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Keeping Pace

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes - Atlanta

Only two races remain in the Race to the Chase — the 10-race stretch that precedes the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — and the Labor Day weekend event at Atlanta, a move from the track’s previous October slot, is one of them.


Courtesy: NASCAR Media Relations

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Time is dwindling and stakes are skyrocketing as NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams prepare for Sunday night’s Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Only two races remain in the Race to the Chase — the 10-race stretch that precedes the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — and the Labor Day weekend event at Atlanta, a move from the track’s previous October slot, is one of them.

Three drivers — standings leader Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet), second-place Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) and third-place Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) — have clinched Chase berths.

Nine spots remain before next week’s cutoff race at Richmond International Raceway, which will set the Chase field, and 12 drivers are vying for them.

Mix history with drama — Sunday’s Atlanta event is the track’s first series night race — and possibilities resound.

Matt Kenseth (No. 17 R&L Carriers Ford) occupies the hottest seat. He’s 12th heading to Atlanta, holding the last Chase-eligible spot, but only 34 points ahead of 13th-place Kyle Busch (No. 18 Pedigree Toyota).

“I think we are going to have to run well both weeks to get in, unless someone has a problem,” Kenseth said.

Three other drivers — fourth-place Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Farm Bureau Toyota), fifth-place Carl Edwards (No. 99 Cancer Center Ford) and sixth-place Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) have the most realistic shot at clinching Chase berths this week.

The scoop: Any driver who leaves Atlanta with a 196-point lead over 13th place will clinch.

Hamlin has a 230-point cushion over 13th; he can lose 34 points and seal his spot. Edwards has an 199-point cushion over 13th, but his best shot at clinching means winning on Sunday. Busch has 192 points over 13th; he needs four more, and like Edwards, a Sunday-night win is his surest clinch scenario.

Site Of Chase Battles, Atlanta Now Sets The Stage For Them

Atlanta Motor Speedway’s second annual event has produced plenty of twists since the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s 2004 inception. Beginning with Sunday’s Pep Boys Auto 500, Atlanta assumes a new, but no less important, role — setting the table for next week’s cutoff race at Richmond International Raceway, which locks in the 12-driver Chase field.
A look back at Atlanta’s Chase dramatics:

2008 — Carl Edwards dominates, but standings leader Jimmie Johnson storms from 10th place during the final 16 laps to finish second, denying Edwards, his closest pursuer, a huge points gain.

2007 — Johnson wins, cutting then-Chase leader Jeff Gordon’s margin over him to nine points.

2006 — Tony Stewart, then the defending series champion and a non-Chase participant in ‘06, wins his second of what will be three victories during the Chase.

2005 — Edwards wins, sweeping both Atlanta races in a standout first season. He eventually finishes third overall in his first Chase.

2004 — Johnson triumphs in an emotional victory for Hendrick Motorsports, which had suffered a fatal team plane crash the previous week. Then second in the standings, he also gains ground on Chase leader Kurt Busch, who finishes 42nd because of engine problems.

Bubble Battle: Drivers Hope To Stake Chase Claims At Atlanta

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series anticipates Sunday’s Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, opportunities to maneuver are down to two: Atlanta and next week’s cutoff event at Richmond, which sets the Chase field.

Following Richmond, the top 12 drivers compete for the series title over the season’s final 10 races. No small potatoes.

Twelve drivers are competing for nine unclaimed Chase berths. And only 89 points separate seventh-place Ryan Newman (No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet) from 14th-place Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota).

“I just go out there and do my job,” Newman said. “We have more things to consider in respect to the points and that doesn’t necessarily put pressure on you, it just means that you have to educate yourself about your surroundings in respect to the points.”

The current 12th-place driver, Matt Kenseth leads 13th-place Kyle Busch by only 34 points, but history may be on his side.

First, Kenseth is the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. Experience counts.

Second, he’s one of only two drivers — reigning and three-time series champion Jimmie Johnson is the other — to qualify for all five Chase events since the format’s 2004 debut.

Then this: With two races left, drivers have overcome at least a 34-point deficit to make the Chase three times in its five-year history. One was Kenseth, the reigning Daytona 500 champion, who made up an 11-point deficit in 2005.

“You do the best you can do and that’s it,” he said. “You certainly don’t want to make any kind of mistakes, but there are 26 races that go into who makes the Chase and these just happen to be the last two.”

Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) erased a 90-point deficit over two races to make what was then a 10-driver Chase field in 2006.

Mark Martin (No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevrolet) — currently 10th in the standings and only 26 points ahead of 12th — and Jeremy Mayfield both made up 35-point deficits in 2004 to make the inaugural Chase.

Behind Busch, Vickers trails 13th place by only five points and Kenseth by only 39 points. Clint Bowyer (No. 33 BB&T Chevrolet), in 15th, trails Kenseth by 112 points.

All Things Atlanta: “Lighting Up” The Track’s First Night Race

Flipping a switch is quite the duty this week as Atlanta Motor Speedway officials prepare for the track’s first NASCAR Sprint Cup night race.

Atlanta also is celebrating its 50th year of racing in 2009, which makes Sunday night’s milestone even more unique. Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series event also will be the first night race for that series at Atlanta.

“The Pep Boys Auto 500 represents the beginning of a holiday night racing tradition in Atlanta and the return of Labor Day weekend NASCAR Sprint Cup racing in the Southeast,” said track president Ed Clark. “The response from fans and competitors within the NASCAR industry has been overwhelming. We look forward to hosting what may well be the top sporting event in Atlanta this year.”

Aside from drivers, the person generating the most electricity this weekend will be the one who activates it.

NASCAR fan Jack Welch of Pearl, Miss., won the right as “Chief Lighting Officer” for Sunday night’s Pep Boys Auto 500 in a track-sponsored contest earlier this year.

So, he’ll flip the switch to turn on the lights, an honor he earned by besting more than 750 other entries.

“It was one of those situations where they said, ‘I won,’ and I didn’t believe the girl on the phone,” Welch said. “My wife and I are extremely excited and I can’t wait to turn on the lights.”

The six-week contest asked fans to demonstrate an electric personality and Welch’s winning entry was a wealth of lighting-themed puns.

But he won because of more than his vocabulary skills.

Welch and his wife, Nancy, are regular attendees at the Pep Boys Auto 500. When they discovered they couldn’t make last fall’s event, they didn’t consign their tickets to a shredder.

They used Carl Edwards as inspiration, choosing to help others, instead.

“We wanted to get those tickets out there and let someone else use them,” Welch said. “When we heard about Carl Edwards’ visit to the Aflac Cancer Center, my wife, Nancy, suggested we send the tickets there.

“We already have tickets for this year’s Pep Boys Auto 500, so we are going to donate the tickets to the Aflac Cancer Center again.”

Loop Data: Atlanta A Prime Location For Drivers Still Seeking First Win Of 2009

When Brian Vickers nabbed his second career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory two races ago, he became the 13th different race winner this season.

In all of 2008, there were 12 different winners. This year’s number of unique race winners could certainly grow, and as early as this weekend.

Three drivers in particular are looking for their first win, and are statistically strong at Atlanta: Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M/Red Cross Ford), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet) and Carl Edwards.

Biffle, simply, is due. He has scored three top-five finishes in the last five races and is solid at Atlanta. Last season, Biffle finished in the top 10 in both Atlanta races, before a DNF (did not finish) in this season’s March race.

Since the inception of Loop Data in 2005, Biffle has a Driver Rating of 97.7 (sixth-best) an Average Running Position of 11.1 (fifth), 213 Fastest Laps Run (third) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 78.4% (fifth).

Earnhardt’s season seems to be coming around, finally. After notching two consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time since last season, he heads to one of his statistically strongest tracks.

His pre-race Driver Rating of 101.4 makes Atlanta his third-best track in terms of Driver Rating. The 101.4 rating is third best in the series. Additionally, Earnhardt has an Average Running Position of 10.4 (fourth), 216 Fastest Laps Run (second) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 79.3% (fourth).

Edwards is the biggest surprise non-winner. But he’s come close. Edwards’ seven top-five finishes is tied for sixth-most in the series, although he has yet to break through.

Atlanta seems like the perfect spot for the 24-race drought to end. In 10 Atlanta starts, Edwards has finished in the top 10 eight times.

Since 2005, he has a Driver Rating of 108.8 (second), an Average Running Position of 9.7 (second), a series-high 282 Fastest Laps Run and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 85.7% (second).

Atlanta also is the site of Edwards’ first career series win, in March 2005.

NSCS Newsmakers: Erik Darnell In For Bobby Labonte; Harvick Back With RCR In 2010; Milestones

Erik Darnell will compete in Yates Racing’s No. 96 Academy Ford at Atlanta.

Announced Monday, it’s the first of seven races for Darnell in the No. 96 in 2009. He’ll also compete at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Darnell steps in for Bobby Labonte, who will compete at Richmond, Dover International Speedway, Auto Club Speedway, Lowe’s Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway.

The move also means Sunday’s Pep Boys Auto 500 will be his NASCAR Sprint Cup debut.

Darnell, the 2005 Raybestos Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, is competing this season for Roush Fenway Racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

He brings two sponsors, Northern Tool + Equipment and Academy Sports and Outdoors, which is helpful to Yates Racing and its partner, Hall of Fame Racing; both organizations are partnering this season to field Labonte with Ask.com and DLP as primary sponsors.

“We were left with a handful of races that have gone unsponsored to this point,” said Max Jones, co-owner of Yates Racing. “Northern Tool has been Erik’s primary sponsor in both the NASCAR Nationwide and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and they were willing to help Erik and Yates Racing this year.”

Harvick Set At RCR: Also on Monday, Richard Childress Racing announced that Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) will return next year.

“We want to put the rumors behind us by stating together that Kevin will drive RCR’s No. 29 Shell-Pennzoil Chevrolet Impala SS for the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season,” owner Richard Childress said. “RCR continues to work on the overall performance of the No. 29 team, like we are with all of our teams, and the plan is to end the season on a high note.

Harvick has driven the No. 29 since the second event of 2001. He has 11 wins.

This Week’s Milestones: Dave Blaney (No. 66 PRISM Motorsports Toyota), 325 starts; Kyle Busch, 175 starts; Paul Menard (No. 98 Johns Mannville/Menards Ford) and David Stremme (No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge), 100 starts each; and Mike Bliss (No. 09 Miccosukee Indian Gaming & Resorts Dodge), 90 starts.

Lessons Learned: Newman Looking To Snare Atlanta Pole Record

Ryan Newman and legend Buddy Baker are tied for the most poles in series history at Atlanta Motor Speedway with seven each.

This weekend, Newman has the chance to claim the record as his own.

“I think it would be even more of an honor if I could pass him and set my own pole record at Atlanta,” Newman said, “just because I know what an incredible driver and teacher Buddy was to me, and I know how long that pole record has stood.”

As the series’ 2002 Raybestos Rookie of the Year, Newman benefitted from Baker’s on-track tutelage. He even named his 2008 Daytona 500-winning car, “Buddy,” after him.

“Buddy and I got to be friends when I starting testing at Penske Racing,” said Newman, now in his first season at Stewart-Haas Racing. “We realized we had a lot in common, and he became a good friend and a great mentor.”

Those lessons rooted very well at Atlanta.

“Honestly, Atlanta was a racetrack that Buddy and I spent a lot of time testing at during the earlier years of my career,” Newman said. “It was a track where he was very good, and I haven’t forgotten anything that he told me about how to get around there. I like Atlanta because it’s a fast track.”

The View From Up Front

Newman’s Career Poles, To-Date: 44

2005: Led series with eight poles

2004: Led series with nine poles

2003: Led series with 11 poles

2002: Rookie record for most poles in a season (six)

NSCS Etc.

Busy Week Off-Track In Atlanta

This Labor Day weekend, events at Atlanta Motor Speedway feature two action-packed days at-track, with Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series events and Sunday’s Pep Boys Auto 500 both under the lights for the first time.

Several drivers will be busy off-track too, all for good causes.

Special Aflac Paint Scheme For Edwards

On Friday, Sept. 4, Carl Edwards unveils the paint scheme that will adorn his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car on Sunday. Joining him is cancer patient Jody Lawrence of Greensboro, Ga., who won the “Color Carl’s Car” drawing contest among patients at the Aflac Cancer Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Edwards will accept a helmet signed by the Aflac Cancer Center patients, which he’ll wear Sunday night.

He’ll also help launch Aflac’s text donation program campaign and Facebook donation campaign to raise funds for fighting childhood cancer. Aflac will match donations up to $1 million.

The event begins at 3 p.m. at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston (1405 Clifton Road NE, Atlanta). Also attending: Dr. Howard Katzenstein (Aflac Cancer Center’s director of clinical research) and Danny Fleishman (Aflac vice president, sponsorships and emerging markets).

Stewart Headlines Annual Office Depot Contest Announcement

Now in business himself thanks to his ownership role in Stewart-Haas Racing, series standings leader Tony Stewart will announce the 2009 “Official Small Business of NASCAR, Courtesy of Office Depot” winner on Saturday, Sept. 5 at 9:45 a.m., in Atlanta’s infield media center.

It’s the fifth such annual contest, and a meaningful one. The winner, a small business owner, receives a $14,000 small business makeover from Office Depot, a private coaching session with NASCAR executives, use of the “Official Small Business of NASCAR, Courtesy of Office Depot” logo and a VIP trip to this weekend’s event at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Stewart also will carry the winning company’s name and logo on the rear panel of his car during Sunday night’s Pep Boys Auto 500.

“Building a successful business takes a lot of hard work and dedication, which is something I’ve learned firsthand over the years,” Stewart said. “The Office Depot ‘Official Small Business of NASCAR Sweepstakes’ is an amazing chance for a small business owner to get their company name out there.”

Sorenson Golfing For A Good Cause

Georgia native and driver Reed Sorenson (No. 43 U.S. Air Force Dodge) returns with his Charity Golf Tournament presented by AutoTrader.com on Friday, Sept. 4 at Eagle’s Landing Golf Club.

With a shotgun start at noon, it gives race fans the chance to golf with NASCAR personalities, plus raise money for local children’s organizations through Speedway Children’s Charities.

Aside from Sorenson, who serves as host, those scheduled to attend include drivers Kasey Kahne and Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Chevrolet), television analyst Larry McReynolds and SPEED reporters Bob Dilner and Rutledge Wood.

For more information, contact Shaun Birindelli at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
 
Burton And BBQ, Also For A Good Cause

Barbecue specialists from across the country will fire their grills this weekend, competing in the Prilosec OTC Shootout Series on Sept. 5-6.

It’s the fourth and final event in a cook-off series sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society that has toured NASCAR tracks. The champion will be crowned at Atlanta.

Jeff Burton (No. 31 CAT Financial Chevrolet) will participate in the festivities, which feature more than a dozen teams and honorary judges. Judging is scheduled for 11 a.m., Saturday in the Display Lot near the SPEED Stage. Awards will be distributed Sunday at 10:30 a.m.

Teams will sell their barbecue products, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting Speedway Children’s Charities and the NASCAR Foundation.
 
Up Next: Richmond International Raceway

The field for the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup will be set next Saturday night, Sept. 12, at Richmond International Raceway (7:30 p.m. start on ESPN).

It’s “the cutoff race” — race No. 26 of the 36-event season. The top 12 drivers in the standings following the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 will compete for the series title during the season’s final 10 races.

Three-time and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson is the defending race winner.

Then-standings leader Kyle Busch started from the pole after qualifying was cancelled due to rain; the starting lineup was set per the series rulebook.

Drama is inherent at Richmond: Last year, Clint Bowyer cemented his Chase spot by starting the day 12th in the standings, then finishing 12th in the race.

Fast Facts

The Race: Pep Boys Auto 500

The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway (1.54-mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, Sept. 6

The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 325 laps/500.5 miles

TV: ESPN, 7 p.m. ET

Radio: PRN and Sirius Satellite (Local, WEKS-FM 92.5)

2008 Winner: Carl Edwards

2008 Polesitter: Jimmie Johnson

Schedule: Saturday—Practice, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Final Practice, 1-2:30 p.m. Qualifying, 4:40 p.m.

2009 Top 12 Drivers
    Driver                     Points
 1 Tony Stewart            3,564
 2 Jimmie Johnson        3,344
 3 Jeff Gordon               3,310
 4 Denny Hamlin           3,141
 5 Carl Edwards            3,110
 6 Kurt Busch               3,103
 7 Ryan Newman          2,995
 8 Greg Biffle                2,986
 9 Juan Pablo Montoya  2,975
10 Mark Martin 2,971
11 Kasey Kahne 2,963
12 Matt Kenseth 2,945


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Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.

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