Saturday, September 4, 2010

Kahne, Busch, Hamlin & Newman Head List of Top Candidates to Win Sunday Night in Atlanta

By Micah Roberts

Kasey Kahne hasn’t won a race this year, he’s leaving his current team at the end of the season and his chances of making the Chase for the Championship with two races remaining are slim, at best. He's 136 points out of the 12th and final position, but despite all that he looks like a pretty good candidate to win Sunday night’s race in Atlanta.

Topping the list of what makes Kahne one to watch Sunday is how dominant he was during Saturday’s first practice where he was 1.01 mph faster than the second-fastest driver. Kahne’s top speed wasn’t just one fast single lap, either, as he ran high within all the leaders on fastest average speeds in five-, 10- and 15-lap increments and with overall average times while running his 57 laps during the two-hour session.

When factoring how fast his car is for this race along with his history on this track, the scales tilt in his favor even more. His last win on any track came in this race last year, and he followed that up with a fourth on the track back in the spring. In 12 career races, Kahne has two wins and four other top-five finishes at Atlanta.

Delving even deeper into Kahne’s resume on similar tracks this season, it’s easy to see that regardless of what his practice speeds were Saturday he’d be considered a contender to win. There have been five races run this season on 1.5-mile tracks — including Atlanta’s — and Kahne is the only driver to have finished within the top 12, which equally shows his consistency as a driver and the performance of his team on this type of track.

Taking a driver like Kahne who hasn’t won a race all season may be tough for some, so here are some of the other top contenders to win Sunday.

We begin with Las Vegas native Kurt Busch, who won this race in the spring. Busch has three career wins on the track and was second-fastest during the first practice session. He also is the only driver to have won multiple races on 1.5-mile tracks this season, having done so on Atlanta’s sister track of Charlotte. For good measure, Busch also won the non-points all-star race at Charlotte, a week before winning the Coca-Cola 600. The only negative that can be found with Busch this week is that he didn’t bring either one of his winning cars for this week, opting to save those for the Chase races. Instead, Busch brought his June Pocono chassis that finished sixth.

If looking for a driver who brought a chassis that gives everyone on the team confidence, it’s Greg Biffle. He’s using the car that nearly won at the Brickyard and then followed it up a week later at Pocono with his only victory of the year. He was seventh-fastest in the all-important first session while in race setup mode and 10th overall in the final practice while running in qualifying trim.

Biffle’s got company within the Roush stable once again as the entire team seems to be rapidly getting acclimated to the new FR-9 Ford engines. Matt Kenseth was sixth in the early session while David Ragan and Carl Edwards both were in the top four of final practice. Kenseth finished runner-up in the spring race while Edwards is a three-time Atlanta winner; each will be driving brand new chassis this week.

A driver who was an early candidate to win this week — like Kahne — before practice began was Kevin Harvick because of all the credentials that go with the car he’s driving. Before winning at Michigan three weeks ago, this car had finished runner-up at Indy and Fontana earlier this year. At the tail end of last season, when the Childress team started turning things around, this exact chassis also finished fifth at Texas and third at Miami. Needless to say, the car has a lot of medals. However, after both practices — 28th in the first and 41st in the final — Harvick doesn’t look as impressive as he did on paper Friday.

If looking to discount Harvick, don’t, because he’s played this 'possum game before, and, on this type of tracks, only Kahne stands out as more consistent on the 2010 season. On the four 1.5-mile sister tracks of Charlotte, Texas, Atlanta and Las Vegas, Harvick has finished within the top 11 of each with a best of runner-up at Las Vegas. There may appear to be better candidates to win, but Harvick can be expected to be near a top-five finish despite what his practice said.

The Stewart-Haas duo of Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart both look better in practice than they have all season on this type of tracks. Newman has managed only a ninth at Charlotte while Stewart modestly comes in with top 10s at Las Vegas and Chicago, but they look like they have things all figured out just in time for the Chase where five of the 10 races are on 1.5-mile tracks. In the first session, both were quick with stellar average lap speeds and, in the final session, Newman was fastest overall.

Newman is sitting 118 points out of the final position and will need not just a good run to close the gap heading into Richmond but bonus points of leading the race and possibly winning with hopes of a bad-luck hiccup occurring by 12th-place Clint Bowyer. The largest lead overcome to make the Chase with two races remaining was 90 points in 2006 by Kahne.

Denny Hamlin had a great first practice with the best average lap times. Hamlin has been slumping for the last two months but should be able to get a top-five finish this week. On the similar track of Texas, Hamlin captured a win; he also finished eighth at Chicago, the last 1.5-mile track raced on. Starting from the pole this week gives him a head-start to winning, based on track history. One of the more interesting side notes regarding Atlanta Motor Speedway’s history is that 80 of 102 winners all-time have started from within the top 10.

On a somber note — with a bugle playing “taps” in the background — this week's race signals another in NASCAR’s race toward the future as they continue to discard the tradition and roots of the sport. Sunday’s race will be the last time Atlanta will hold two annual races, ending a tradition that began in 1960.

Progress and expansion is inevitable, but it’s hard watching great racetracks like Rockingham run completely off the schedule, the prestige of Darlington on Labor Day missing and Atlanta losing one of their dates while more cookie-cutter tracks get races.


KASEY KAHNE ON HOW HE FEELS ABOUT ATLANTA LOSING ONE OF THEIR CUP DATES: "Yeah, I wish we could race at Atlanta more than twice. For me it’s been my favorite track since I came into NASCAR. So it’s a little disappointing not going there. At the same time NASCAR is doing what makes the most sense for the fans and the people, the viewers and things like that. So I think it’s fine, you know. I think the Labor Day race is a perfect time for the Atlanta race. We found that out last year. I think it was a great move putting that race on Labor Day. Hopefully when it’s just one race, it will be even bigger and better and it will last for a long time. The track, the way it is, I think it’s one of the best tracks we race at."

TONY STEWART ON QUALIFYING FIFTH SATURDAY IN ATLANTA: “Our car’s not as good as Ryan. Well, actually probably as good as Ryan’s, I just don’t do as good of a job at qualifying as Ryan does. I am proud of this Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy. It is a pretty decent spot and we should get a good pit selection, pretty proud of these guys.”

RYAN NEWMAN ON WHETHER SUNDAY'S RACE IS AN ALL OR NOTHING SITUATION REGARDING THE CHASE: “All you can expect from me and our team is the best we can possibly do. We can’t expect as a team to go out there and makeup points in two races that we didn’t accomplish in the last 24. That being said, we’ll do the best job we possibly can. We’ll go out and if we win the race, we win the race. If we finish in the top-five in both of them, we still may not have enough points to make it into the Chase. So either way, we are searching for our best finish, no different than any other race.”

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