There are three races at the Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend, but - with all due respect to Friday's 200-mile Camping World Truck Series race and Saturday's Nationwide Series 300-miler - the Sprint Cup Series Advocare 500 (Sunday, 7 p.m. - ESPN) certainly stands above as the main event.
This will be the 104th race held at the historic speedway in Hampton. The track opened in 1960, with NASCAR legend and superspeedway master Fireball Roberts grabbing the first checkered flag on July 31. Roberts' triumph - and every other Atlanta win up through Dale Jarrett's March 1997 win - took place on the track's original 1.522-mile configuration. In the summer of '97, the facility was re-configured into a superfast 1.54-mile quad-oval. That November Geoff Bodine turned the fastest qualifying lap ever on a track smaller than 2.5 miles, a record that is unlikely to fall anytime soon.
The surface has worn significantly in the 14 years since the track was redone, which is what creates the allure of racing at Atlanta. Drivers can move their cars from the very bottom of the 31-degree turns to just inches from the outside wall and anywhere in between and grip and speed. Unlike most Sprint Cup tracks, there is no clear-cut better line at Atlanta. One can pass on the bottom, he can pass up high, or he can split two cars through the middle. While the track might look exactly the same as Charlotte Motor Speedway or Texas Motor Speedway, it races like no other track on the circuit.
That is what makes Atlanta a favorite among drivers and fans, and it is why the Advocare 500 promises to be a thrilling race. It is also what makes it so hard to pick a winner or even a driver who will run among the top-five until the race is at least half over.
Among the drivers who figure to be in contention at some point is Brad Keselowski, who is riding one of the hottest stretches by any competitor all season. Since breaking his ankle in a violent testing crash at Road Atlanta in Brasleton, he has won at Pocono, finished second at Watkins Glen, third at Michigan, and won again at Bristol this past Saturday. Keselowski would likely prefer to have another strong performance this weekend for more reasons than just the potential $3 million payout for winning as part of the Sprint Summer Showdown. His red Dodge flying through the air in last March's race and slamming roof-first into the frontstretch wall as payback for wrecking Carl Edwards earlier in the event perhaps remains the defining image of his young Sprint Cup career, in spite of his recent success in his blue No. 2 machine.
Edwards, meanwhile, hasn't had a strong performance since leading 30 laps and finishing fifth at Michigan in June, but Atlanta is one of his better race tracks. He got his very first win there in March 2005, then pulled off the season sweep that October (author note: my first live race ever). He won again in October 2008 and was the runner-up in last year's Advocare 500.
Denny Hamlin has led 185 laps over the past five races at Atlanta, but has just one top-five - third in October 2008 - in 11 Atlanta starts. He led 74 laps from the pole last year and had one of the two best cars before his engine grenaded on lap 143, ending his race dead-last in the 43-car field. Another strong run on the heels of his seventh-place showing at Bristol would help solidify his spot in this year's Chase, which had been in doubt during his summer struggles.
Another driver who needs a strong run to help ensure him make the Chase is defending Advocare 500 champion Tony Stewart. In the midst of the worst year of his Sprint Cup career, Stewart holds a 21-point edge on Keselowski for tenth in the points. Without a victory, he would have to hang on to the 10th position to have a shot at his third Sprint Cup title. The territory is mildly familiar for Stewart, as he was winless entering last year's Advocare 500. He proceeded to dominate, leading 176 laps for his third Atlanta victory.
Five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has three Atlanta wins, including an emotional victory in October 2004 just one week after the plane crash that claimed nine members of his Hendrick Motorsports team. He also swept the season in 2007. Johnson ran third behind Stewart and Edwards last September, one of just two top-fives in his last six AMS starts.
There are plenty of other stories to follow over the course of this week as we lead up to race weekend, and we hope you will join SB Nation Atlanta as we preview all the action.