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Expect Chasers to set the pace in Atlanta

10/29/2005

It's fitting that those whom the sport has labeled its best racers have also been its fastest. Atlanta Motor Speedway hosts perhaps the most frenetic pace of all NASCAR Nextel Cup races, and Chase contenders have dominated this speedy 1.5-miler recently.

Earlier this year, it was Carl Edwards edging Jimmie Johnson to win the race. Last season, it was Johnson edging Mark Martin.

Who will be the title contenders battling for victory on Sunday? We'll wait and see, but the smart money's probably on a couple of Chase racers who have been on fire.

Tony Stewart leads Johnson by just 15 points with six of 10 playoff events in the rearview mirror. And though Stewart has often met Atlanta's finishing line after disappointing runs, nobody can safely say the hottest driver on the circuit should be worried about faltering, now.

Still, in the duel between the two, it's clear that Johnson has the edge. He won two weeks ago at Lowe's Motor Speedway and finished a close second to Jeff Gordon last weekend at Martinsville, Va. And this week, he hopes to continue a three-race flash of brilliance that he first displayed in the 2004 Chase -- when he won Lowe's, Martinsville and Atlanta.

So then Johnson's the favorite, right?

Not exactly.

The favorite
Edwards is a glorified rookie and is having a pseudo-rookie season like nobody's business. The Roush Racing driver who took over for Jeff Burton as driver of the No. 99 Ford with more than seven races remaining last year spoiled his rookie status for 2005. But he has done absolutely nothing to spoil his 2005 campaign.

He now returns to the racetrack where he scored his first victory in the spring, and where he finished third last season.

"I still can't believe I got my first win there earlier this year," Edwards said. "I remember coming off turn four just determined to do what I had to do to get by Jimmie. It was tough but somehow I got it done. The entire weekend was really surreal for me.

"It's finally sunk in and it was awesome to go out and do it again at Pocono. I think that really solidified us as a team to watch, which meant a lot. I'm really looking forward to going there this weekend."

Riding the wave
Johnson might not be this week's favorite, but he's an extremely close second. He has a ton of momentum built up from the last two weeks and he's still riding momentum from past strong runs at Atlanta.

"I really look forward to all of them," he said of the upcoming tracks. "… I think that we've got a chance of winning or running in the top five."

Particularly at Atlanta, history would suggest that he's correct.

History on their side
In addition to Edwards and Johnson, Martin has posted strong efforts at Atlanta of late.

Atlanta is a story of two tracks. In the last two decades, the track has grown into one that eats up tires and sends drivers through a vacuum of speed. Martin has taken to the style nicely.

"From top-to-bottom, it's one of the best places that we go to race," he said. "It usually makes for a great show and a great race. We had a good run there in the spring and we probably had the best car in last fall's race, so we are excited about getting back down there and doing some good racing."

Cause for concern
Rusty Wallace, Matt Kenseth, Jeremy Mayfield and Kurt Busch.

Wallace, despite having an impressive 19 top-10s at Atlanta, has not been solid of late. Kenseth, Mayfield and Busch, all of whom need top-fives and victories to squeek back into contention, have posted top-fives and top-10 few and far between at AMS.

"We're coming up on some tracks that can be very demanding on engines and the mechanical aspects," Wallace said. "Atlanta has certainly been one of those tracks through the years, especially since it was reconfigured back in the late '90s. Regardless of what happens this weekend, we've had enough great runs and big-time memories at Atlanta to fill a book. Hopefully, we can end our deal there this weekend on a very positive note."

"I think that our finishes at Atlanta don't reflect how good we've been able to run there," Kenseth's crew chief, Robbie Reiser, said. "We had a really strong car in the fall race last year when a mechanical failure ended our day early, and back in the spring of this year we were caught up in an early crash. In both races, though, the car was fast. This weekend we'll be looking to bring home a finish that hopefully reflects how strong we'll be able to run."

Don't forget
Umm … the points leader! Tony Stewart isn't dominant at his sponsor's home track, but he does tend to become undaunted when he's on a roll and on a mission. He's both right now, holding a narrow points lead with his second Cup title within reach.

His secret to Atlanta success?

"You just have to constantly adjust your race car," Stewart said. "We've led so many laps in the first half of a race there and then been outside the top-five at the end of the day because we didn't stay caught up with the changing track conditions. Atlanta cools off so much and changes so much that you always have to be on top of your setups.

"You need to make sure that you have enough adjustability as the day goes on. You don't want to get your car so good at the first half of the day that it gets too tight at the end of the day. You almost have to be a little bit on the loose side to really be good at the end of the day."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.