The Frontstretch: Atlanta's Four Burning Questions: Lame Duck Drivers And A White Hot Chase Race by Matt Stallknecht -- Friday August 30, 2013

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Silly season is afoot! A flurry of free agent signings, impromptu contract negotiations, and much more transactional craziness led the NASCAR news cycle this week following an action-packed weekend at Bristol. After multiple years of relative stagnation on the silly season front, this year’s edition appears to be a throwback to the days of the early 2000s, when teams and drivers shuffled around like a game of musical chairs to the tune of big sponsorship deals and risky rookie signings. But of course, my job in this column is to deliver you the biggest items to watch heading into the weekend, and there is much to discuss on that front as well. We have a white hot Chase race, lame duck drivers, and a whole lot more to cover, so let’s get right to it.

1. Time is running out… can any of the fringe Chase contenders make their move?

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. That’s the sound of the proverbial clock running out on guys who have yet to position themselves into a Chase spot. The season started with 12 spots in the Chase up for grabs, and entering this weekend at Atlanta, there are realistically only 4-5 spots left. The top six drivers in points entering the weekend are essentially locked in (a group that includes Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth), and the drivers in 7th and 8th in points (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne), still have some work to do to get themselves locked in, but assuming nothing disastrous happens to either one of them, they each should each safely lock up Chase spots.

Kurt Busch and Furniture Row Racing looked like Chase contenders just one week ago but can the lame duck combo still get it done?

9th on back, however, is a complete and utter free for all, and after the madness that was Bristol last week, the race for Chase spots is now even tighter. The last four Chase spots will likely go to any combination of a group of drivers that includes Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., and Ryan Newman. Out of that group, Biffle and Logano are above the Top 10 cutoff point and have wins to boot. A win by either driver this weekend would essentially lock them into the big show. But for the rest of the drivers on that list, a win at either Atlanta or Richmond is essentially a must at this stage of the game.

Much like I said last week, keep a special eye on these aforementioned “Chase bubble drivers”. These are the guys who have to take chances. These are the guys who will likely be piloting the best equipment their teams have to offer. These are the drivers who will likely create the most storylines on Sunday night. Whether or not anyone in that group can do something to bolster their position towards the Chase is thus undoubtedly the biggest question heading into the weekend.

2. Will Kurt Busch’s Chase hopes fade now that he is a lame duck driver?

In a week in which many silly season moves were made, the biggest of them all involved a man named Kurt Busch. Busch signed a multiyear deal with Stewart-Haas Racing earlier this week that will put him in an SHR car starting in the 2014 season. As much as this move could be potentially beneficial to Busch in the future, it will hurt him in the short run, as his hopes of a Chase berth with Furniture Row Racing are still very much up in the air at the moment.

Alas, one week in this sport can yield huge changes, as around this time last week, Busch was sitting inside of the Top 10 cutoff line for the Chase and seemed primed to stick around with a Furniture Row Racing team that has come oh so far with the Nevadan driver. But a nightmarish weekend in Bristol, followed by incessant rumors swirling about an opportunity at Stewart-Haas would make for a cold and quick end to the Busch-FRR relationship, and now both driver and team are faced with the sobering job of having to make a comeback run into the Chase despite each going their separate ways only a few short months from now.

Frankly, I just don’t see this situation bearing any fruit for Busch or FRR, as I think you will see this weekend. Here’s a situation where driver and team fostered an amazing and unthinkable relationship over the course of 6 months, completely shocking everyone in the NASCAR world with their performance, only to have it undone in the midst of a hard fought playoff run. That simply is not a recipe for success on either side of the coin. My guess is that Busch and FRR will each put their best foot forward to try and make the Chase, but you have to imagine whatever chemistry was there before is now long gone, and a team without chemistry isn’t likely to go very far anyway.

The Kurt Busch situation will be a key item to watch this weekend regardless of whether or not he and his team can pull it together for one final act of greatness. However, I have doubt that it will end in a Chase berth.

3. Will Goodyear’s new tire live up to the hype?

Brad Keselowski has already dubbed it as “potentially revolutionary.” Goodyear officials are privately buzzing about how they have “finally nailed a great compound.” What is it that has everyone so atwitter? The answer is Goodyear’s new race-caliber Zone Tread tires that will be making their debut this weekend.

Since it was announced a few weeks ago that these new tires would be making their debut, many fans have been curious as to what exactly it is that makes these new tires so special. The basic premise of the new tire is that it essentially combines two tires into one. The “inner” half of the tire will be a hard compound that can withstand the high heat of the Generation 6 car and be extra durable. The “outer” half of the tire will be a softer compound that provides the drivers with added grip while simultaneously wearing in an appropriate manner. All of this is being done in the name of both safety and, hopefully, increased competition.

So….will it actually work? According to what I’ve read in statements from engineers who have analyzed this tire, I am inclined to believe that it should work as advertised. As to whether or not that will lead to an increased on-track racing product is anyone’s guess. Given how abrasive Atlanta’s surface already is, the tires are going to be falling off quite a bit no matter what tire is used, so this may not be the best weekend to judge the effectiveness of the tire anyway.

4. Who looks to be the favorite to win?

Going into Atlanta, a few names come to mind as drivers who figure to be favorites heading into the race. Wildcard contender Jeff Gordon has scored more points than anyone over the past two races. Gordon won this very race in dramatic fashion in 2011, and while he certainly figures to be a player in the finish on Sunday night, I have a hard time picking him as a bona fide favorite for the race. Gordon’s lackluster performance over the past year and a half on other 1.5 mile tracks raises concerns about his ability to get it done. I would venture to say he is probably a lock for a top 10 given his recent performance at Atlanta, but anything more than that would be a shock at this point.

Kurt Busch is another driver who has gaudy stats at Atlanta, and is the top scoring driver at Atlanta over the past eight races, but much like Gordon, there are simply too many question marks (relating to his lame duck situation, in Busch’s case) surrounding him to be a true favorite. Same goes for Brad Keselowski, who also has solid stats at the Hampton, GA facility (two top 6 finishes in the past six races). These three Chase-bubble drivers figure to be trendy picks heading into the weekend by folks given each driver’s urgent need to get big points for the Chase, but don’t believe the hype, the winner on Sunday will come from a driver already locked into the Chase. And who might that driver be….?

Matt Kenseth of course! Not only does Kenseth carry momentum into the weekend on the strength of his Bristol win, he also has been the most consistent driver on the circuit in 2013 on intermediate tracks like Atlanta. And the funny part? Neither of those things are the primary reason for why I’m picking Kenseth to win this weekend. The main reason why I’m picking Kenseth is simply because he has absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain. Kenseth has more wins than anyone else on the circuit this season, which positions him to be the top seed in the Chase. That means you can expect Kenseth and his No. 20 team to do whatever it takes this weekend to get a win and expand their lead once the Chase comes around.

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 Irwin Tools Night Race:
1. 20-Matt Kenseth
2. 18-Kyle Busch
3. 48-Jimmie Johnson
4. 22-Joey Logano
5. 56-Martin Truex Jr.
6. 2-Brad Keselowski
7. 24-Jeff Gordon
8. 11-Denny Hamlin
9. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
10. 99-Carl Edwards

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Kevin in SoCal
08/30/2013 12:38 PM
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The fight for multiple drivers to make their way into the Chase and go for the championship is exactly why I dont hate the Chase like so many other people on this site. I think its a lot more fun watching the battle to get in, than it is watching the guy on top coast his way thru the rest of the season.

kb
08/30/2013 01:46 PM
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The Chase is bad, let all these bubble boys race till Homestead, that will show the true Champ over the season. As for Kurt Busch’s crew who can blame them if they weren’t on their game, I wouldn’t.

jerseygirl
08/30/2013 02:14 PM
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I feel more like kb than kevin. I hate the chase, think it is really stupid and NASCAR should go back to running a full season championship – IMO it would make the racing better for the whole season. If my fav doesn’t get in the chase as it stands right now, I won’t be bothering with the next 10 races.

Goodyear hasn’t impressed me much with their tire prowess. I can tell you I would never run them on my personal vehicle.

Oldsmo-Bill
08/30/2013 03:22 PM
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Can you say “Karma”? Furniture Row is getting exactly what they deserve. They let Regan Smith go before the end of last season: now Kurt Busch is letting them go before the end of this one. What goes around comes around…

Bill B
08/30/2013 04:29 PM
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I disagree with FR quitting on Busch. They may never have a better chance to make the chase. I think that is why they can’t be vindictive about the situation.

As for the chase, it sucks. Now that the point system is the way it is (one point per position) I think it’s entirely possible to have a close championship race to the end without the chase more so than ever. Besides, the championship is important but it has become too important at the expense of the individual races. That includes both the first 26 races the 10 chaset races as well. From what I’ve seen the most exciting thing the chase has done is create excitement in races 24 through 26. But NASCAR doesn’t care what we think.