Saturday, August 30, 2014

Final Atlanta Practice Notes: Gordon driver to beat, Gibbs cars have speed

Junior and Gordon both figure to be very good Sunday at Atlanta
Jeff Gordon wasn't fastest in any of the three Atlanta practice sessions run between Friday and Saturday, and he only qualified ninth, but the five-time Atlanta winner comes into Sunday night’s Oral-B USA 500 as the driver to beat.

So while Joey Logano was fastest in Saturday’s early practice session and Matt Kenseth was tops during happy hour, neither of those drivers compare to the show Gordon put on in both of those sessions. Let’s just say that Gordon’s car takes a few laps to get going, and while other fast cars on single laps get slower after putting a few laps on their tires, Gordon’s car doesn’t show the same type of drop-off.

Gordon had the best 10-consecutive lap average in both of Saturday’s sessions and during happy hour he was fastest among all those that ran five, 10 and 15-consecutive laps. The Atlanta fuel window will have considerably more laps than what Gordon showed in such a small sample size, but it’s as good as we’ve got to try and determine who will be strongest near the end of those runs. It's one of the more impressive showings of any driver during practices on the 1.5s.

So far this season on the 1.5-mile tracks, looking at the 10-consecutive lap average has been the best piece of data to review in determining who were the best candidates to win after practices. Last year was the same story with Joe Gibbs Racing winning seven of the 11 1.5-mile races. This season, it’s been all Penske Racing and Hendrick Motorsports combining to win all five of the 1.5s so far.

While Brad Keselowski has two of those 1.5 wins this season (Las Vegas, Kentucky), Gordon has been the most consistent as the only driver to finish ninth or better in all five of them, including a Kansas win.

So we’ve established -- or at least made the case -- that Gordon has the car to beat. He’s been the best on these type of tracks and he has more Atlanta wins than any other active driver in the series. How about we also mention a little Atlanta nostalgia such as winning his first career NASCAR race with a Busch series win in 1992 and then later that year he would make his Cup debut at Atlanta, the same race that Richard Petty started his final race. In 40 Cup starts at Atlanta, Gordon has led 1,297 laps.

Gordon will be using a chassis that has raced four times this season with finishes of 13th at Fontana, sixth at Michigan and seventh each at Charlotte and Darlington.

When I first looked at everything for this race, I looked no where else than the Penske and Hendrick cars with a close eye on the Stewart-Haas cars of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. I think Tony Stewart can be added to the list as well, but my biggest surprise came on Saturday from what I saw out of Joe Gibbs Racing.

For being so good last season, it’s like they had to sell their 1.5-mile soul for the following year. The JGR cars won seven times on these track last season and don’t have any this year. A JGR driver has won at Atlanta the past two seasons. Matt Kenseth won seven times himself last year and doesn’t have any in 2014. Denny Hamlin’s only win of the season came at Talladega where almost anyone can win.

But on Saturday, they got my attention and now have to be considered legitimate candidates to win up there with the likes of Penske, Hendrick and SHR. Kenseth had the fastest lap in happy hour, but Hamlin’s performance was the most eye opening as he had speed on both short and long runs.

Hamlin, winner of the 2012 Atlanta race, had the fourth-fastest speed in the early session and was third fastest in happy hour. The only driver that had a better 10-consecutive lap average during happy hour was Gordon, which is some very good company.

If the Gibbs cars are on the mend on these tracks, this new Chase format that starts in two weeks becomes even more interesting and will make it harder than ever to pick the eventual winner.

Read More Here........Final Driver Ratings

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