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Driver Reports: Points battles heating up

NASCAR.com

1. Jimmie Johnson (No. 48)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Johnson leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings with 821 points.
Last week: For the second consecutive week, Johnson finished near the bottom of the field and earned single-digit points. One week after his 40th-place effort at Michigan, Johnson struggled to get out of the back of the field at Bristol. That's where he was when there was a wreck in front of him, and Johnson couldn't avoid wrecking into David Reutimann. His 36th-place finish means his points lead, which was 75 two weeks ago, is down to 18.
What he said: "This racing stuff happens. Luckily, we had a big points lead that we can kind of deal with right now. We've locked into the Chase. We certainly want to clean things up and have some great finishes rolling into the Chase. We'll keep after it, and be back again next week."
Outlook: In 21 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Johnson has three wins, 11 top-fives and 13 top-10s. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Johnson ranks first out of 53 drivers with an average place of 7.9. He finished 34th in last year's race.

2. Clint Bowyer (No. 15)

Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Bowyer is second in the standings with 803 points.
Last week: Bowyer clinched a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but he wasn't happy about it. Well, about clinching the Chase spot, Bowyer was indeed happy. About his finish at Bristol? Not so much. Bowyer led 50 laps in the early going before being spun out by a lapped Travis Kvapil. Later, after the No. 15 Toyota had rejoined the front of the field, Bowyer ran out of Sunoco fuel in the final laps, dropping him from the top five to 14th, the last driver on the lead lap.
What he said: "Man, our car was so fast. I felt like we had a shot at winning and then I got spun out there by a lapper of all things. When I got hit up there, it hit that left-front tire and the car never turned the center as good the rest of the night. Extremely proud of the guys -- they got it fixed back up. We went out there and gave it everything we had and just came up short. Then we ran out of gas there at the end."
Outlook: In 12 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bowyer has five top-10s. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Bowyer ranks 14th out of 53 drivers with an average place of 15.5. He finished 27th in last year's race.

3. Carl Edwards (No. 99)

Roush Fenway Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Edwards is third in the standings with 768 points.
Last week: Saturday night was a wasted opportunity for Edwards, who took his 39th-place finish in stride. Edwards could live with that showing because his No. 99 Ford was perhaps the best it had been all season. Edwards led 119 laps -- second only to eventual winner Matt Kenseth -- but had to take his car behind the wall with an engine problem after it didn't fire on a restart.
What he said: "We had a great car, probably the best car we've had in a long time. The pit crew was great. Our strategy was good. The restarts were great. The engine ran great until it blew up, so if we run like that the rest of the year it's gonna be awesome. We're gonna be good."
Outlook: In 15 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Edwards has three wins, eight top-fives and 10 top-10s. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Edwards ranks seventh out of 53 drivers with an average place of 13.0. He finished 36th in last year's race.

4. Kevin Harvick (No. 29)

Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Harvick is fourth in the standings with 760 points.
Last week: Harvick was involved in an eight-car wreck on Lap 447 that saw his No. 29 Chevrolet incur massive damage. That led to Harvick parking in Denny Hamlin's pit stall to wait for the driver who collided with him, only to see Hamlin use his No. 11 Toyota to knock Harvick's machine out of the way. The two had words, and ended on cordial terms -- you can watch the video below. As for Harvick, he didn't clinch a berth for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with his 34th-place effort.
What he said: "I just saw the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) shoot across the race track. It looked like he was trying to swerve at somebody. He said (Brian Vickers) got into him and so I just wanted to know what happened."
Outlook: In 22 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Harvick has one win, five top-fives and eight top-10s. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Harvick ranks 15th out of 53 drivers with an average place of 15.9. He finished fifth in last year's race.

5. Kyle Busch (No. 18)

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Busch is fifth in the standings with 739 points.
Last week: Busch's attempt at a sweep turned bittersweet in qualifying, when his No. 18 Toyota spun out and scraped the wall. Starting 43rd, Rowdy didn't have enough left to win Saturday night's race following wins in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Still, he came from the back to finish 11th, and made several breathtaking saves along the way. He also overcame slight damage that occurred when he and Joey Logano got into each other.
What he said: "The car wasn't perfect early, but we were fast and could actually pass people. The car just wasn't the same after the accident. We couldn't pass and just didn't have any speed." 
Outlook: In 15 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Busch has one win, three top-fives and four top-10s. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Busch ranks 10th out of 53 drivers with an average place of 13.8. He finished sixth in last year's race.

6. Matt Kenseth (No. 20)

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Kenseth is sixth in the standings with 736 points.
Last week: Kenseth won for the fifth time this season (and first since June 30 at Kentucky), breaking a three race skid of finishing 15th or worse with a dominant closing kick at Bristol. In the No. 20 Toyota, Kenseth led the final 126 laps after taking the lead when Carl Edwards' car had an engine problem. He held off Kasey Kahne over the final laps -- a duel you can watch below -- in a dramatic conclusion, considering there was speculation over whether or not Kahne would bump Kenseth out of the way.
What he said: "It's this race team that's won the races, not me. I'm just the lucky guy piloting it. Just so proud of this Dollar General team -- they've done a spectacular job really all year. The last month-and-a-half we've been off a little on speed. I wasn't real happy with our car yesterday and Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) and the whole group at JGR got together and tried to tweak out what we need and what would be good in our cars to make them run. It was pretty right all night."
Outlook: In 24 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kenseth has eight top-fives and 14 top-10s. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Kenseth ranks sixth out of 53 drivers with an average place of 12.5. He finished ninth in last year's race.

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Earnhardt Jr. is seventh in the standings with 714 points.
Last week: Earnhardt Jr. led 32 laps and ran in the top five, but essentially gave up his chance of winning when he pitted for fuel late. Without a win, the No. 88 team couldn't gamble on running out and losing ground in the standings. So he went in, and wound up finishing 10th anyway while those on the Chase bubble struggled. Junior didn't move up in the standings, but he's now 33 points ahead of 11th-place Brad Keselowski.
What he said: "We had a good car especially at the end. I'm real happy with the speed we had, just we weren't sure about making it on fuel. Just a risk we couldn't take."
Outlook: In 25 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. has one win, eight top-fives, 11 top-10s and two poles. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Earnhardt Jr. ranks eighth out of 53 drivers with an average place of 13.0. He finished seventh in last year's race.

8. Kasey Kahne (No. 5)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Kahne is eighth in the standings with 701 points.
Last week: At the very least, Kahne cemented his reputation as a clean driver for not nudging -- or wrecking -- Kenseth in Saturday's waning laps. That didn't ease the sting of Kahne's third runner-up finish to the No. 20 this season. The finish bumped Kahne up three spots in the standings, which is important for Chase purpose. The No. 5 team is almost certainly bound for the postseason, but Kahne will only get bonus points for his two victories when the field is reset if he finishes in the top 10.
What he said: "I was trying to get there. I would have wrecked probably both of us. It would have just been a wreck. I just tried to pass (Matt Kenseth) as clean as I could, and race him as hard as I could. ? I just didn't clear him. I just didn't get it done and I'm upset with myself for not figuring out how to win tonight because I clearly had a better car at the end of the race."
Outlook: In 16 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kahne has two wins, six top-fives, eight top-10s and two poles. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Kahne ranks 18th out of 53 drivers with an average place of 16.5. He finished 23rd in last year's race.

9. Greg Biffle (No. 16)

Roush Fenway Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Biffle is ninth in the standings with 698 points.
Last week: On Saturday, Biffle notched his second consecutive ninth-place finish and is heading in the right direction as the postseason nears. The No. 16's performance not only allowed Biffle to move up to ninth in the standings (from seventh), but he now has a more comfortable 17-point edge on 11th place (the top 10 drivers in the standings get automatic berths in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup). That deficit was just four points entering the weekend. " Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
What he said: "To be honest with you, we weren't all that great right off the truck. We were a little bit tight and I had to drive the heck out of it and run it right on the edge to get any speed out of it. Things worked out for a top-10 and some of the guys we were racing had trouble too, so it will probably end up being OK for us.".
Outlook: In 18 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Biffle has three top-fives, nine top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Biffle ranks ninth out of 53 drivers with an average place of 13.2. He finished 15th in last year's race.

10. Joey Logano (No. 22)

Penske Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Logano is 10th in the standings with 685 points.
Last week: It's hard to identify a driver who has been flat-out better than Logano during this closing stretch to this regular season. At Bristol, Logano incurred damage on his No. 22 Ford after contact with Kyle Busch and was blocked on pit road by Denny Hamlin's No. 11. Later, he had to pit to get debris off his car. Yet there was Logano sprinting his way into the top five by the end of the race. His fifth-place showing on the heels of last week's win at Michigan has Logano in the top 10. " Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
What he said: "That was the hardest fought top-five I've ever had in my life. We had a right-front knocked in once. We got blocked in by the 11 once. We got a piece of garbage on the front. Every time this happened we had to go all the way to the back, so we came from the back three times to get a top-five finish. They can't put us down and can't keep us down. This team is awesome. We deserve to make this Chase and if we keep doing this on days that they're trying to put us down, we deserve it."
Outlook:
In six career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Logano's best finish is 18th in 2012. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Logano ranks 29th out of 53 drivers with an average place of 25.5. He finished 18th in last year's race.

14. Martin Truex Jr. (No. 56)

Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota 

Where he stands: Truex Jr. is 14th in the standings with 663 points.
Last week: Count Truex Jr. among the drivers disappointed with Saturday's showing, despite the Chase implications. Truex Jr. remains in the postseason picture, even after his 35th-place, 10-point effort at Bristol following his involvement in an eight-car wreck. The No. 56, though, was likely headed for a top-10 showing. Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon are all above Truex in the standings, without a win. At the bottom of the top 10 are Kasey Kahne (two wins), Greg Biffle (one win) and Joey Logano (one win). With one win himself, Truex Jr. is still firmly on the Chase bubble.
What he said: "I'm doing fine, just disappointed. Honestly, I didn't see anything. They just started jamming up and I just tried to follow the 29 (Kevin Harvick) through and we got smashed in the fence a couple times. Just frustrating, we had a great car all night long. We ran toward the front all night, but just didn't have enough gas to make it to the end there and had to pit. Once you get in the back here towards the end, they start wrecking and you're an innocent victim."
Outlook: In 14 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Truex Jr. has one top-five, three top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Truex Jr. ranks fifth out of 53 drivers with an average place of 11.8. He finished fourth in last year's race.

15. Ryan Newman (No. 39)

Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet

Where he stands:
Newman is 15th in the standings with 636 points.
Last week: Saturday's red-flag inducing wreck collected multiple Chase contenders, Newman among them. His No. 39 Chevrolet dinged up, Newman managed to keep it on the track to finish 21st, three laps back. He currently holds the last of two Wild Card spots, but he may still need another win to feel secure. " Click here to read a roundup on the six members of the Coca-Cola Racing Family
What he said: "I really don't know what happened (to cause the wreck). Our Quicken Loans Chevrolet was damaged pretty significantly; it was a handful to drive those last 50 laps with. I basically tried to just stay out of everyone's way and bring the car to the finish."
Outlook: In 20 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Newman has one top-five, six top-10s and seven poles. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Newman ranks 20th out of 53 drivers with an average place of 19.2. He finished 35th in last year's race.

Five in the rearview mirror ?

Brad Keselowski (No. 2)

Penske Racing, Ford 

Where he stands: Keselowski is 11th in the standings with 681 points.
Last week: Keselowski continued to ping-pong through the standings, this time falling out of the top 10. It's been an eventful year for the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, who is still searching for his first win this season. Keselowski and David Reutimann collided on pit road early in the race -- you can view that video below -- and then the champ was swept up in a wreck, crushing the back of his No. 2 Ford. His 30th-place finish comes at a most inopportune time, but he's just four points outside the top 10 in the standings.
Outlook: In four career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Keselowski has one top-five and two top-10s. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Keselowski ranks 12th out of 53 drivers with an average place of 14.5. He finished third in last year's race.

Kurt Busch (No. 78)

Furniture Row Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Busch is 12th in the standings with 679 points.
Last week: It took Busch months of work to get into the top 10 in the standings. It took just a few minutes for him to fall out. The Outlaw and his team thought the No. 78 Chevrolet had a problem with one of its tires, so Busch -- who started second and led 54 laps -- pitted out of turn. The problem, though, was with the wheel hub. When the team got that figured out, Busch had to go behind the wall. He finished 31st.
Outlook: In 22 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Busch has three wins, four top-fives and nine top-10s. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Busch ranks 13th out of 53 drivers with an average place of 14.8. He finished 13th in last year's race.

Jeff Gordon (No. 24)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Where he stands: Gordon is 13th in the standings with 674 points.
Last week: Gordon didn't gain enough ground in points -- although he did move up one place in the standings -- to feel good about his Bristol result. True, Gordon finished seventh, but he was third on the final restart and in contention for a victory. Atlanta is one of Gordon's best tracks, and he needs a win at this point.
Outlook: In 39 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Gordon has five wins, 16 top-fives, 25 top-10s and two poles. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Gordon ranks second out of 53 drivers with an average place of 9.9. He finished second in last year's race.
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Jamie McMurray (No. 1)

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: McMurray is 16th in the standings with 647 points.
Last week: McMurray finished 19th at Bristol, making his already-slim Chase chances even more of a long shot. He's 38 points out of 10th place and is 16th in the standings. Even if he wins at Atlanta, McMurray likely wouldn't be in the Chase field. Looks like he'll need to pull off back-to-back victories to have any shot of the postseason.
Outlook: In 19 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, McMurray has four top-10s. In the past eight years at Atlanta, McMurray ranks 22nd out of 53 drivers with an average place of 19.8. He finished 24th in last year's race.

Paul Menard (No. 27)

Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet 

Where he stands: Menard is 17th in the standings with 638 points.
Last week: Surprised to see Menard finish in the top 10 at Bristol? Don't be. Saturday's sixth-place effort was his fourth consecutive finish in the top-10 at the .533-mile high-banked oval.
Outlook: In 11 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Menard has one top-five and three top-10s. In the past eight years at Atlanta, Menard ranks eighth out of 53 drivers with an average place of 22.5.

READ MORE:

READ: Kenseth holds off Kahne
to win night race at Bristol

WATCH: Highlight Hub: Key moments from Bristol

READ: Recapping the Bristol tripleheader weekend

WATCH: Final Laps: Bristol battle between Kenseth, Kahne
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