Good ol' Atlanta a true Chase preview
HAMPTON, Ga. -- What you'll see here Sunday night may very well be a snapshot of what you'll get in the Chase.
Atlanta Motor Speedway is so wide, so forgiving, so fast, so "racy" as drivers call it, that after the Pep Boys 500, "I think you'll have a good idea," points leader Tony Stewart said, of who really belongs in the Chase and who is likely to do well in the playoffs. "The guys who are true drivers, the guys who really run well here, run well consistently."
And so, "I think you'll see the guys who'll probably be in the Chase be in the top 10 here," Stewart said. "I think this is a good read of the guys you're going to have in the Chase. It seems like guys who have their programs together normally have it together here."
Bristol last week and Richmond next week are short-track races, where playoff contenders can get caught up in other drivers' mistakes. Here, it's mostly a matter of who can go the fastest the longest.
"You have a lot of options, so you're not doing the bump and run," said Jimmie Johnson, second in points, referring to the temptations on the short tracks.
"It's not quite as difficult to get the result that your car and your team deserve here as it might be some of the other places that you have circumstances that can go against you," said Mark Martin.
To him, that's a relief. Martin is 10th in the standings and therefore still vulnerable to missing the Chase, even with four Cup wins this season. Here and at Richmond, the final two races of the regular season, Martin will have to slug it out for a berth in the 12-driver playoffs with Juan Pablo Montoya (ninth), and then in order in the standings behind Martin, Kasey Kahne (11th), Matt Kenseth (12th), Kyle Busch (13th) and Brian Vickers (14th). Clint Bowyer, 15th, has an outside chance but is currently 160 points out of 12th.
"I think this track can be a big player in who makes the Chase or not," said Johnson, who doesn't have a thing to worry about himself. "You're going to have a lot of green-flag runs. If you're off a little bit, you're going to go a lap down.
"So I think this race is going to be big for the bubble guys, and who is going to be in this thing or not."
But at least they largely get to determine their own fate, and that's why drivers love this place, not in spite of, but because of, the fact the surface is old -- it hasn't been repaved in 12 years -- and tears up tires fast.
"A number of us really, really enjoy it," Stewart said of the 1.5-mile oval that's wider than the four in the 10-race Chase. "We like it because the tires give up. You want to have grip but you don't mind if the lap times fall off, as long as you feel like you can race side-by-side with each other, which we are able to do here.
"The surface gives up enough during the race that you're not going to stay in one groove on the racetrack the whole run," Stewart continued. "You will move around on the race track. You will move from the bottom to the top, and after a while you may go back to the middle of the racetrack.
"We like having that ability to help determine our own fate by moving around on the race track -- knowing where we're at now may not be where we're going to be later in the run," Stewart said.
Martin, asked if he expects to run well Sunday night, answered with a very firm, "Yes."
But in considering his competition on or near the bubble, he wondered
What about Kyle Busch?
"I'm not sure," Martin said. "Kyle ran good at Bristol [winning the race and catapulting himself into a serious threat to make the Chase]. But they [the 18 team] really haven't been on their game. So who knows?
"Vickers, I certainly expect to be fierce," Martin continued. "Montoya, I expect him to be fierce here. Kahne, I would give him a greater than 50 percent chance of being really good here."
But the best show could come from the top of the standings, where drivers are securely in the Chase and are plenty safe going all-out for the win, to get the 10-point bonus for Chase seeding.
It'll be "all or nothing for us," Stewart said. "We are pressure-free because we have absolutely nothing to lose. We can't be bumped out of the Chase. We could finish 43rd the next two races and be all right."
Johnson will be going for a win, but not as all-out as Stewart. His powerful 48 team, usually infallible by this time of year, made some mistakes this summer.
And so, "I feel like we've had a bunch of victories kind of slip through our fingers here lately," Johnson said. "If we can take a chance to win the race, we should do that. At the same time, running in the top five and having great pit stops is good for the team's confidence and for mine as well.
"So if we don't have a shot at winning, a realistic shot at taking a chance to win, and we're running in the top five, I think our goal at that point is to get a good finish, collect points and get the mindset right for the Chase."
Stewart, in all-or-nothing mode here three years ago -- he'd missed the Chase, and the Atlanta race was a playoff event then -- won the race.
Now, because of the suspense Sunday's race holds as a pre-Chase bellwether, "I'd rather be where we are now [on the schedule] than in the middle of the Chase," said AMS president Ed Clark.
Atlanta has been a historically difficult draw for NASCAR, but Clark, though he isn't predicting a sellout of the 125,000 seats here, does expect to top 100,000, which would be bigger than any crowd old Darlington Raceway drew for any of its old Labor Day weekend races.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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