Atlanta Motor Speedway
This week, Sprint Cup drivers return to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500, the third of three consecutive races on intermediate tracks. Teams that do not have their programs together by now may be in for a long season. Atlanta has a higher degree of banking than the Auto Club Speedway or Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the drivers raced the past two weeks; fans should expect to see many of the same drivers up front.
Atlanta is reputed as one of the fastest tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit. Qualifying speeds border on 200 mph. Drivers often run "wide-open," never using the brakes. Horsepower is a must to have a chance to win, but holding the throttle down and running high RPMs can be hard on engines. In recent seasons, Atlanta has featured late lap passes and some of NASCAR's closest finishes.
Location: Hampton, Ga.
Length: 1.54 miles
Banking: 24 degrees
Leading the Pack
Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's/Cobalt Tools Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Johnson had a shocking week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, one of his favorite tracks. He never got up to speed and never was up front in the race - a race he had won each of the previous three years. Ultimately, he finished 29th. Two weeks ago, Johnson was second at Auto Club Speedway, another track where he historically had performed well. What to make of it? Well, he now heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Johnson has a 9.4 career average finish and three wins, including a sweep of both races in 2007. Let's give the defending race champion and two-time defending Cup champion a mulligan for last week; he and Carl Edwards should be considered the favorites to win at Atlanta.
Carl Edwards | No. 99 Aflac Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
As the former Sprint Cup points leader, Edwards is a hot driver going to one of his best tracks this week. He is coming off back-to-back Cup wins at both Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Among active drivers, "Cousin Carl" has the best career average finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway (8.7). He has two wins, four top-fives and six top-10s in seven races at Atlanta. As the consensus No. 6 pick in most fantasy drafts, Edwards looks like a draft day steal. If you didn't buy low on Edwards, you may want to bite the bullet and do whatever it takes to get him on your team. In any case, he is a must-play this week in all fantasy formats, even with the recent fines and suspension of his crew chief.
Jeff Gordon | No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Gordon had what he called "the hardest crash of his career" last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. After running in the top five all day, the crash on lap 262 relegated the DuPont Chevy to 35th place. The previous week, Gordon finished third at Auto Club Speedway. Gordon has raced 31 times at Atlanta and has four wins, 12 top-fives and 19 top-10s. He has one top-five and three top-10s in the past four races at the track. If not for the crash at Las Vegas, Gordon would likely be coming into this week with back-to-back top-fives on intermediate tracks. He is a good bet for a top-five this week in Atlanta.
Matt Kenseth | No. 17 DeWALT Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Last week, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kenseth was running in the top five when he was caught up in Jeff Gordon's wreck. Kenseth rallied to finish 20th. He was fifth at California two weeks ago. Without the wreck at Las Vegas, Kenseth, like Gordon, would probably be coming to Atlanta Motor Speedway with the momentum of consecutive top-five finishes. Kenseth is solid at Atlanta with six top-fives and nine top-10s in 16 career starts. He has finished fourth, third and fourth in the past three races in Atlanta, respectively. His early season performances at intermediates, and his track record at Atlanta, make Kenseth a solid play for another top-five this week.
Kyle Busch | No. 18 Snickers Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Busch has earned a place in the top five by finishing fourth, fourth and 11th, respectively, in the season's first three races. He is now first in the Sprint Cup standings after the recent 100-point deduction on Carl Edwards. Busch was the sexy pick to win last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, making his 11th-place finish a bit disappointing. Despite his success on other intermediate tracks, Busch has been anything but good at Atlanta Motor Speedway. In seven career races, he has not finished in the top 10 and has an average finish of 22.6. A number of fantasy owners have fallen in love with Busch, who was a likely bargain on draft day. However, we recommend tempering expectations, especially at Atlanta.
Drivers to Keep an Eye On
Tony Stewart | No. 20 Home Depot Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
The No. 20 car blew a tire early in last week's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Stewart's last-place finish dropped him to 11th in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. His bad luck masks a solid start to the season that includes a third at Daytona and a seventh at California, so fantasy owners have little reason to panic, especially this week. Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of Stewart's better tracks. In 18 career starts, he has a 12.6 average finish with two wins, seven top-fives and 11 top-10s. Stewart is always a threat at intermediate tracks and a top-10 finish is a legitimate expectation this week in Atlanta.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Earnhardt is yet another driver for whom bad luck hides an impressive start. His ninth-place finish at Daytona International Speedway might have been even better if not for an unusual decision not to pit late in the race. At Auto Club Speedway, he was collected in a wreck by teammate Casey Mears before things really started going. Last week, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he finished second. In short, Junior's performance has been worthy of the top-five fantasy pick that many used on him. He should excel this week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he has the third-highest average finish (12.2) of any active driver. He has one win, seven top-fives and nine top-10s in 17 races at Atlanta. Earnhardt could be considered a solid sleeper pick to win this week.
Greg Biffle | No. 16 Jackson Hewitt Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Biffle is fifth in the Sprint Cup standings after finishing in the top 15 in each of the season's first three races. He may have had the fastest car last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway; he passed eventual winner Carl Edwards on more than one occasion. Pit road problems cost him, however, and he settled for third. Biffle is decent at Atlanta Motor Speedway. In 10 races, he has a 15.9 average finish with two top-fives and five top-10s. Last year, he struggled to a 31.5 average finish in the two Atlanta races. However, 11 of Biffle's 12 career wins have come on intermediate tracks like Atlanta. Despite the mixed indicators, we see Biffle as a threat to win this week.
Kasey Kahne | No. 9 Budweiser Dodge | Gillett Evernham Motorsports
After a disappointing 2007, Kahne's 2008 season is off to an excellent start. He is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in each of the first three races, good for third in the point standings. Last week, despite battling the flu, Kahne managed to bring the No. 9 car home in sixth place. Kahne has been up and down at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with two DNFs in eight races, although his 16.9 average finish evens it out with a win, four top-fives and five top-10s. More importantly, however, Kahne's early performance is recalling memories of 2006 when he won six races at intermediate tracks. It remains to be seen if Kahne can equal his 2006 success, but he is a solid bet for a spot in the top 10 this week.
Martin Truex Jr. | No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Chevrolet | Dale Earnhardt Inc.
After making the Chase for the Nextel Cup in 2007, Truex is off to a quietly solid start in 2008. He is eighth in the point standings after finishes of 20th, sixth and 15th to start the season. Truex has struggled at Atlanta Motor Speedway with four DNFs in six starts. He has one top-10 at the track, which came last season when he finished in eighth place. Still, Truex has looked good on the intermediates this year, and he could double his top-10 total at Atlanta with another quality performance this week.