|Johnson and Bowyer finished 1-2 during happy hour|
Johnson was already considered the favorite to win this week, but his chances to do so were improved even more after two stellar practices sessions on Saturday where he showed he was fast in all situations. In the early session, Johnson had the sixth-fastest single lap (182.213 mph), while also having the second-fastest 10-consecutive lap average. During happy hour, he had the fastest lap (186.447) and third-best 10-consecutive lap average.
After successive weeks of finishing 36th-place or worse, we think Johnson and his entire crew -- led by chief Chad Knaus -- are going to take things up an extra notch this week. There will be no more talk from the team about being fortunate to have such a big lead in points and simply getting ready for the Chase. Matt Kenseth just passed them in season wins last week, which means more bonus points for them when the Chase starts. That doesn't sit well with this crew.
Although Johnson hasn't won on any of these types of tracks this season, including the 2-mile tracks, this has traditionally been his best type over his career. At Atlanta, he's a three-time winner with an 11.1 average finish.
When Carl Edwards came out blazing with fast lap times on Friday, we reserved judgment on him until Saturday's practices. On Friday, he used mock-qualifying trim in the first practice sessions to roll out the second-fastest lap, and then followed it up by qualifying with the second-fastest lap to start Sunday's race on the front row.
When Saturday came around for practices with race trim, Edwards went out and posted the fastest lap on his first lap ran. Then when happy hour was over, the time charts showed Edwards with the fastest 10-consecutive lap average making him a quality contender for Johnson to deal with on Sunday. Edwards is a three-time winner at Atlanta and is using a chassis that last ran at Charlotte (11th) and recently tested at Atlanta.
Five-time Atlanta winner Jeff Gordon needs to duplicate what he did there last when he finished second and maybe even better to follow up what he did in 2011, which is win. He needs some Chase help, and we think he'll make his own luck with a good run. He didn't have any blazing fast single-lap speeds like Johnson or Edwards had, but he was very good on the long runs, and they'll be plenty of those in this 500-mile race.
Gordon doesn't have a top-five this season on a 1.5-mile track. But what we like about Gordon a little more here is his craftiness of being a veteran and understanding how to save tires on Atlanta's worn out asphalt. There aren't many tracks out there we can say that about because the tracks keep repaving and taking away some of their character. It's been 16 years since Atlanta has been touched, and there's definitely something there to the correlation between Gordon, excellence and the surface.
Kevin Harvick is a driver that should be considered Sunday night, as well. Michigan was the last big horsepower track run at and he finished second. The last high-banked 1.5-mile track run on was at Charlotte and Harvick won that race. He hasn't won at Atlanta since his rookie year in 2001, but it was encouraging to see him with the fastest 10-consecutive laps average in Saturday's early practice session.
Kasey Kahne is also going to be somewhere in the mix Sunday night. He was fast in practice, and he's been good on the 1.5-mile tracks all season -- compiling three runner-ups in five attempts. We also have to like his chances because he's bringing the same chassis that won at Pocono last month and finished second at Las Vegas in March.
This will be an interesting race because it will be run in three stages where there is daylight, dusk and night fall, which creates three vastly different type of conditions for the crews to make adjustments on the fly. After two weeks of misery, we think the No. 48 crew will be up for the challenge most.
Read More Here........Final Atlanta Driver Ratings