Atlanta Motor Speedway is the center of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series world on Sunday night, as the track hosts Advocare 500 at 6:30 PM ET on ESPN. This is the penultimate race of NASCAR’s “regular season.” Starting September 16, the Chase For The Cup will reduced to the top ten drivers in the points standings plus two wild-cards. While the races will still have full fields, only the 12 surviving drivers will be eligible for the championship. So without further adieu, TheSportsNotebook dives into the key storylines for Atlanta…
*Denny Hamlin’s win in the wild finish last week in Bristol made him the fourth driver with three wins. Hamlin, along with fellow trifecta winners Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, are all but assured of the playoffs, but when the standings are re-set on September 16 it’s wins, not points that count the most. Hamlin is now on the top line of drivers.
*Greg Biffle continues to the lead overall points standings, the equivalent of an NHL team winning the President’s Cup for best regular season record, although NASCAR doesn’t even give formal recognition of the achievement. What would make people notice is two-race winner Biffle picked up one more these next couple weeks and moved to the top line.
*Stewart may be a three-race winner, but his inconsistency have left him 10th place, just 16 points ahead of Kasey Kahne. Either driver would get a wild-card berth thanks to their wins (Kahne was won twice, most of any driver outside the Top 10), but when the points are re-set the automatic qualifiers get an edge over the wild-card entrants. Stewart won the pole for the race on Sunday night and after finishing behind Kahne five of the last six races, he can’t afford to lose much more ground.
So what should we expect Sunday. TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, said to look for a fast race. “It’s a cookie cutter track, similar to Charlotte,” Bill said. “It’s important that the car be set up right, to the driver’s liking or they won’t be able to keep the pace.”
The pace is heating up, at Atlanta on Sunday night and in the Sprint Cup series as a whole, as we hit the regular season crunch.