Being one of the oldest tracks on the NASCAR circuit, there is always a great amount of prestige in taming the 1.54-mile lightning-fast Atlanta Motor Speedway. Now with how the Labor Day Weekend date falls on the schedule, the pressure to capture the checkered flag is at an all-time high mark in 2011.
In addition to the proximity of the Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff, this year's AdvoCare 500 at AMS features a few new wrinkles into why this year's edition of the Labor Day classic is so crucial to the outlook for the rest of the season.
For the third season, the AdvoCare 500 is the second race prior to the beginning of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Drivers are in different modes, depending on their position in the points. Some drivers, like Carl Edwards or Jimmie Johnson, all but have a Chase berth locked up. But with Chase competitors earning bonus points for each victory during the regular season, those that are solidly in the Chase will be laying it all on the line, trying to win at AMS and secure extra points as the series heads into the playoffs.
With his Chase fate almost a certainty, Kevin Harvick has been trying different packages on his car, with the idea of improving at tracks where the series will return during the Chase. Having the cushion of three wins also allows him to take more risks to win, something he could not do if he was not towards the top of the point standings. And with some room to breathe, taking risks is certainly worth the reward.
"That's what you should be doing, trying to gain more wins so you can gain more bonus points at the end of the 26th race," says Harvick."
Other drivers, like Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., have yet to bring home a victory in 2011. They are currently in the top-10 in points, which guarantees a spot in the Chase. But with both drivers winless so far in 2011, as well as a group of hungry drivers lurking just outside the top-10, Atlanta will be a crucial stop for those drivers looking to make the Chase. Both Stewart and Earnhardt, Jr. have previously won at Atlanta. In fact, eight of the current top 10 in points have visited victory lane at the challenging 1.54-mile facility.
Historically, at this point in the season, those outside the top 10 in points have had little to race for, other than hoping to make the Chase. But with NASCAR's new emphasis on winning with the wild-card format, a victory at AMS could propel a driver from mediocre season to a spot in the playoffs. Race winners are eligible to take the last two spots in the Chase, as long as they are in the top 20 in the standings.
Aside from winning his first career race on a prestigious stage, Paul Menard's victory at Indianapolis made him eligible for one of the two wild-card positions. Menard and Denny Hamlin currently hold the two spots. Georgia native David Ragan is also eligible for the wild-card with his win at Daytona in July, but trails Menard in the point standings. Brad Keselowski is a race winner in 2011 and is currently only two points away from cracking the top-20, which would make him eligible for the wild-card. Essentially, four previous race winners are fighting for two spots. Not only will they have to battle each other, but they will have to out-race the other drivers trying to win and make themselves eligible for consideration. A checkered flag and a second win of the season at Atlanta would go a long way towards settling the squabble and determining the wild-card drivers.
"Those wild-card spots are going to be fought for extremely hard," says Ragan. "It puts some extra pressure on you and makes you really appreciate that win and look forward to these next races and make sure we are perfect and spot on."
On top of points, some cold, hard cash will be up for grabs during the AdvoCare 500. With the introduction of the Sprint Summer Showdown, up to five drivers will be eligible to win $1,000,000 with a victory at Atlanta. Drivers who win the August races at Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol will win the $1,000,000 prize if they can grab the checkered flag at AMS on Labor Day Weekend. Not only will they add a few digits to their bank account, but $1,000,000 will go to a lucky fan paired up with each eligible driver, as well as $1,000,000 to the driver's charity of choice. Paul Menard's first-career victory at Indianapolis made him the first-ever qualifier for the Sprint Summer Showdown, making him eligible for a chance to cash in when he arrives at Atlanta Motor Speedway in September.
"It's exciting for not only the drivers, but of course the fans too, to get themselves pumped into the promotion and all of that," says Kyle Busch, who will be looking for his second career Atlanta win on Labor Day Weekend. "It's added pressure for all of us. Somebody's got to win the five races in order to be eligible at Atlanta, and it's going to be an exciting one coming down to the end if any of those guys are in contention for it."
With a tight points battle, wild-card eligibility in question, and the chance to become a millionaire, this year's AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be sure to provide high-drama racing action on the lightning-fast high-banks.
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.