This week’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race takes us to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the second of their two races this season. This will be the last year the track will host two races a year after having at least two annually since 1960 – a span of 103 races run – due to Speedway Motorsports Incorporated moving one of their Atlanta dates to their Kentucky facility for the 2011 schedule.
It will be good to have a new venue for fans in the rabid NASCAR region of southern Ohio and Kentucky to be closer to, but it won’t necessarily produce better racing and is sure to be much shorter.
Kentucky’s race will be a 400 mile race as opposed to both of Atlanta’s races traditionally being 500 milers. The latest trend in NASCAR over eight of the last 10 races has seen events last less than three hours. The shorter races have been in part to longer green flag runs, drivers respecting each other more than ever and the handful of jalopies who start and park their cars just to steal a paycheck each week.
The start and parkers are good in a way because those have been the type of cars that helped stockpile cautions throughout a race just by being in the way of faster cars. NASCAR is now getting races in at a faster pace than it took to repair the pot-hole during this year season opening Daytona 500.
With Atlanta only having one race a season, we still have the luxury of seeing two Charlotte races a year which runs most similar to Atlanta and then Texas twice a year, which is close, along with the March Las Vegas date.
All four of the SMI sister tracks are high banked 1.5-mile tracks. The other 1.5-mile tri-oval tracks, although much flatter in banking – a category Kentucky will fall into, are Chicagoland and Kansas. Homestead-Miami is the only other 1.5-mile track, but it’s shaped more like a paper-clip with high banks making it sort of unique among them all.
So far we have seen five of those 1.5-mile tracks run this year which is a great tool of reference to go back on when attempting to figure out who presents the best value to win this week. Kasey Kahne is the only driver to have finished within the top-12 of all five races with Kevin Harvick having done so at all four of the SMI sister tracks. However, neither Kahne nor Harvick won any of those races, they just showed great consistency throughout.
The driver that should top the list of consideration is Kurt Busch who won at both Atlanta and Charlotte this season. Busch even won the non-points all-star race at Charlotte the week prior to the marathon race of the Coca-Cola 600. Busch is a three-time winner in Atlanta and has won two of the last three races run there.
Jimmie Johnson has been in a funk over the last seven races after coming off of back-to-back wins at Sonoma and New Hampshire in June. Over those seven races, five have seen him finish 22nd or worse which has dropped him way down in season points from second-place all the way to ninth.
Something isn’t clicking with the No. 48 team because they certainly have a car capable of winning each week, they just can’t finish. At Chicagoland, Johnson led a race high 92 laps, but finished 25th. Two weeks ago at Bristol, Johnson led 192 laps, but finished 35th. If this were baseball with a contender having the same type of issues, the club would sacrifice their entire farm system to get a quality closer.
Johnson’s slump has also elevated his odds at Las Vegas sports books. Generally at tracks like Atlanta, a bettor would be lucky to find Johnson at 4 to 1 or higher, but this week can be found at 6 to 1 or higher. It may not seem like a big hike in price, but a 50% increase from normal odds is pretty chunky when considering just how good Johnson has been on these types of tracks and knowing that the issues he had weren’t just because of having a car lacking horsepower. This team has speed, and most of all they have Johnson himself behind the wheel, the defending four-time NASCAR champion.
The drivers that have taken the biggest dip in odds over the last five races have been a trio of Roush-Fenway drivers who are all showing they are on the upswing just as the Chase arrives. All the tinkering and testing to get their engines to produce more horsepower has finally come to fruition. It only took half the season to figure out, but luckily for Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle they were able to finish well enough to have themselves firmly entrenched in the Chase with hopes that the best is yet to come.
For Edwards, he’s a three-time Atlanta winner who had one of his better runs of the season as runner-up on the 1½-mile track of Chicago a few weeks ago. Kenseth has never won in Atlanta, but despite not having the best horsepower output early on, still managed to finish within the top-13 in four of the five 1½-mile races this season, including runner-up in the first Atlanta race.
Greg Biffle is the only Roush driver to capture a win this season and finished eighth in the March Atlanta race. In his last five starts, Biffle has a win, third, fourth and eighth-place finishes and has given himself a nice comfortable cushion in the race to the Chase where he currently sits 11th with two races to go.
The driver who has been charging hard in the standings in points has been Jamie McMurray. When July came around, McMurray was mired in 18th position, but yet still showing in practices and races that he was good enough to compete with the best. He put it all together at the Daytona Firecracker with a fifth and has charged all the way to 13th in points coming into this week only 100 points behind Clint Bowyer. His team obviously found something that was wrong and fixed it, but is it too late?
History says possibly, but there have been five drivers who have made the Chase while trailing with two races to go. The largest gap at the same juncture to have made it was Kasey Kahne’s 90 points in 2006.