Entering its fourth season of being the next-to-last event prior to the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Atlanta Motor Speedway will once again play host to one of the NASCAR season’s most dramatic events with the AdvoCare 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday, Sept. 2.
This year’s battle for the Chase field features an unbelievably intense fight for the two Wild Card positions in the standings, a battle that will go down to the final lap in Richmond to determine who is in and who is out for the playoffs. Atlanta’s night race will play an important role in deciding who has to hang on to their spot in the standings the following week and who has to go for broke and bring home a checkered flag just to make the cut.
After three years of racing on the Labor Day weekend date, a quick look at the record book will give a fairly strong indication of who fans can expect to make some noise at the front of the field during the 500-mile race around the 1.54-mile oval.
· Tony Stewart – Smoke has enjoyed success at Atlanta throughout his career, no matter the time of year. The three-time Atlanta winner has recorded finishes of 11th, first and third over the past three seasons. Last year’s third-place effort propelled Stewart into the Chase, where he claimed the 2011 championship. With his penchant for slick tracks, Stewart should once again be a threat to win in Atlanta, as he’ll be working to win again and secure a top seed in the Chase standings following Richmond. Stewart is one of just a few drivers to record good finishes in all three Labor Day weekend events.
· Jimmie Johnson – After the 48 team’s dominating performance last weekend at Indianapolis, all signs point to Johnson’s group heating up at just the right time. Atlanta could be another checkered flag for Johnson, who has three career wins at AMS, but none since 2007. After a disappointing 36th-place finish in 2009, Johnson has reeled off finishes of third and second over the past two seasons, with last year’s runner-up finish to teammate Jeff Gordon being a battle that those in attendance will not forget. Team 48 will be looking to break the logjam at the top of the standings and gain the most wins heading into the Chase, which would move Johnson to the top of the standings when the field is reset.
· Carl Edwards – Similar to Johnson, Edwards suffered mechanical issues in 2009, which resulted in poor finish of 37th. 2010 was a rebound for the Missouri native as he was runner-up to Tony Stewart, then recorded a solid fifth-place finish last season. Cousin Carl will be hungry for an Atlanta checkered flag, but for somewhat different reasons than Johnson. Edwards is locked in the fierce race for the two Wild Card spots, where race wins determine the final two positions in the Chase. An Atlanta win could put the 99 on the path for a title march. AMS is also Edwards’ favorite track on the circuit, and he is also a three-time visitor to the speedway’s victory lane.
· Kevin Harvick – Harvick won his first-career Sprint Cup Series race here at Atlanta in 2001, currently his lone victory at AMS in Cup action. A runner-up finish in 2009 helped seal his spot in the Chase, but 2010 saw the California-native suffer mechanical problems, which resulted in a 33rd-place finish. Last season, Happy Harvick brought the No. 29 home in seventh. Harvick is currently entrenched in the top-10 in points, but without a race win, he could use some cushion room, and a victory at Atlanta could provide just that.
· Denny Hamlin – Another driver that has turned up the wick in recent weeks is the pride of Chesterfield, Virginia. A sixth-place effort in 2009 was followed up by a frustrating 43rd-place finish in 2010. It was doubly disappointing due to the fact the No. 11 started the race on the pole and spent a considerable amount of time at the front of the field prior to the engine expiring. Last season, Hamlin came home eighth and put himself into the Chase. Like Johnson and Stewart, Hamlin will be looking to win and have a top seed in the standings when the Chase reset happens.
One driver who the stats deceive a bit is Kasey Kahne. The first-year Hendrick Motorsports driver won the inaugural Labor Day weekend race at AMS in 2009, but suffered car problems in 2010 while running well, and then an engine failure last season after winning the pole. Kahne is a two-time AMS victor, and his No. 5 team has been running well of late. Another Wild Card contender, many have pegged Kahne as one of the top challengers for the final spots in the Chase.
NASCAR night racing returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway on Labor Day weekend, Aug. 31-Sept. 2, 2012. Reserve your AdvoCare 500 tickets now. For more information, call the Atlanta Motor Speedway ticket office at (877) 9-AMS-TIX, (770) 946-4211 or visit www.atlantamotorspeedway.com.