|Is Penske the team to beat as we get back on 1.5-mile tracks?|
The Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have combined to win three of the 1.5-mile track races. Keselowski, who had a career-best Atlanta finish of third-place during his 2012 Championship season, is one of the 6-to-1 favorites. He was able to reel in wins at Speedway Motorsports Inc. sister tracks at Las Vegas and Kentucky.
Logano, listed at 8-to-1 odds, won this season at the track that is most similar to Atlanta, Texas Motor Speedway, in April. His best finish at Atlanta was runner-up last season behind Kyle Busch, who took his second checkered flag at the high-banked track.
Busch comes in at 10-to-1 odds, which sounds attractive, but his Joe Gibbs Racing team is nothing like it was last season. In 2013, the JGR cars were the cream of the crop of these cookie-cutter tracks. They had won four of the first five 1.5-mile races and followed it up with an Atlanta win. But they have yet to win on any of these tracks this season. Busch can still be considered a conteneder since he won at the 2-mile layout at Fontana, a horsepower track, but it remains his only victory of the season, and the balance required for the steeper banking might not be there for him, or any other JGR car.
One of the three drivers who are favored with Keselowski to win Sunday night is five-time Atlanta winner Jeff Gordon. He gets high marks this week on the basis of his Kansas win in May, but what makes him superbad (that’s a good term) in this race is that he’s finished ninth or better at all five 1.5-mile track races this season. He was runner-up at Texas, a great sign that he’ll be among the top-five finishers. In addition to his five wins on the track, he also has five second-place finishes, including in 2001 when Kevin Harvick beat him by a track record margin of victory of only six-thousandths of a second (0.006).
Harvick also comes in at 6-to-1, and his last Atlanta win came in that 2001 race, which was just his third race in the Cup series after taking over for the late Dale Earnhardt. Harvick hasn’t won on a 1.5-mile track this season, but his Hendrick Chevy engine has powered him to two runner-up finishes at Kansas and Charlotte. While he had some sketchy performances with breakdowns in the first half of the season, he comes in on a streak of having finished 11th or better in his last five starts. The Stewart-Haas Racing team has put everything together at the right time, as there are only two races remaining before the Sprint Cup Chase starts.
Three-time Atlanta winner Jimmie Johnson also comes as one of the 6-to-1 favorites, partly on the basis of his win at sister-track Charlotte in late May. His fourth-place finish last week at Bristol was his first top-five since winning at Michigan in June. That win was during a stretch where he won all three of his races this season within four outings. We haven’t seen a 1.5-mile track since Kentucky, where he finished 10th, but the No. 48 team figures to come up big again. This race is huge for them, and everyone else, as five of the Chase races will be on 1.5-mile tracks.
The driver with the best chance of surprising everyone is Kasey Kahne at 15-to-1. He’s a two-time winner at Atlanta and he’ll be running the same equipment as Gordon and Johnson. Kahne is one of those drivers in pickle as far as the Chase is concerned because he’s 33 points out of the 16th and final slot, currently sitting in 18th place on the season standings.
With such a huge deficit for Kahne, he might be in a position to try to win at all costs. He’s fighting for his season, and he needs a lot of help for the Chase to become a reality.
Another driver with great success at Atlanta is three-time winner Carl Edwards at 30-to-1 odds. The Roush-Fenway Racing engines have been getting better lately. His best finish of late at Atlanta was in 2010, when he was second in the second of Atlanta's then-two race dates.
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