In a season that is on pace to set records in the parity department, perhaps the best way to figure out who may be the drivers to watch at this year's AdvoCare 500 is to hit the record books and examine the stats for night racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
This year's Labor Day weekend NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race will be the third time competitors have run under the lights at the 1.54-mile speedway since the event moved to the Labor Day slot.
After two races under the lights at AMS, two different drivers have visited victory lane, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart. In each season, both drivers used their victories to propel themselves into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. With Atlanta's spot on the schedule as the second-to-last race prior to the Chase cutoff, several drivers are currently faced with the prospect of having to win the AdvoCare 500 to qualify for the Chase, whether through being in the top-10 in points or taking a Wild Card spot.
Looking at the results of the past two Labor Day weekend night races, here are a few drivers fans should keep an eye on during race weekend:
· Juan Pablo Montoya – Atlanta Motor Speedway has historically been one of Montoya's strongest tracks. Over the last two night races at AMS, Montoya has logged finishes of third and ninth. Atlanta was also the sight of Montoya's first-career top-five NASCAR finish, which came during the spring of 2007.
· Ryan Newman – The driver of the No. 39 currently sits in seventh place in points and looks poised to lock up another berth into the Chase field. Newman wheeled his Chevrolet to a ninth-place finish in 2009 and came home eighth in 2010. The Indiana native could put the finishing touches on his Chase fate here in two weeks. Newman has also won seven pole awards during his career at AMS, which leads all current drivers and ties him for most all-time with his mentor Buddy Baker.
· Denny Hamlin – Hamlin recorded a sixth-place finish in his No. 11 in 2009, but finished dead-last last year. However the poor finish is a bit of an aberration. Hamlin started last year's event from the pole and spent a considerable amount of time among the leaders before his engine expired after 143 laps. Hamlin is currently hanging onto his Chase hopes by a thread, and a good run at Atlanta could propel him into the postseason.
· Carl Edwards – "Cousin Carl" is another driver that has a deceiving poor finish from the last two night races at Atlanta. Edwards finished 37th in 2009 but featured a strong Aflac machine in that race prior to spending considerable time in the garage with mechanical issues. Last year Edwards pulled off a runner-up finish behind race-winner Tony Stewart. The Missouri native has been one of the top drivers on the circuit in 2011, and has three wins in his career at Atlanta.
· Kyle Busch – "Rowdy" will roll into Atlanta as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. After winning his fourth race of 2011 last weekend at Michigan, Busch heads to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend, where he has taken five checkered flags in his Sprint Cup career. Busch finished 13th and fifth in his past two night races at Atlanta, and will have added motivation for this year's event. Busch is already locked into the Chase, and is eligible for the Sprint Summer Showdown. With a total of $3,000,000 on the line, Busch will be hungry for his second Sprint Cup win at AMS.
One dark horse candidate could be Kurt Busch. Busch is working towards another Chase entry and is also a three-time winner at Atlanta. While all three of his wins came during the daytime, Busch recorded a sixth-place finish last year under the lights. With an improved intermediate track program by Penske Racing this year, Busch could win his first night race at Atlanta this Labor Day weekend.
NASCAR night racing returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway this Labor Day weekend, Sept. 2-4. Tickets for the AdvoCare 500 start at $39 and $19 for students. Children 12 and under admitted free for the Great Clips 300 and the Atlanta 200 with an adult ticket. For more information, call the Atlanta Motor Speedway Ticket Office at (877) 9-AMS-TIX, (770) 946-4211 or visit www.atlantamotorspeedway.com.