|Coca-Cola 600 a good starting point to handicapping (Getty)|
Even though we haven't seen any action on the track this year, we still have lots of data to use in helping us find out who might be the best candidates to win this week.
We can use the results at Atlanta’s sister tracks like Las Vegas, Texas and Charlotte. We can also use a recent race like Michigan from two weeks ago just because of needing big time horsepower to get around the track. However, the most similar of them all is Charlotte. The last race run at Charlotte was on May 27 won by Kasey Kahne.
Kahne’s Hendrick teammates all had a successful night as all four finished 11th or better. The Gibbs duo of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch finished second and third, respectively, and all three Roush cars finished in the top-10.
Kahne looks to be comfortably set in the Chase with his two wins on the season -- sitting in 11th-place, but after that we have a mad scramble for the 12th and final position. Kyle Busch currently leads the drivers with one win and would make the Chase if it started today. But only 16 points separates Busch from Jeff Gordon, 19 points from Ryan Newman and 28 points from Marcos Ambrose.
Carl Edwards could top them all if he could get a win this week or next week at Richmond. He’s five points ahead of Busch, but doesn’t have any wins on the season which is the criteria required to grab the final two Chase positions. Edwards hasn’t won since last season in Las Vegas.
It should be interesting to see how these drivers bunched together for the final position approach the next two races. A win is obviously what they’ll all try to do, but they also have to point-race as well and watch what each other does while hoping to avoid being involved in a COSTLY wreck like Newman had happen to him last week at Bristol.
Because of their success at Charlotte in May, it would seem like Busch and Gordon would have an edge over the other contenders for the final position. Kyle Busch has a 2008 Atlanta win on his resume while Jeff Gordon’s Cup career started in Atlanta.
It was 20 years ago that Gordon made his Cup debut in Atlanta, a race that we also said farewell to Richard Petty who was making his final start.
“I don’t remember too much about the weekend, but I do remember Richard walking through the garage with a huge number of fans with him,” said Gordon, who won his 85th career Cup race at Atlanta last year. “And he gave us money clips with our starting position during the driver’s meeting – something I still have to this day.
“Other than that, not that memorable of a race for me.”
Gordon has five Atlanta wins overall, but all were in the day. This Sunday will be a night race creating a different set of Atlanta circumstances for the teams when preparing for the conditions.
“I expect the track to be a lot faster at night,” said Gordon. “But I think we will still be able to race high, low and everywhere in between.
“I think one of the reasons so many drivers and teams love this place is the track has a lot of grip, a lot of banking and it is a very fast race track – especially when looking at the qualifying speeds. It’s very fast during the race but it has a lot of fall off, so tire wear is significant and the balance of the car changes throughout a run.”
In a side-note to the set-up and using Charlotte as a comparison, the last 300 miles during the Coca-Cola 600 were run almost exclusively at night.
Jimmie Johnson has three Atlanta wins over his career, but none since 2007. He finished runner-up to Gordon last season. This week he'll be using a chassis that has ran three races this season with a best finish of second-place at Texas.
Tony Stewart has been one of the best at Atlanta over his career with three wins, his last coming in 2010.
Despite not having any career wins at Atlanta, we should be able to expect Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth to run well. Their Roush teammate, Carl Edwards, has three wins there over his career, but none since 2008.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. started his Atlanta career off strong and was always a candidate to win there until moving to Hendrick Motorsports. He had one win and eight top-five finishes in his first 19 starts, but hasn’t cracked the top-10 since in his last six starts. We’ve obviously seen a transition with his team this year and should see him be one of the contenders with his teammates.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)
4) #14 Tony Stewart (10/1)
5) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (10/1)