Nothing too surprising happened during Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Granted, there were the out of the blue late-race wrecks and tires mysteriously flying off cars; but, after the past few years of hair-raising last-lap finishes, you come to expect wild things at Atlanta when it comes time for the checkered flag.
No matter what you think of the ending, though, once the smoke cleared there was certainly no surprise up front; the Gordon/Johnson juggernaut had tightened its grip on the competition. It was Johnson who fared the better of the two, scoring his series-leading eighth win of the year to narrow the deficit to just nine points behind Jeff Gordon as the series heads to Texas. But could that monopoly on Victory Lane end this weekend, as the Nextel Cup boys head to a track where neither Jimmie Johnson or Gordon have won? Cinderella Clint Bowyer is hoping for just that, perhaps the only other driver within striking distance as the championship prepares to enter its final set of turns.
So, which drivers left Atlanta feeling good about their finishes, and who else is wishing they could hit the easy button and restart the Chase all over again? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase to find out just where everyone stands with three races left.
Johnson: For the third time this year, Johnson earned back-to-back wins, scoring his ninth career season sweep at a particular track. It didn’t appear to be Johnson’s day at Atlanta, but is anyone really surprised anymore when the No. 48 somehow magically turns up at the front as the laps wind down to a close? Atlanta’s victory gives Johnson added momentum heading to Texas, where he’ll need it; he scored a 38th-place finish earlier this year after crashing out of the event. Johnson seems to be leading a charmed life right now… although considering his past history down in Fort Worth, don’t look for a repeat of that performance next weekend.
Gordon: For part of Sunday’s race, it seemed like Gordon was going to open the door and let Johnson sneak by him completely in the standings. But the team went too far trying to make adjustments on the No. 24, which resulted in Gordon dropping back to 20th place. In pure championship style, though, the team clawed back and rallied to finish seventh, their fifth straight top-10 finish in six Chase races. Now carrying a narrow nine-point lead with three races left, Gordon will try to keep Johnson at bay as he goes for his first win in the Lone Star state.
Bowyer: Other than Gordon, Bowyer is the only driver in the Chase with three straight top 10s, keeping him within sight of the leaders should they ever stumble before the end of the season. Many people had doubts about Bowyer heading into his first Chase for the Championship, but the young RCR driver has stepped up his game in the final 10 races of the year, scoring career-best finishes in six of the seven Chase races run so far. To continue that streak, he’ll need to finish fourth or better at Texas this weekend; that could be a tall order, but don’t count him out just yet.
Carl Edwards: Edwards didn’t have the best car at Atlanta on Sunday, but at the end of the day, he put himself in position to steal a second win at Atlanta from Johnson. Once the last yellow of the day came out for Junior’s loose wheel, it forced Edwards to settle for second place; however, that was still good enough to move him up to fourth in the yearlong standings. While that means little in the battle for the championship, each position gained means more money at the end of the year, and right now, it’s looking good for Edwards to cash in. However, other than his win in 2005, Cousin Carl hasn’t been stellar at Texas – and the way he is running lately, with a top-five finish followed by a run outside the top 10, less than stellar is probably what you can expect this weekend.
Kyle Busch: If not for a slow pit stop during the final trip down pit lane on Sunday, there could have very well been a different Hendrick car in Victory Lane at Atlanta. Busch led 77 laps during the race, but the slow stop put him back in traffic on the restart, and he was collected in a wreck and subsequently finished 20th. The results on Sunday exemplify Busch’s Chase run this year; he’s been in position to run well, but more often than not, he hasn’t been able to cash in. Texas could be another exercise in frustration for the youngest Busch brother; he’s only finished in the top 10 once in five starts.
Jeff Burton: In the last three races, Burton has put in the type of performances he would have liked to start the Chase with. His fifth-place finish at Atlanta – thanks to a two-tire call late in the going – was his second top five in the last three races, moving him up to eighth in the standings with just three races remaining. Burton might be the happiest of the Chasers to be heading to Texas, too, since he scored the win there earlier this year. Could Johnson’s season sweep streak rub off on Burton this weekend?
Matt Kenseth: Another driver who would like to hit the do-over button on the Chase is Kenseth. After kicking off the Chase with a top 10 at Loudon, Kenseth hit a major cold spell, wrecking every which way while failing to finish higher than 26th in four straight races. But now the Kenseth that many expected in the Chase has emerged, and he’s finished in the top five the last two weeks. Finally out of the Chase cellar, Texas should be a track where Kenseth can keep up his top five ways, considering in three of the last four races there, he has finished third or better.
Kevin Harvick: Following Sunday’s 15th-place finish at Atlanta, Harvick was so happy he put in a request to take the same car to Texas this week. Maybe that enthusiasm arose because he didn’t have any of the bad luck that has plagued him in the Chase; with that in mind, why not ride it out in this car another week? Harvick also broke a streak of following up on a top-10 finish in the Chase with a subpar performance; could he keep the consistency coming? Perhaps, as he has finished in the top five in two of the last three Texas races. But then again, remember that this is the team that has been snake bitten so many times this year – so you never know quite what to expect with Harvick.
Tony Stewart: After racing his way into the top 10 from his dismal 30th-place starting position, Stewart looked to be a man on mission to repeat as winner of the fall race at Atlanta. But as good as the No. 20 was early, things went that bad, and Stewart was forced to pit under green; in the process, he dropped two laps down to the leaders. Unable to make up the lost ground, Stewart finished the day 30th, falling to fifth in the standings and putting a nail in his title hopes for the year. But Stewart fans shouldn’t despair; with Texas on the horizon and the title out of reach, he could be in for a repeat performance of last year’s victory, scored when he had nothing left to lose.
Kurt Busch: Busch was strong on Sunday, leading 98 laps while putting himself in position to earn race win number three this year. But a late-race call for four tires put him too far back to make a run back to the front, as cautions littered Atlanta’s final laps and shut him out of Victory Lane. If there’s any silver lining, it was that the eighth-place finish did snap a cold streak that saw Busch finish 26th and 31st the last two weeks. The bad luck bug continuing to bite, Texas will prove a good test to see if this team is turning the corner in the final stages of the season – or if Busch’s good run was simply a flash in the pan.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin and his team made a late-race Atlanta gamble on fuel, staying out to assume the lead after what many expected would be the final caution of the day. But when his car stalled on the restart, many were left scratching their heads about what went wrong. The short answer, water. After the race, traces of water were found in his fuel tank and most likely caused the sputter that took out several good cars in the closing laps. Chalk it up to one more frustration in a season where Hamlin had thought he’d be in contention for the title. Things should turn around this weekend at Texas, though, where the sophomore has scored top-10 finishes in each of his four starts.
Martin Truex Jr.: The curse of DEI this season seems to be official. After leading the most laps on Sunday (135), Truex found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when Hamlin’s sputtering Chevy caused him to stack up the field on a late-race restart. Trapped in mid-pack and with no place to go, Truex slammed into the back of the No. 11, and he finished a disappointing 31st. That added to a slump which has made him the only Chase driver without a top 10 in the last four races; in fact, poor performances have kept Truex out of the top 10 in the last six. Texas could provide hope to turn that around, though; in four starts, DEI’s young prodigy has finished in the top 10 twice. Let’s just hope for Truex’s sake his engine holds up this time.
So, what lies ahead for the Chasers as they visit the Lone Star state one final time in 2007? Will someone who doesn’t work for Rick Hendrick be able to visit Victory Lane, considering the car owner hasn’t won a race there since 1999? Can Truex finally shake the proverbial monkey off his back? Will Kenseth’s turnaround continue – or will his car be turned by someone else yet again? Can Bowyer stay in contention for the title one more week? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find the latest answers on Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase for the Championship.