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Atlanta: Where Chase To The Chase Gets Serious

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 1 2013

Atlanta Motor Speedway has become a place where Chase dreams are polished or vanquished. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Tami Kelly Pope)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Even with just two races to go until the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, there are still a large handful of berth-earning scenarios. That, thanks to tight points races and, of course, the wild card provision.

But it’s also easy to identify the drivers who could semi-accurately be said to be on the bubble.

Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s Advocare 500, several of those drivers talked about their situations.

Here is what several of them had to say and what RacinToday.com thinks of their chances:

Kurt Busch, No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet (12th in points, six points out of 10th place and zero victories) – “We won’t have any type of cushion whatsoever,” Busch said when asked about his and his team’s approach this week and next week at Richmond. “We have to race these next two against right now I see the Penske cars as the two we are racing heads up. After Sunday night after the Atlanta race we will see exactly what numbers are going to be in front of us and how that will play out, but we can’t go there to run 10th. We have to go there and run top five in these next two races.”

A week ago, Busch appeared to be in great shape Chase-wise. But at Bristol, he suffered wheel problems which sent him to the garages. He finished 31st and dropped from ninth to 12th in points. He was asked about lingering effects of that bad luck.

“You know the best part about when you have something fail is going back through and dissecting exactly what happened and how to learn from it,” Busch said. “This single car team has done that every

Kurt Busch is sliding backward in the Chase to the Chase. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

time we have had a problem there has been new procedural things to bounce back from and not have that same problem happen a second time. Another thing that makes it easy for this group to bounce back is just the raw speed we’ve had every week when we unload. We’ve been fast everywhere we go.”

A final factor which might or might not come into play for Busch this weekend was his announcement earlier this week that he was leaving Colorado-based Furniture Row to go to work for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Asked the effect his announcement might have on his crew, Busch said, “Yeah there is always that unknown and it’s tough within our sport like I was saying earlier you have to commit to something in September for next year, but then you still have three months that you are working with the same group of guys. In a nutshell there are still 12 races left. That is a third of the season. We still have a long way to go together and that is the focus it’s on the present and it’s right now.”

RacinToday.com prediction: Won’t make the Chase.

Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Penske Racing Ford (11th in points, four points out of 10th place and zero wins) – “Quite honestly,” Keselowski said, “I’m really looking forward to these weekends. I look at it, and I told this to my crew chief Paul Wolfe, and I know there are some people that look at it and say, ‘You’ve got to be scared about not making it.’ I look at this as a tremendous opportunity to prove the

Brad Keselowski's chances of defending his championship are in trouble. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

merits of our team and that we can operate at a high level because there have been a lot of circumstances out of our control that have put us in this position to not be locked in so late in the season, and our back is against the wall.

“But these are the times where great teams step up and they make something happen and where great drivers step up and they make a play. That’s what I’m looking forward to, I’m looking forward to that opportunity to prove what we’re worth and what we’re made of.”

Keselowski is the defending Sprint Cup champion. He was asked if that adds pressure to his situation the final two weeks.

“Without a doubt once you’ve had success you feel established, it’s easy to feel like – I should clarify – that the world owes you something just because you’ve been successful once,” Keselowski said. “That’s not how the world works. That’s why we don’t race the stat board. That’s why we don’t race any of that stuff. We race the race track every week and it’s a whole new race and what you’ve done in the past is great, and it certainly gives you respect, but there’s a reason why we still run the race and that’s part of what makes sports so great and so much fun for me is because every week is an opportunity to prove yourself for the better and sometimes for the worse.

“And what you’ve done last year or even last week once they drop the green flag is irrelevant. It’s a different day and a different time, but it’s also another opportunity and that’s how I view it.”

RacinToday.com prediction: Will make the Chase

Joey Logano, No. 22 Penske Racing Chevrolet (10th place, 17 points behind ninth pace, four points ahead of 11th, one victory) – Logano has 13 top-10s and has been extremely hot in recent weeks. He arrives at Atlanta having recorded five straight top-10s. His victory came two weeks ago at Michigan.

He said this week, “We plan on doing nothing different at Atlanta. We want to just keep doing what we have been doing. We have been fighting back all year long, so if we go into the weekend with the same mindset, then we will hopefully continue to perform at the level we have been. We have put ourselves in the position that we need to be right now. So now we just need to build on it. Keep gaining points and keep getting the best finish that we can. That’s how we are going to go into these final two weeks. The Chase is our ultimate goal.”

Logano, in his first year with Penske, says he and his team deserve a berth in the 10-race, 12-driver playoff.

“We have fought from behind and fought off problems all year long,” he said. “We keep getting put in bad positions and it never gets the guys down. Even in a bad race, we still fight back. Bristol was the perfect example of that. We just have fought through so much. We have clawed our way into the top-10 in points from 19th twice this year. That’s huge. That’s how you prove you don’t give up. So these guys on this team, they deserve to be in the top-10 and in the Chase.”

RacinToday.com prediction: Logano makes the Chase.

Martin Truex Jr., No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota (14th place, 16 points out of 12th place, 22 out of 10th place, one victory)

Will a broken right wrist cost Martin Truex Jr. a shot at the championship? (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

Truex was 10th in points with a victory three weeks ago. But finishes of 16th and 40th have dropped him to the point where his best chance for making the Chase is to score a victory in one of the final two races.

Hampering his hopes for that is a broken wrist he suffered last weekend in Bristol. He will drive this week with a cast on his arm and will have Scott Speed ready to take his place if his injury renders him unable to complete the race.

“It was obviously unfortunate for something like that (breaking his wrist) to happen this time of year with the position we’re in and where we are at in points and trying to make the Chase and the wild card situation and all that,” Truex said, “but I feel good that we’re able to come here and race and do the best job we can do. I think that this doesn’t change anything for us. We’re going to race these next two races as hard as we can and try to get ourselves in that Chase and we’ll do whatever that takes.

“I’ve never drove hurt before. I’ve never been hurt in a race car before, but the first lap out on the track I felt really good and everything has gone well today, so so far so good and we’ll just keep an eye on things throughout the weekend and hopefully have a great weekend here. We’ve had some good runs here in Atlanta. I love this race track and feel like we’ve got a good opportunity here to make something happen, so hopefully we’ll be able to do that this weekend.”

RacinToday.com prediction: Won’t make the Chase

Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (13th in points, 11 points out of 10th place, no wins) – If Gordon has any of that old, championship mogo left in the bag, he’d better break it out in Atlanta.

Jeff Gordon sure could use a victory at Atlanta. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett)

He’s won five times at the track, the last time just two years ago. He is coming off a seventh=place finish at Bristol, which is good. But before that he finished 17th and 36th at Michigan and Watkins Glen respectively, which is not good.

The four-time champ hasn’t led 10 or more laps in a race since Indy. But this is Atlanta.

“This has always been such a fun race track – one we always slide around on,” Gordon said. “The surface – with its abrasiveness – provides the teams and drivers with a huge challenge. And that challenge is what makes it so fun.

“We just need to do our job and get the best results possible these next two races and see how things shake out. We’ll go out every practice and try to get everything out of the car. You’ll have ‘ups’ and you’ll have ‘downs’ throughout race weekends. It’s how you manage the peaks and valleys that allow you to stay focused.”

RacinToday.com prediction: Gordon makes the Chase.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 1 2013
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