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From the Marbles

Hot/Not: Gordon, Johnson and Keselowski serving up contender notices

Geoffrey Miller
From The Marbles

The cool, dreary day in Atlanta Tuesday thankfully didn't reflect the on-track Sprint Cup action as the Hendrick teammates put on one of the better dirt-track-on-pavement shows of the season. Better yet? We may finally know who the real championship contenders are. All that and more, coming right up:

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HOT: A day removed from Jeff Gordon's throwback win — with the four-time champ holding off the five-time champ Jimmie Johnson while piloting a race car that was as squirrely as it was fast — and a day after the No. 24 team reveled in Gordon's historic 85th win, it's pretty easy to see which teams are making their move to start the Chase strong.

Gordon's win, of course, puts him on the list, but Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski have joined him in a dead heat for who will be riding the most momentum before the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts after Richmond. For proof, look no further than the number 3.3.

In the past three races, 3.3 is the exact finishing average for each driver. Johnson was second in Michigan, fourth at Bristol and second at Atlanta. Meanwhile, Keselowski — respectively — has a third, a win and a sixth. Gordon's Atlanta win partners with his third place run at Bristol and a sixth-place finish at Michigan.

In total, the three have collectively led 616 laps in the last three events — good for 60 percent of the racing. (Of note, Gordon has taken a sizable chunk by leading 402 laps by himself.)

Their closest competition during the last three races? None other than Flatline himself, Matt Kenseth. Kenseth, though, is averaging a full five places worse per race with a respectable 8.3 finishing average.

Of course, Keselowski falls in a bit different category than Gordon and Johnson. His blue No. 2 is locked into the Chase via his wins. However, if Keselowski wants to get the benfit of nine bonus points for those three wins, he'll need to crack the top 10 in points after Richmond. If he doesn't, he'll start the Chase at least 12 points behind Kyle Busch and the No. 18's four wins. {ysp:more}

Those bonus points may in fact be a crucial separator between Johnson and Gordon down the stretch, should they both be in contention for the championship at Homestead. Had Johnson won Tuesday at Atlanta, he would've matched Gordon's win total and wiped away the bonus-points advantage. Instead, Gordon took the 'W' and the three bonus points — enough for him to start the Chase as of now with a nine-spot cushion over the five-time champ.

Those details don't matter now, and there's several reasons they may not as the Chase progresses. However, there is one truth available to NASCAR fans as championship season starts to come in view: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski have pressed their game to another level at the right time.

NEUTRAL: Suddenly, Tony Stewart has a heartbeat again in the Sprint Cup Series. Stewart ran third Tuesday at Atlanta to give a nice bump to his Chase for the Sprint Cup bid. The run was fitting, really, as the aged Atlanta surface chewed tires and only seemed to get more slick as the day wore on. The elements really couldn't have played better to Stewart's affinity for sideways, dirt track racing.

HOT: NASCAR did well at Watkins Glen by giving every effort to dry the track before calling the race for the day, and they performed admirably under mostly-dubious hopes Sunday night. The fans who paid good, hard-earned money to watch the event at the time originially planned deserve that effort. It's the least NASCAR can do when weather circumstances are out of their control. Kudos.

NOT: Clint Bowyer didn't do himself any favors and Juan Pablo Montoya continued a style of racing that many find infuriating. Yet, I don't know how much Bowyer — known as Rawhide in our Yahoo! circles — can really be upset with Montoya for the incident that likely knocked Bowyer from any chances at the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Watch the replay — Bowyer slid up from the bottom of the track and expected Montoya (gasp!) to leave room.

Montoya didn't. Montoya never does. Who really is to blame, Clint?

NEUTRAL: Regan Smith smacked the backstretch wall during Tuesday's race, ending what the No. 78 team would be a top-20 run. On Twitter Tuesday night, Smith aired some frustration with Mark Martin and said there was "no doubt" in his mind that Martin intentionally took him out.

Martin, who finished 17th, didn't get interviewed after the race to tell his side. The video replay makes Martin easy to blame, but the pack that Martin and Smith were racing in seemed to slow substantially as Martin moved behind Smith. Until we hear from Mark, we'll call this a racing incident.

NOT: It's likely been an interesting week at the Turner Motorsports shop after teammates Reed Sorenson and Justin Allgaier collided during Saturday night's Nationwide Series race at Atlanta. Sorenson failed to finish after Allgaier clipped him in Turn 2 and spun the No. 32 in to the outside wall.

The 32nd-place finish allowed Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to expand his points lead in the series over third-place Sorenson by 30 points. Allgaier apologized after the race, but not before Sorenson made sure he'd find a resolution.

"I will find him after the race and it will be between me and him," Sorenson said.

Richmond 'ought to be interesting, you think?

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