The cars and stars of NASCAR will have Georgia on their mind once again as they return to the Atlanta Motor Speedway for this weekend's doubleheader of racing. The action gets started off Saturday night with the Great Clips 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series event. Then, Sunday evening, the best stock car drivers in the world will do battle on the 1.54 mile speedway in the Sprint Cup Emory Healthcare 500.
Undoubtedly, the recent news that Atlanta will host only one race weekend in 2011 - this one - will be on the minds of many throughout the race weekend, but there is plenty of reason to believe that those sentiments of disappointment will take a backseat as the tradition of racing takes center stage. Atlanta has played host to some of the most thrilling duels in NASCAR's 62-year-history, and fans are primed to see another classic this weekend.
This is the second season of racing on Labor Day Weekend at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, which opened in 1960 in Hampton, Ga., about 30 miles south of Atlanta. For most of its existence, the track's second annual Sprint Cup date was held late in the season - and even was the final race on the schedule for many years. After deciding many a championship on its high banks but being plagued with bad weather, NASCAR shifted its schedule for the 2009 season and moved the event to early September.
Now the penultimate event in the "Race to the Chase," Sunday's 500-miler has strong implications on the "Chase for the Sprint Cup," as drivers will be looking to earn the 10 coveted bonus points for winning the race that determine where they will stand after the points are reset for the final 10-race playoff, while others will be merely looking just to solidify their positions in the Chase or make a last gasp at a shot at glory.
Headlining the list of key players in the Emory Healthcare 500 is defending race champion Kasey Kahne. The 30-year-old native of Enumclaw, Wash., passed Kevin Harvick on a late restart and held off the Chevrolet driver to score his second victory at AMS. The win is Kahne's most recent to date, and with only 136 points separating him from the 12th and final spot in this year's Chase, a repeat performance could be necessary if he hopes to race for the championship in his final year driving the #9 Ford.
Here are some of the other headlines to watch for when the green flag drops just after 7:30 p.m. ET Sunday night:
Point leader Kevin Harvick will be a factor.
Harvick scored his first career victory at Atlanta, a thrilling and emotional triumph over Jeff Gordon in just Harvick's third start as Dale Earnhardt's successor. In this event one year ago, Harvick led 66 laps and appeared to have the race in hand when a spin by teammate Clint Bowyer set up an 11-lap dash to the finish. As Harvick's Chevrolet was at its best after several laps of racing, he could do little but watch as Kasey Kahne pulled away and scored the win.
A year ago, Harvick was outside the top-20 in the point standings and Atlanta marked the first race all year in which he had led more than nine laps and just his second race led at all. Entering Sunday's event, Harvick sits atop the Sprint Cup standings, having already clinched his spot in this year's Chase for the Championship on the strength of three wins and 16 top-10 finishes in 24 starts. His recent win at Michigan, while scored on a larger but lower banked speedway, indicates that Harvick's intermediate track program is strong and should make for another strong performance Sunday.
Those looking for an end to Jimmie Johnson's much-publicized slump may have to wait at least one more week.
Since winning both races at Atlanta in 2007 - the final year NASCAR used its "old car" in competition - Johnson has scored just two finishes amongst the top 10 at AMS. His best result, a second-place in October 2008, is misleading, as he struggled throughout the event with an ill-handling machine and languished just outside the top-10 for most of the race. A late caution flag allowed Johnson to pit for four tires while most of the lead cars stayed on track. His fresh rubber allowed him to blast through the pack, riding around on tires chewed by several laps of racing on Atlanta's abrasive surface, and claim the runner up spot in the final turn of the race. In the 2009 Emory Healthcare 500, Johnson led 17 laps in the first half of the race but a spin followed by a broken axle ruined his shot at the win.
Much has been made of the fact that Johnson has recorded but one top-10 finish - 10th at Pocono last month - in his last seven starts, one of the worst slumps of the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion's career. Performance-wise, Johnson's team has shown flashes of its trademark dominance, but in a result-driven sport, his struggles have his competitors licking their chops. The 48 team's performance and result will go a long ways in determining whether they roll into the Chase with a wave of momentum or if they limp into the playoff the way they have left six of the past seven races.
Kyle Busch's winning streak could be in jeopardy.
Busch has won the last four NASCAR-sanctioned races he started - three at Bristol Motor Speedway and a Camping World Truck Series race at Chicago last Friday - but Atlanta has not been his best track in either series that is competing this weekend. He did score his first win with Joe Gibbs Racing in March of 2008 (also the first win for Toyota in Sprint Cup competition) and he has won four times at AMS in a truck. However he has only two top-10s in 12 Sprint Cup starts at the track, both in 2008, while he has scored three top-10s in six Nationwide Atlanta starts, but never won.
Juan Pablo Montoya could finally get his much-desired victory on an oval.
Atlanta has been one of Montoya's better oval tracks in Sprint Cup. He recorded his first top-five there in 2007, and he had all but chased Kurt Busch down for the lead this past March before a mistake on the second of two green-white-checker restarts dropped him to third at the finish. Mathematically eliminated from returning to the Chase in 2010 and still seeking redemption after letting a number of oval-track victories slip from their grasp, Montoya and his Brian Pattie-led #42 team very well could be one of the teams to beat.
Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Mark Martin are winless in 2010, but all have scored victories at Atlanta.
Gordon is a four-time victor at the track, last winning in the rain-delayed October 2003 race. Stewart claimed wins at Atlanta in 2002 and 2006, while Martin's two victories came in the 1991 and 1994 season-finales on the old 1.522-mile layout that was used from 1960 through the spring of 1997. Gordon enters Sunday's event having secured his spot in the Chase, while Stewart has a comfortable margin on 13th-place with two races remaining in the regular season. Martin, meanwhile, is 14th in the standings, 101 markers behind Clint Bowyer, who holds down the 12th and final spot in the playoff. A victory Sunday would go a long way for all three of the popular Chevrolet drivers, with Gordon and Stewart needing to claim the 10 bonus points for winning the race and Martin needing the best finish possible in order to have any shot of displacing Bowyer.
In addition to Martin and Bowyer, Sunday could be a deciding factor in whether Jamie McMurray or Ryan Newman go to Richmond with a shot at making the Chase.
McMurray is currently the first man on the outside looking in, sitting 100 points behind Bowyer in 13th. Martin sits one marker behind the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 champion, while Newman, in 15th place, is only 18 points behind McMurray. Newman had the best finish of the four in March, finishing 17th while Bowyer, Martin, and McMurray were all involved in a crash on the first of two green-white-checkered restarts.
Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski return to Atlanta for the first time since their headline-making scrap this past March.
The images of Keselowski's red Dodge flying through the air off the front bumper of Edwards' green Ford Fusion even were featured on ABC's World News Tonight. The feud between the two drivers, triggered following an incident last October in a race just outside of Memphis, seemed to wane after a wave of criticism fell upon both participants. However, tensions were renewed when Edwards intentionally crashed Keselowski to win a July Nationwide Series event in Madison, Ill. With both drivers on probation through the end of the calendar year, it is unlikely that any fireworks will develop between the two Sunday night, especially with Kyle Busch recently displacing Edwards as Keselowski's arch-nemesis.
The likelihood of a local boy making good Sunday is not strong.
Three Georgia natives, Bill Elliott, of Dawsonville, Reed Sorenson, of Peachtree City, and David Ragan, of Unadilla, are scheduled to compete in the Emory Healthcare 500. In addition, former Georgia resident Joey Logano, who first gained attention as a 10-year-old Legends car driver at AMS, will also be in Sunday's field. Ragan and Logano's local ties are strengthened, as their race cars are sponsored by Atlanta-based UPS and Home Depot, respectively.
However, it is unlikely that any of the four drivers will be among the frontrunners Sunday. The best bet for success is perhaps Logano, a native of Connecticut who last June became the youngest driver ever to win a Sprint Cup Series race, but he has struggled in recent weeks after putting together an early-season performance that led many to label him as a potential candidate to make the Chase. Ragan and Sorenson, who will race for Team Red Bull, have yet to achieve stardom at NASCAR's top level, while the glory days of NASCAR legend Elliott, a winner of 44 career races, are well in his rearview mirror.
Despite their slim hopes of triumphing on Sunday, it is likely that the home crowd will give the local heroes, especially Elliott, a warm welcome during pre-race driver introductions.
While much focus will be on Sunday's Sprint Cup rumble, the Emory Healthcare 500 is only one half of a weekend of racing with NASCAR's top stars at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. The preliminary Great Clips 300 Nationwide Series event will get underway just after 7 p.m. ET Saturday night. A mix of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series veterans and the next generation of NASCAR stars will be on display, as Cup stars such as Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch will go fender to fender with up-and-coming youngsters like Justin Allgaier and Trevor Bayne. They'll all be chasing point leader Brad Keselowski, who enters Saturday's race with a 365-point advantage on Edwards.
Kevin Harvick is the defending race champion after dominating the 2009 event. He led 131 laps and lapped all but the top-three cars at one point. However, a mistake on a late pit stop for fuel combined with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s attempt to complete the race without pitting for gas left Harvick chasing Earnhardt from nearly a lap down. He passed Earnhardt with just two laps remaining, then held off Busch to score the win.
Tickets for both races are available, with Great Clips 300 tickets running between $33 and $69.50 and tickets for the Emory Healthcare 500 starting at $39. Those attending Sunday night's race will be treated to a pre-race concert by legendary rock group Foreigner. Tickets can be purchased at AtlantaMotorSpeedway.com or by calling the ticket office at 1-877-9-AMSTIX
If you can't make it to the race track for the weekend's action, you can still catch both races live, flag-to-flag, on television or radio. ESPN2's coverage of the Great Clips 300 will begin with "NASCAR Countdown" at 6:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, while ESPN's telecast of the Emory Healthcare 500 will be preceded by "NASCAR Countdown" at 7 p.m. ET. Each race can also be heard on the Performance Racing Network. Visit goprn.com to find an affiliate near you.