Last year's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway meant a milestone for Jeff Gordon. His 85th career victory, after a gripping duel down the stretch with teammate Jimmie Johnson, put him in sole possession of third place on NASCAR's all-time win list ahead of Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
This year, an Atlanta triumph would have even more immediate importance for the four-time Sprint Cup Series champ, who heads into Sunday's AdvoCare 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at the 1.54-mile track in an almost must-win situation.
Last season, Gordon was securely locked into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs after Atlanta, fifth in points with three wins. This year, Gordon's career win total stands at 86 after he prevailed at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 5, but his Chase status remains in limbo with a 14th-place spot in the standings with two races left in the regular season.
|Sprint Cup Series|
|1. (WC)||K. Kahne||730||2|
|2. (WC)||Ky. Busch||707||1|
"Obviously with what's going on for the Chase, it could be a crucial race for us," said Gordon, a five-time Atlanta winner. "We never go into any race banking on anything. We go in there working hard to win the race, but that's a track where I feel like there's been so few changes, it gives us a little more confidence that we can go in there and have a great weekend."
The top 10 in Sprint Cup points have a mathematical chance of securing their Chase fate after Sunday's 500-miler. The top four of points leader Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth punched their ticket for NASCAR's 10-race postseason last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The hunt for the remaining two wild-card berths remains a lively one. Kasey Kahne remains in control of the first wild-card slot with two wins and his 11th-place position in points. An Atlanta victory would distinguish Gordon from a gaggle of one-win drivers, including provisional second wild-card Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano. Among those one-win drivers, only Gordon and Busch have previously won at Atlanta.
Plenty of other factors could shake up the wild-card race before the regular-season finale Sept. 8 at Richmond International Raceway. If Tony Stewart, a three-time winner this season, were to teeter out of his 10th-place spot in the standings, he would lay claim to a wild-card berth. Additionally, Chase long shot Carl Edwards -- winless, currently 12th in points and a three-time Atlanta winner -- could sneak into the wild-card discussion with a victory Sunday.
TENOR SHIFTS FOR NATIONWIDE TITLE FIGHT
Wearing protective driving gloves is status quo in NASCAR racing, but after last weekend's Nationwide Series scrum at Bristol Motor Speedway, the gloves -- in hockey terms, anyway -- have been dropped for the tour's top two drivers.
Series leader Elliott Sadler and defending Nationwide champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will renew their suddenly tense championship battle in Saturday night's NRA American Warrior 300 (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Stenhouse nudged his way past Sadler during the two-lap sprint to the finish in last Friday night's Food City 250 at Bristol, securing a runner-up finish for himself and relegating Sadler to fifth. The move whittled three points off Sadler's series lead, which now stands at 19.
The two title contenders had a pointed post-race conversation that may set the tone for the final 10-race stretch.
"I told him, we've always raced each other with a lot of respect," Sadler said Friday at Bristol. "I'm glad he didn't wreck us, but it's not the finish we deserved. He opened it up. Now we can race differently the last 10 races."
Atlanta's high-speed high banks are not the most conducive for issuing paybacks, but if sparks were to fly for the series' top two, Sam Hornish Jr. and Austin Dillon are within striking distance. Hornish, whose recent surge was tempered somewhat by a 10th-place finish at Bristol, is 28 points behind Sadler in third. Dillon, the top Nationwide rookie, is 35 points off the top in fourth place.
Five Sprint Cup Series regulars -- Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski -- are entered in the 300-mile event, which has been monopolized by Cup stars in recent years. The last NASCAR Nationwide Series regular to win at Atlanta was Jamie McMurray in 2002.
PETERS POISED FOR INTERMEDIATE GAINS
Timothy Peters has flexed plenty of muscle on short tracks in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. To bolster his championship hopes, however, he'll have to break through on intermediate courses.
Peters will get his chance in Friday night's Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 200 (8 p.m. ET, SPEED) at Atlanta Motor Speedway, one of five 1.5-mile tracks in the nine-race home stretch on the truck series schedule.
Aside from a win in the 2010 season opener at 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, the rest of Peters' five truck tour victories have come on tracks measuring less than a mile. Those short-track wins include last week's drubbing of the field at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he led all 204 laps on his way to a perfect driver rating.
Although he's yet to win on a 1.5-mile track, Peters has logged top-five finishes at three of five intermediate tracks (Kansas, Kentucky and Chicagoland) so far this season
"At Chicago we made leaps and bounds with our program. But it's not just that race, it's all year long," Peters said. "There are 11 tracks on the schedule that are similar in size to Atlanta, so if we want to win this championship, we knew we had to improve. I think we've done that and I'm confident with the Tundra we're bringing we can show those gains on Friday."
Peters' Bristol win -- his second of the season -- helped him snag sole possession of the series lead from top rookie Ty Dillon, who faded to a 21st-place finish at Bristol after running out of gas on the final restart. Dillon's misfortune allowed James Buescher to leapfrog into second place in the standings, just 17 behind Peters.
Dillon holds third place, 25 points off the top, while Justin Lofton and Parker Kligerman are deadlocked for fourth place, 31 points behind Peters.
The race also features two drivers named Busch on a truck series entry list for the first time. Kyle Busch will make his first start of the season in a truck out of his own race shops. Kurt Busch will partner with Billy Ballew, a former owner for Kyle Busch, in his second truck effort of the year.