by Micah Roberts
Only two races remain in the Race to the Chase before the 12 driver field will be set for the final 10 races of the season in NASCAR’s version a playoff. Only 162 points separate the driver currently in seventh, Ryan Newman, from the driver in 15th, Clint Bowyer.
The next two races are in the deep South of Atlanta and then the Capital of the Confederacy, in Richmond. Both tracks are a fitting finale for what is essentially a wild card chase to advance.
The last time we visited Atlanta was in early March for the fourth race of the season. Kurt Busch dominated the race for it’s entirety. With the way his car performed that day on the 1.5-mile high banked fast track, it was thought that Busch might be able to duplicate that kind of success later on the sister tracks of Texas and Charlotte, but it didn’t happen.
Busch’s win that day remains his only win of the season, but he has been consistent enough throughout the season to be firmly entrenched in the Chase, currently sitting sixth. Over his career, Busch has an average finish of 18th in Atlanta with two wins in 17 starts.
Jeff Gordon has had one of he better combined runs on these type of tracks this season which also includes Las Vegas. Gordon finished second in Atlanta, then came back to win at Texas. He also ran very well in Charlotte, but the finish doesn’t reflect it because it was rain shortened.
His Texas win remains his only win of the season. Knowing how good his car has been on these tracks, his team has to be elated to be getting back on it since they haven’t raced on one since Charlotte in late May.
Atlanta is where it all started for Gordon. He started his first career Cup race there. 34 races later, Gordon has four career wins and 22 top-10 finishes. Look for Gordon to contend for the win a be a force in the playoffs where two of the 10 races are at Texas and Charlotte.
Kyle Busch is 34 points from the 12th and final position. He’s only got two races to make it, but his chances look pretty good based on his record in Atlanta and Richmond.
Since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing last season, Busch has been one of the best in Atlanta that includes a win and a top-5 finish last season there. On like-tracks, Busch claims a win in Las Vegas and lead the most laps at Charlotte before the rain came out.
Busch looks to have had an attitude adjustment over the last two weeks and no one from the Gibbs organization is taking claim to any kind of pep talk. Busch may have done his own soul searching and figured out that in order to be consistent each week, he’s got to be a little better mentally prepared.
Immediately following his change in demeanor, Busch captured his fourth win of the season by sweeping Bristol.
Jimmie Johnson is the favorite to win this week on the basis of his continued domination of these type of tracks. In Atlanta, Johnson has a track best average finish of ninth with three wins in 16 career races. What makes Johnson extremely tough to bet against this week is that he’s going flat out for wins. He’s got enough points, what he needs now is wins to get him tied with Mark Martin with four which would give him the lead to start the Chase.
Brian Vickers is only 39 points out of the 12th and final position in the Chase. He finished 5th in Atlanta and Charlotte this season and looks to build off his momentum from his big Michigan win three weeks ago. Vickers has to run well this week and duplicate, or better, what he did in March’s Atlanta race because relying on a great Richmond finish will be a tall task.
Carl Edwards is still looking for that elusive first win of 2009 after winning the most in 2008 with nine. Atlanta has always been good to Edwards, a place he claims three wins at. In March he ran very well with a third, but after that, Edwards couldn’t duplicate the Roush-Fenway success they traditionally had on the fast 1.5-mile tracks.
This race will ultimately be split up into several categories with those who in going for wins and those who are one of the nine on the brink looking to score positive points, stay out of trouble, and get a top-5 or top-10 finish.
Clint Bowyer may likely not finish in the top-5 for this race or have a chance to win, but if playing matchups, Bowyer should be golden because he has proven to one of the best drivers in the race to the chase down the stretch. It’s a good bet that Bowyer lets the others in front of him in points race themselves out of the chase while he does his thing and shoots for a top-10 finish.
A driver on the opposite end of the end, and who Bowyer is hoping self-destructs as in the past, is Kasey Kahne. Kahne has been in this situation before and has failed miserably each time.
Despite everything there for the taking, Kahne feels like a sitting duck once again and may pressure himself too much. He is a very good bet against in driver matchups this week vs. just about anyone who finishes races on a weekly basis.
Matt Kenseth is the cool veteran who just may stay where he is and let everyone else around him battle. He doesn’t have the equipment to go for a win, or compete for a top-5, but he’s savvy enough to play the game like Bowyer. He’s never missed a Chase yet.
For the upper-echelon of drivers who are basically set, it’s a freebie. No more points racing, it’s time for bonus points and placement setting when the Chase starts. Expect to see drivers like Gordon, Johnson, Stewart, and Biffle be as aggressive as ever this week and willing to take chances on fuel and tires down the stretch.
As crazy and reckless as it may seem, I would expect Kyle Busch to be mixing it up with them minus the risky pit strategies. He may have given the perception that he’s changed his attitude a bit, but when the green flag drops, he’ll likely be going all out despite his points situation.
If making matchup wagers, you can go one way or another on that strategy. Bet against Kyle and go with his 13 race losing history prior to his Bristol win which is pretty sound and logical, or go against all that a believe Kyle will make things happen en route to making the Chase.
If you are one of many who had future wagering on Kyle winning the 2009 NASCAR Cup title, this may a time to start hedging those wagers with bet-against’s in match-ups to retrieve some of that money invested with hopes Busch does poorly.
I may be blinded a bit since I’m a Las Vegan and always root for the best for the Busch brothers, but I like his chances to do well this week.
TOP 5 Finish Predicton:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (7/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
4) #2 Kurt Busch (12/1)
5) #99 Carl Edwards (8/1)