Kenseth speeds into Atlanta in great Chase shape

Oct 24, 2006 9:09 AM

The shakeup we expected at some point of the Chase happened last week at Martinsville, where nearly every driver changed positions.

Jeff Burton surrendered his lead in points by finishing at 42, while Jimmie Johnson took full advantage of circumstances in winning the race and moving up four positions. Four races remain in the Chase and it looks like the title is in pretty good shape with Matt Kenseth.

Listed below are the three drivers I like going into this week to win the Championship. The only drivers having a real tough time selling themselves as candidates to win it all are Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.

Matt Kenseth (6-5): Kenseth finished 11th at Martinsville and catapulted himself into the points lead with four races to go. He has five top 15 finishes in the six Chase races thus far, which leads all drivers. Overall, Kenseth rolls into this week’s race in Atlanta with a Cup leading 14 top five finishes.

Kenseth became the third different leader in six Chase races. He now leads second-place Kevin Harvick by 36 points. Kenseth led Jimmie Johnson at the conclusion of the Race to The Chase by 57 prior to the point adjustment, and by 5 afterwards. It’s ironic that after all the shuffling that has gone on, it comes down to these two again. We knew Kenseth would be there, but Johnson is a big surprise because of all his issues at the start.

Not to discount Harvick or Denny Hamlin’s chances of winning it all, but this has now become a one on one showdown between the two best drivers, or cars in the Cup series. This is a heavyweight battle and the one most of us wanted to see, except for those with 300-1 tickets on Jeff Burton to win it all.

Kenseth has started 13 races at Atlanta. He has never won and claims a best finish of fourth (twice). Last season in this race, Kenseth finished fifth. It’s definitely not one of his better tracks, but he should be able duplicate what he did last year and take home at least a top 10.

As for Championship odds, anything over 2 to 1 is strong value.

Jimmie Johnson (3-1): Jimmie Johnson won last week at Martinsville, his fourth top 15 finish in the Chase. He leapfrogged from seventh to third in the standings and now has become a bonafide contender again. Just think about it, everyone could have had 25-1 on him two weeks ago. Last week he was 10-1. This week, different story. Johnson again is one of the favorites, listed second choice after Kenseth at 3-1.

Johnson trails Kenseth by 41 points and Harvick by just six. He should be ready to roll at Atlanta with Texas and Miami coming later on in the Chase. Phoenix may be a place where he could slip up and have drivers like Burton or Harvick slip by him in points.

Kasey Kahne (25-1): Kasey Kahne finished seventh at Martinsville and remained eighth in the standings. He was the only driver who didn’t change positions. He is only 99 points behind Matt Kenseth. With four races remaining and two at tracks that he’s won on already this season, I’d say he has a great outside shot at making a serious push for the title.

Kahne is currently on fire with three top 10 finishes in a row. For a driver who just barely made the Chase in the last race by 16 points and struggled so poorly out of the chase gate, he’s not sitting so bad right now.

Of the similar fast tracks in NASCAR, no three are more comparable in speeds, banking width, and distance than Atlanta, Texas, and Charlotte. They all have their little characteristics that make them unique from each other. However, there is something to be said about the simple evidence of successful teams bringing the same chassis to each track.

Guess which one Kasey Kahne will be bringing? Hint: The one that has won four straight on these type tracks this season, not to mention California and Michigan. They are 2-mile tracks similar in ways to 1.5-mile tracks.

No one has ever swept a season on the three tracks. Kahne is on the verge of making history this weekend if he wins the race. Based on all the performances shown by Kahne this season in like situations, it’s really hard not to believe he won’t do it again this week. He didn’t luck into any of the wins, didn’t win on fuel mileage or have the best car blow an engine. Kahne went out and dominated in each.

For some reason Atlanta has been a tough track to tame for a long period of time. No driver has ever competed in more than seven races without posting a DNF.

If you are looking for the Kahne sweep this week, you have to look no further than last year when Carl Edwards surprised everyone by doing it as a rookie. The last driver before Edwards was Bill Elliott in 1992. Elliott also happens to be the only driver to sweep Atlanta twice, having done so in 1985 as well.

Kahne has long history going against him and short history also. Eight of the last nine Atlanta race have been won by different drivers, with Edwards being of course the lone repeater.

Kahne should have no problem qualifying well this week which is good news for him from a statistical standpoint. Eight of the last nine races at Atlanta have been won from a top 10 starting position.

Kahne won from the pole earlier this season at Atlanta, the 14th time in Atlanta’s great history that it’s happened. Kahne’s victory was the first by an Atlanta pole winner in 19 races dating back to 1996. The first driver to do it was Fireball Roberts in 1960. I had to throw that in due to the great "Fireball" being family.