of the news conference several minutes. At 9:50 a.m. a voice is heard saying "Are you all ready? I think he's on his way." Evidently Jeff wasn't quite ready at his scheduled time, either.

Jeff took his seat and opened with comments regarding how good a track Atlanta has been for him through the years. He mentioned how special it was to be driving the Jeff Gordon Foundation car designed by his daughter Ella, who traveled with her Papa to the track this weekend for some father-daughter time.

Gordon answered a first question about likelihood of of an experienced or inexperienced driver to win the Chase. Jeff indicated that Jimmie Johnson is still the favorite in Jeff's mind as the favorite to win the Chase. Jeff also discussed Harvick being a solid driver for a solid organization that has their act together this year. Gordon went on to discuss his own Championship hopes and says he thinks that he "has as good a shot as anybody" if he can cut into Harvick's Points lead over the next two weeks.

Jeff said that the guys on the team with him suggested that he needs to run fast this week since the Ella designed car has a lot of pink on it - this is not a car that Jeff wants to be running in the back. He went onto say that if he wrecks, Ella is going to  be mad. Jeff seems to be very determined to run fast and at the front tomorrow during the race.

Asked how racing has changed over the years at Atlanta, Jeff answered that the repaving and reconfiguring of the track 13 years ago gave Atlanta a lot of grip and speed. Jeff loved the wideness of the groove over the first two years post-repaving but loves the big sweeping corners and available grooves at Atlanta. Gordon says that after the first two years, it went back to "the same old, really fast, hard to get a hold of, kind of like Darlington race track...that's what I love about it."

Asked about Richmond and the level of confidence he has going into RIR, Jeff said that Richmond is a very tough race track. He said that he feels like he had a legitimate shot at winning at the last race at Richmond and thinks that with double file restarts, slipping and sliding until the sun goes down it can be a tough track to figure out. Jeff thinks that struggles with track transitions is what lost him the race last time around at Richmond.

In regard to how where a driver is in the Points Race and how that changes racing strategies Jeff said when you are in sixth through twelfth all you can do is show up and perform at your best. When his team is struggling it's frustrating for Jeff. He said when teammates are in the Chase you can learn from their set-up and work toward getting better. He said it depends on what position one is in on how the team approaches a race and right now his team isn't thinking about next year but is focused on winning this year's championship.

Jeff talked more about the track at Atlanta and how much wear the tires take. He said staying out on old tires, you are going to get beat other than under very few circumstances. Gordon said you almost absolutely have to take tires late in the race to be competitive. He said "MAYBE if you have just one or two laps...but even then I think you need tires." Gordon said brand new tires can be run wide open giving the driver a huge advantage.

Gordon was asked a final question about how the drivers on the bubble are feeling at this point. "Oh man, being in that position is not a fun position to be in." Jeff said that he has been there and the guys who are "that close to it" count every point, and says "that intensity and pressure are hard to deal with....the added pressure from the media and the fans..."

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News Conference Notes from Saturday Morning: Jeff Burton

Jeff Burton took the stage at 10:09 a.m. and started by saying what a good year it has been for him and the other RCR Teams. He said his hope is to guarantee his place in the Chase this week so he can go out at Richmond and "just have fun". Burton said it is important to get back into the rythym that the team had in July.

When asked about being adriver who have come close to the Championship and not made it if the Jeff Burton Team just not have the talent to get the job done Burton chuckled and said "That's a hell of an icebreaker". He went on to say that the record tells a story and that it's hard to look at a guy like Jimmie Johnson and say that he has won the last four Championships because of luck. He said that you can't look at a team and blame not winning on bad luck. He says there have been mistakes made that have kept him from a Championship, he hasn't found a way to get there yet, but says that is that one thing out there that would be disappointing to leave his career without a Championship win.

Burton was asked about information sharing if all three RCR Teams made that Chase. Jeff said that nothing changes with information sharing. "The reason we are in that situation is because of sharing information and working with each other...that needs to continue...whoever didn't do that would need to go somewhere else." Burton says that RCR has made it clear that information has to be shared between the RCR Teams to be able to beat the Hendricks cars.

Burton said that his feeling about night races is that historically tracks gain more grip in night races but today that isn't really the case with the CoT. He said grip and speeds go up for everybody, and that the biggest impact is waiting all day to race at night. Jeff recognized that fans appreciate and enjoy night racing.

Burton says the 48 Team has struggled more this year than in others but that they are a "tough race team...hard to beat." He said that great teams still go through struggles and still find a way to come out on top. Burton said if the 48 wins the Championship it will be talked about that the 48 Team dominates and not about his earlier struggles in the year.

Jeff said the seasoned asphalt at Atlanta is so slick and speed fell off so much that he compared the track to Rockingham last year. He said this track changes more from qualifying to the race more than any track on the circuit. He said that is part of what is fun about Atlanta. Cars that don't run well early run great late and vice versa. Small changes can make huge differences at Atlanta.

Jeff said he does feel that the most important thing is winning, no matter where one is in the points. He thinks that late races mean a lot to everyone because of the chance to get the bonus point for first. Burton said he always goes out trying to finish first, but they are happy at the end of the day to get 8th place points as opposed to 20th place points. He said learning from one week makes it easier to run better the next week.

Jeff said Richmond and Martinsville are his "hometown" race tracks and are big races for him. He said Richmond is a special race to run at for him. He said that racing in front of people who know him as a person instead of just a driver is special. Saying that running at Richmond he never knows where the line will be because the conditions change so much each race. It's a challenging race track, he says.

Addressing Atlanta as a night race, he knows the track will gain grip from practice to the race because of the transition from day practice to night racing. He says it is important to understand those differences to apply them to other night races and next year.

Burton says that new leadership at RCR is improving the company and says that Scott Miller's move from Crew Chief of the 31 Team to his position is upper management is a good one. Jeff said that Miller is intelligent, quick on his feet, and a true passion for RCR to perform at a high level. He said the decisions being made this year have obviously improved the three RCR team's performance but won't change things now as much as they will in 2011 and 2012. Jeff indicates that RCR will continue to improve over the next few years.

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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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