Capsules for the top 20 drivers in the Sprint Cup standings, plus five additional drivers of note.
By Jerry Bonkowski and Bob Moore
48 JIMMIE JOHNSON, Chevrolet?Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: Jimmie Johnson remained in first place for the 19th straight week after Bristol. He leads second-ranked Clint Bowyer by a mere 18 points and third-ranked Carl Edwards by 53 points.
ATLANTA RECORD: 21 career starts, 3 wins, 11 top-5s, 13 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in fall 2004, spring 2007 and fall 2007. Finished 34th in this race last year and was second in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: After his two worst finishes of the season at Michigan and Bristol, not to mention seeing his once potent 75-point lead over Clint Bowyer slip to just 18 points, Johnson needs to get back on track at Atlanta. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's race: "I (like Atlanta). It is a busy lap and a busy 500 miles there. You leave there spent, physically and emotionally, but it's awesome. The track has so much character to it. You can drive anywhere on the racetrack. That is what we like as drivers - to have options - and there are plenty of options there."
LOOKING BACK: Johnson took another huge hit in the points after Bristol. He came into BMS leading Clint Bowyer by 41 points, a margin that was cut to only 18 points after Johnson finished 36th, his second straight terrible finish (was 40th at Michigan the week before).
ETC.: Johnson has completed 98.5 percent (6,674) of the 6,775 total laps contested in 21 career starts at Atlanta. His average start there is an outstanding 8.6, while his average finish is 11.1. He has two DNFs there.
15 CLINT BOWYER, Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Clint Bowyer remained in second place for the seventh consecutive week after Bristol. But his margin behind series leader Jimmie Johnson shrunk from 41 to just 18 points, while his lead over third-ranked Carl Edwards grew to 35 points.
ATLANTA RECORD: 12 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-fives, 5 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Sixth (four times) in spring and fall 2007, spring 2008 and fall 2010. Was 27th in this race last year and 36th in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Bowyer comes into Atlanta with a chance to finally overtake points leader Jimmie Johnson. Johnson's lead over Bowyer has shrunk from 75 to just 18 points in the last two races. Here's Bowyer's thoughts on Sunday's race: "Heck yes I want to catch Jimmie Johnson before we head into the Chase. I know it doesn't count for anything extra, but any time you can beat Jimmie Johnson in this series, that means something. It's a confidence booster and a pride thing. He's shown that he is one of the best this sport has ever seen and I want to beat him every single chance I get. We've made up a lot of points on him the last few weeks and if we can beat him the next two weeks we might, just might be able to pass him in points and win the regular season."
LOOKING BACK: After a sixth-place finish at Watkins Glen and a fifth at Michigan, Bowyer led 50 laps at Bristol before fading late to finish 14th.
ETC.: Bowyer has completed 97.7 percent (3,835) of the 3,927 total laps contested in 12 career starts at Atlanta. His average start is 16.0 and average finish is 18.2. He has one DNF there.
99 CARL EDWARDS, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Carl Edwards remained in third place for the seventh consecutive week after Bristol. He trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 53 points, is 35 points behind second-ranked Clint Bowyer and leads fourth-ranked Kevin Harvick by eight points.
ATLANTA RECORD: 15 career starts, 3 wins, 8 top-fives, 10 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in spring and fall 2005 and fall 2008. Was 36th in this race last year and was fifth in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Edwards is looking to earn as many points as he can in the last two races before the standings are reset for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The best way to maximize points-earning potential is wins, and he's definitely looking for his fourth career win at Atlanta this Sunday: "We're looking forward to going and getting a win at Atlanta. We tested there, it went very well. It's one of my favorite race tracks and I've got a lot of great memories from there. It's a Subway weekend so we will be well fed at least, and hopefully we can get Subway another victory. We've got two more races before the chase starts so we're just having fun and going for wins."
LOOKING BACK: Edwards led 119 laps and looked like he'd have a great finish at Bristol. Unfortunately, with just over 100 laps left, his car suffered irreparable mechanical issues, relegating Edwards to a disappointing 39th-place finish. On the bright side, points leader Jimmie Johnson also had a bad day, finishing 36th.
ETC.: Edwards has completed 93.5 percent (4,582) of the 4,902 total laps contested in 15 career starts at Atlanta. His average start is 10.3 and average finish is 15.1. He has three DNFs there.
29 KEVIN HARVICK, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Kevin Harvick remained in fourth place for the 10th straight week after Bristol. He trails series leader Jimmie Johnson by 61 points, is eight points behind third-ranked Carl Edwards and leads fifth-ranked Kyle Busch by 21 points (down from 43 last week).
ATLANTA RECORD: 22 career starts, 1 wins, 5 top-fives, 8 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in spring 2001 (his first career win in the Sprint Cup series, just three races after the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt). Was fifth in this race last year and finished seventh in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Harvick is all but locked into the Chase, but he could use another win or two before the playoffs begin two weeks from now. After a terrible record there early in his career, he's been a consistent top-five and top-10 finisher there in recent years. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's race: "Atlanta has been a great race track for us the last few years. The asphalt is really worn out, and the speed of the car changes a lot from the start of a run to the finish of the run. It makes for some good racing as the cars start moving around and sliding around the track."
LOOKING BACK: After having one of his best runs of the season the week before at Michigan (finished second), Harvick had a strong car at Bristol and led seven races, but a wreck late in the race sealed his fate and relegated him to a disappointing 34th-place finish.
ETC.: Harvick has completed 97.6 percent (6,927) of the 7,100 total laps contested in 22 career starts at Atlanta. His average start is 18.7 and average finish is 19.2. He has four DNFs there.
18 KYLE BUSCH, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Kyle Busch remained in fifth place for the third consecutive week after Bristol. He trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 82 (down from 107 the week before), is 21 points behind fourth-ranked Kevin Harvick and leads sixth-ranked Matt Kenseth by three points.
ATLANTA RECORD: 15 career starts, 1 wins, 3 top-fives, 4 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in spring 2008. Finished sixth in this race last year and was 23rd in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: You would think that with Atlanta being one of the fastest tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, that Busch would have a stellar mark there. Nope, while he does have a win there, he only has a total of four top-10 finishes overall in 15 starts. He'll be looking to change that this Sunday: "The Cup races there, I've either been really good or mediocre or really bad. There have been times where I've been really good throughout the event. I don't know what it is, but I just can't seem to keep the grip in my car for the long haul, as long you need throughout a run. I'm really fast for the first five, eight laps. But, after that, I seem to slip more than anyone else."
LOOKING BACK: After winning at Watkins Glen, then having a terrible outing at Michigan (31st), Busch finished 11th at Bristol.
ETC.: Busch has completed just 94.0 percent (4,610) of the 4,902 total laps contested in 15 career starts at Atlanta. His average start is 11.6, while his average finish is 16.9. He has one DNF there.
20 MATT KENSETH, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Matt Kenseth remained in sixth place for the second consecutive week after Bristol. He trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 85 points (down from 125 last week and 149 the week before), is just three points behind fifth-ranked Kyle Busch and leads seventh-ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 22 points.
ATLANTA RECORD: 24 career starts, 0 wins, 8 top-fives, 14 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Second in spring 2010. Finished ninth in this race last year and was also ninth in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: With two races left before the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Kenseth and his five wins has the edge on Jimmie Johnson and his four wins. Kenseth would love to pad that lead at a place like Atlanta, where he has never won before. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's race: "It's a really fun track. Everybody always associates Atlanta with really high speeds and being fast and like, 'Oh, who can suck it up and get a fast lap qualifying?' But it's actually kind of the opposite now. It's fast, it's got really long corners, but the track is so wore out that it's more about tire management, having a car that will run fast on new tires, but be fast on old tires as well. It's a fun compromise -- a fun track to race at."
LOOKING BACK: Kenseth dominated, leading 149 laps, en route to his fifth win of the season in Saturday night's race at Bristol. He also pulled ahead of Jimmie Johnson in wins (five to four) thus far this season.
ETC.: Kenseth has completed 95.6 percent (7,407) of the 7,750 total laps contested in 24 career starts at Atlanta. His average start is 21.6, while his average finish is a 12.7. He has three DNFs there.
88 DALE EARNHARDT JR., Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: Dale Earnhardt Jr. remained in seventh place for the second consecutive week after Bristol. He trails teammate and points leader Jimmie Johnson by 107 points (down from 134 the week before), is 22 points behind sixth-ranked Matt Kenseth and leads eighth-ranked Kasey Kahne by 13 points.
ATLANTA RECORD: 25 career starts, 1 wins, 8 top-fives, 11 top-10s, 2 poles. Best career finish: First in spring 2004. Finished seventh in this race last year and was 19th in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: After dropping from a 45-point lead over 10th place to just 16 after Michigan, Earnhardt picked up some breathing room at Bristol. He's now 29 points ahead of 10th-ranked Joey Logano with two races left to make the Chase. At the same time, Earnhardt is far from secure of making the Chase. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's race: "I always enjoy racing at Atlanta because I feel like I can run really good there. It always seems like I've had pretty good cars and had good speed pretty much every time. I'm looking forward to getting in the car and hopefully it's comfortable and got good speed."
LOOKING BACK: Earnhardt had one of his better cars and individual performances of the season at Bristol, leading 32 laps before fading to a still-strong 10th-place finish.
ETC.: Earnhardt has completed an outstanding 99.5 percent (8,034) of the 8,075 total laps contested in 25 career starts at Atlanta. His average start is 16.2, while his average finish is 12.5. He has two DNFs there.
5 KASEY KAHNE, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: Kasey Kahne climbed back into the top-10 after a strong run at Bristol, going from 11th to eighth. Kahne trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 120 points, is 13 points behind seventh-ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr., and leads ninth-ranked Greg Biffle by just three points.
ATLANTA RECORD: 16 career starts, 2 wins, 6 top-fives, 8 top-10s and 2 poles. Best career finish: First in spring 2004 and fall 2009. Finished 23rd in this race last year and was 34th in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Kahne has struggled miserably at Atlanta the last three races there, finishing 32nd, 34th and 23rd. While he likely has one of the two wild-card spots locked up to make the Chase if he needs it, he'd rather make the Chase as one of the top 10 guaranteed seeds. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's race: "Since the first time I went there, Atlanta has always been one of my favorite racetracks. It kind of reminds me of racing at Eldora Speedway. When you run the outside at Atlanta right up by the wall, it feels really similar to racing a dirt track in a winged sprint car. I like that feeling you get -- that sensation of being beside the wall. And then the tires fall off, and it gets really slippery. Atlanta is just fast and rough. You have a lot of things you're kind of working through throughout a race run and just trying to get the balance of the car to be good throughout 45-48 laps. It's tough to get it right. I've just always liked racing there, it's a good one."
LOOKING BACK: Kahne did not lead any laps, but came oh so close to winning at Bristol. Unfortunately for him, he couldn't quite catch eventual winner Matt Kenseth in the final laps and settled for a runner-up finish.
ETC.: Kahne has completed 95.8 (5,008) of the 5,227 total laps contested in 16 career starts at Atlanta. His average start is 9.2, while his average finish is 18.6. He has three DNFs there.
16 GREG BIFFLE, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Greg Biffle climbed one spot back to ninth in the standings after Bristol. He trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 123 points (down from 181 points two weeks ago), is three points behind eighth-ranked Kasey Kahne and leads 10th-ranked Joey Logano by 13 points.
ATLANTA RECORD: 18 career starts, 0 wins, 3 top-fives, 9 top-10s, 1 poles. Best career finish: Third in spring 2005. Finished 15th in this race last year and was 12th in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Biffle knows what he has to do if he hopes to make the Chase: He has to remain in the top 10 and the best way to do so is to get a win in the next two races prior to the start of the Chase. Otherwise, there's a possibility Biffle may not qualify for the playoffs. He comes into Atlanta with a great deal of confidence. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's race: "I'm really pumped about Atlanta. We had a good run at Bristol and I'm looking forward to this weekend. Atlanta is a 1.5-mile track that we've had a lot of success at. We need to go there and challenge for the win and run in the top five, to head to Richmond and start the Chase off on an upswing this year. We're looking forward to Atlanta."
LOOKING BACK: Biffle recorded his second straight ninth-place finish in the last two races at Bristol, having also done the same a week earlier at Michigan.
ETC.: Biffle has completed 96.5 percent (5,670) of the 5,877 total laps contested in 18 career starts at Atlanta. His average start is 12.5 and average finish is 16.0. He has two DNFs there.
22 JOEY LOGANO, FORD ?Team: Penske Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Joey Logano continued his outstanding climb upwards in the standings in the last two races. After moving from 16th to 13th after Michigan, Logano rose three more places after Bristol to 10th place. He trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 136 points, is 13 points behind ninth-ranked Greg Biffle and leads 11th-ranked teammate Brad Keselowski by four points.
ATLANTA RECORD: 6 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-fives, 0 top-10s and 0 poles. Best career finish: 18th in 2012. Finished a career-best 18th in this race last year and was 24th in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Logano isn't content to take his chances with a possible wild-card berth to make the Chase. Rather, he wants to continue his climb up in the standings and make the Chase as one of the 10 guaranteed berths. But Atlanta is also one of his worst tracks, so he'll definitely have to pick things up Sunday. Here's his thoughts on the race: "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."
LOOKING BACK: Logano finished a very strong fifth at Bristol, continuing the momentum he earned with his win at Michigan.
ETC.: Logano has completed 98.6 percent (1,946) of the 1,973 total laps contested in six career starts at Atlanta. His average start is a poor 28.2, while his average finish there isn't much better at 26.0. He has zero DNFs there.
2 BRAD KESELOWSKI, Ford
Team: Penske Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 11th, only four points out of the top 10. Lost three spots last week to fall out of the top 10.
ATLANTA RECORD: Finished third a year ago. Will be shooting for his third straight top-six finish.
LOOKING AHEAD: Keselowski admits, "We aren't in a very enviable position (in the point standings), but we have two good race tracks coming up for us. We're only four points outside the top-10 - which is very doable - but we can't have any issues. I haven't won yet at Atlanta, but I think we can do that this weekend. If we can, everything will work out."
LOOKING BACK: Keselowski was involved in a multi-car accident with 53 laps remaining and finished 30th to severely damage his hopes of trying to win a second straight Sprint Cup championship. "We didn't have the speed we needed, but we obviously weren't a 30th-place team," said Keselowski. "It was just the way things fell. We've got two races left (to make the 2013 Chase for the Championship). I think they'll be very good race tracks for us."
ETC.: Keselowski believes the battle for the final four or five spots in the Chase is "gonna come down to the last lap at Richmond and I'm ready for that battle. Sure, we are worried. I don't care if you're running eighth or you're running 13th, every team is worried and concerned - not just mine. We tested at the next two tracks and we're gonna be very competitive."
78 KURT BUSCH, Chevrolet
Team: Furniture Row Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 12th, only six points out of the top 10. Lost three spots last week to fall out of the top 10.
ATLANTA RECORD: Two wins and five top-six finishes in the last seven races.
LOOKING AHEAD: Busch said his immediate goal is to get the 78 in the Chase. "We have to be perfect the next two weeks to make the Chase," added Busch. "I'm as fired up as ever to try to deliver these guys into an area that they never thought was achievable. I have the potential to show up here (Stewart-Haas Racing) January 1, 2014 with two championships under my arm. The next two weeks are the most important weeks of the 78 car's career. I want to deliver them into the Chase."
LOOKING BACK: After starting second, Busch led 54 of the first 76 laps before telling his crew he felt a "bad vibration" while leading. He slowed down for a couple of laps before making an unscheduled pit stop. His problems were compounded on lap 91 when he ran into Josh White to bring out the second caution flag of the night. Busch was forced to go behind the wall where the crew replaced the damaged hub in the right rear wheel assembly. He returned to the race in 41st place, but ended the evening in 31st place to keep alive his hopes of making the Chase. "We're down, but we're not out," said Busch.
ETC.: On Monday, Busch agreed to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, and on Tuesday the team made it official. "Kurt Busch is a premier talent, one who gives you the opportunity to win races every week, and contend for a championship every year," said co-owner Gene Haas. "Stewart-Haas Racing has proven itself to be a very competitive race track," said Busch. "This is the kind of situation every driver wants to be in, and I'm very grateful to Gene Haas and Haas Automation for proving me this opportunity. I didn't think anyone wanted to win as much as me until I met Gene Haas."
24 JEFF GORDON, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 13th, 11 points out of the top 10. Gained one spot last week.
ATLANTA RECORD: Won the 2011 race and finished second a year ago. Overall has five wins and 25 top-10 finishes including 16 top-five's in 39 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Gordon said, "We just need to do our job and get the best results possible these next two races and see how things shake out. 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. We've been in this position before (having to win a race to get into the Chase). We know the challenges that we face. We are confident we have what it takes (to make the Chase)."
LOOKING BACK: Gordon was both happy and frustrated Saturday night at Bristol after finishing seventh. "I think we were better than that," said Gordon. "I don't know if we had enough for Matt (Kenseth) but we fought hard and gave it our best effort. Seventh gained us some points, but it's not as much as we could have. Things just didn't work out for us at the end. We had to save gas and we couldn't run as hard as we were capable of."
ETC.: Gordon will visit the University of Georgia on Thursday to view firsthand how The Campus Kitchens Project and the Campus Kitchen at UGA provide healthy meals to older Georgians who struggle to put food on the table. "It's always cool to see communities get involved with this issue, and I think it will be interesting to see what the university and the students are doing," said Gordon.
56 MARTIN TRUEX, JR., Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 14th, 22 points out of the top 10. Lost two spots last week. Stands first in the wild-card standings with one win.
ATLANTA RECORD: Finished fourth a year ago after leading 40 laps.
LOOKING AHEAD: Truex suffered a scaphoid fracture and sprain of his right wrist Saturday night at Bristol. The doctors have fitted Truex with a special cast he'll wear indefinitely. The cast enables Truex to better grip the steering wheel. NASCAR has cleared Truex to race this weekend at Atlanta and in the remaining 11 races.
LOOKING BACK: Truex's hopes of a top-10 finish ended with 53 laps to go when he was involved in a multi-car accident in turn two. As a result, he finished 35th. "Honestly, I didn't see anything," said Truex. "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 towards the front all night, but just didn't have enough gas to make it to the end and had to pit. Once you get in the back here towards the end, they start wrecking and you're an innocent victim. Just frustrated right now because we had a good car."
ETC.: Truex said, "It would be awesome to be sitting here and say we're a virtual lock - some guys are already locked in and I'm very jealous of that - not going to lie. But there's no sense in worrying about it, there's no sense in losing sleep. We're a good enough race team, had a good enough season that we shouldn't be in this position. But we are and so we have to step up and make it happen when the pressure's on."
39 RYAN NEWMAN, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 15th, 26 points out of the top 10. Stands second in the race for the two wild card spots in the Chase with one win.
ATLANTA RECORD: Six top-10 finishes in 20 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Newman knows he needs to have a "real good weekend" at Atlanta to stay in the thick of the hunt for the final two spots in the Chase for the Championship. "Things are really tight," adds Newman. "From seventh or eighth on back to where I'm at, every point is so important. We need to run up front and stay out of trouble."
LOOKING BACK: Newman finished 21st at Bristol after being involved in a multi-car accident with 53 laps to go. "I think it was Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin who made contact and that triggered a big mess," said Newman. "Our Quicken Loans Chevrolet was damaged pretty significantly. It was a handful to drive those last 50 laps. The guys did a great job on pit road, getting it fixed enough so we could finish the race. Every single point is so important."
ETC.: Newman is one of the leading candidates for the ride being vacated by Juan Pablo Montoya. But he also knows that Kyle Larson, the young phenom on the Nationwide Series, is under contract to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and may be in line to drive the 42 car in 2014 and beyond. "Right now, I don't know what is in store for me," said Newman. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing said it plans to announce the new driver for the 42 car on Friday afternoon.
1 JAMIE MCMURRAY, Chevrolet
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
WHERE HE STANDS: 16th, 38 points out of the top 10.
ATLANTA RECORD: Four top-10 finishes in 19 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: McMurray said, "This will be a critical weekend for our team if we are to maintain a chance to stay in contention for the Chase. We have had pretty good cars on all the 1.5-mile tracks this year, so hopefully we can continue that trend in Atlanta. We need to have a really good weekend."
LOOKING BACK: With about 100 laps to go, McMurray told his crew that smoke was filling the cockpit and the car had become extremely loose. This forced an unscheduled pit stop where the crew determined that a tire issue was causing the problem. McMurray returned to the track two laps down as he ended the day in 19th place. "It was a disappointing turn of events for our McDonald's team tonight," said McMurray. "We had a good car early in the race and we were making good adjustments to make our way to the front. Apparently we had a tire issue and that put us a couple of laps down. Just a tough way to end our night."
ETC.: McMurray stands second in the percentage of laps completed in 2013. He has finished 98.95 percent of the laps run this season. "That shows what good cars we have put on the track this year and how good our team has performed on those days when things didn't go right," said McMurray.
27 PAUL MENARD, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 17th, 47 points out of the top 10.
ATLANTA RECORD: Finished eighth last year for his second top-eight finish in the last four races.
LOOKING AHEAD: Menard calls Atlanta "one of my favorite tracks. I've had some good races there in the past and we've got some momentum heading into this weekend after our sixth-place finish at Bristol. Atlanta's a track that races really well and it's a lot of fun, especially with it now being a night race."
LOOKING BACK: Menard finished sixth for his third straight top-10 finish at Bristol. "It's great to bring home another top-10 finish this weekend," said a beaming Menard. "Bristol has been good to me over the past couple of years, and I love this short-track racing. We had a great Schrock/Menards car and it was awesome to be able to lead some laps tonight. We got shuffled back in the field taking fuel, but we were able to make some ground up with pit strategy at the end."
ETC.: Menard knows his only chance of making the Chase is by winning either Atlanta or Richmond or both. And for that reason, he says "If we need to do some gambling, we'll do it. We've run well the last two weeks with finishes of fourth and sixth so we feel good about the direction we're heading. We've got to just step it up a little (to get to victory lane)."
43 ARIC ALMIROLA, Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 18th, 69 points out of the top 10. Gained one spot last week.
ATLANTA RECORD: Best finish in two starts is 21st.
LOOKING AHEAD: Almirola said, "Atlanta is certainly the raciest mile-and-half track that we go to. It is old and wore out. It's a mean, old, nasty race track which makes it a lot of fun. It can certainly try your patience as well. It's hard to get your car driving perfect around there. We just got done doing the tire test at Atlanta, and I feel good about going there."
LOOKING BACK: Despite being involved in a multi-car accident with 141 laps to go, Almirola was able to rally and finish 15th at Bristol. "We had a really good car," said Almirola. "We were on point to have a really good day - a top-10 or even a top-five finish. Unfortunately, we got caught up in someone else's mess. I am so proud of the 43 guys. They worked hard to fix the damage and get the car to handle good enough to stay with the leaders. We'll take a 15th-place finish on a night like this."
ETC.: Crew chief Todd Parrott said he is "really looking forward to Atlanta. We had a tire test there a few weeks ago and tested this week in Chicago. We hit on some things at both tests that made us faster. The extra track time going into this weekend should really help us hit the ground running. Managing tires will be really important this weekend."
14 MARK MARTIN, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: The team is 13th in the car owner point standings, only eight points out of the top 10.
ATLANTA RECORD: Finished 10th a year ago for his 24th top-10 finish in 52 races. Has two wins and 14 top-five finishes at AMS.
LOOKING AHEAD: Martin said, "To be real honest with you, I was quite challenged in Bristol and I don't feel like I was able to rise to the challenge. That's why the test in Richmond this week is going to help so much. And the same is true for next week's test. It will help us get in the groove and go forward. Right now, I need as much time as I can get in the car."
LOOKING BACK: Martin struggled in his first race with the 14 team as he finished 20th at Bristol. "We missed the setup really bad at the beginning of the race," said Martin, who is subbing for the injured Tony Stewart. "We struggled with the car in trying to get it better, and then I pitted wrong (outside the box) and cost us a lap. But we were pretty fast at the end. That's why I go home feeling good about it because we were able to improve the car and get it competitive at the end."
ETC.: Even though things didn't go as well as the team had hoped at Bristol, Greg Zipadelli, the competition director for the organization, feels the hiring of Martin is "a home run. Obviously he has big shoes to fill to take Tony's seat and there are not many guys in the garage that could do that. We all agreed that if there was any way to get Mark Martin he was the guy that would do us the best job and be able to do that. We feel this is the best opportunity for the 14 team to perform well on a weekly basis and do our sponsors the justice they deserve."
31 JEFF BURTON, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 20th, 93 points out of the top 10.
ATLANTA RECORD: 14 top-10 finishes including eight top-five's in 35 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Burton believes "the most unique thing about Atlanta is the grip level. The grip level is just so different from all these tracks that have been recently repaved. I always like to say that Atlanta has multiple personalities. The difference between the handling of the car in race and qualifying trim is amazing. Atlanta is a fun race track because it has multiple grooves, but it is challenging because the car's handling changes so much throughout a run."
LOOKING BACK: Despite being involved in several wrecks, Burton was able to finish 13th at Bristol. "To bring home this Caterpillar Chevrolet in 13th place says a lot about this team," said Burton. "We had a terrible day on Friday in practice and qualifying, but never threw in the towel. After being involved in two separate accidents, we didn't complain. The guys went to work, fixed it and in the end, here we are with a solid top-15 finish. It was just a great team effort in a tough situation."
ETC.: Burton will be one of a handful of drivers hosting the annual Coca-Cola Racing Family Ride Along on Thursday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The 10 grand-prize winners and other special guests will have the opportunity to take a few "hot laps" with Burton and the other Coke drivers. "It's always fun to watch their faces during the ride along," said Burton.
42 JUAN PABLO MONTOYA, Chevrolet
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
WHERE HE STANDS: 21st, 95 points out of the top 10, only two points out of the top 20 Gained two spots last week.
ATLANTA RECORD: Four top-10 finishes including three top-five's in 10 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Montoya said, "I'm always enjoyed racing at Atlanta. It's one of the first tracks I learned to run the high lane at and I realized that it suited my driving style. The Target team has had pretty good results from Atlanta and I've come close to winning it a few times. Our cars have been really good and we've had great speed so this should be an exciting weekend for us. I'd really like to give Target another win before the season is over."
LOOKING BACK: Montoya showed Saturday night at Bristol that he is going to go all out in his final races for EGR as he ran up front all night and finished third. "We had a really good car all night," said Montoya. "The car had good speed. I got caught speeding (on pit road) and that kind of hurt us. But we were able to get back up front. I really had to use my brakes at the end (as he tried to run down leader Matt Kenseth) and really cooked the front tires."
ETC.: Montoya will be one of honorees at the 26th annual Hispanic Heritage Awards program on Sept. 5 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The awards, which celebrate Hispanic cultural pride, contributions and accomplishments, will be broadcast on MundoFox on Sunday, Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. Montoya will be honored for his highly-successful career in racing.
9 MARCOS AMBROSE, Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 22nd, 95 points out of the top 10, only two points out of the top 20.
ATLANTA RECORD: One top-10 finish in seven starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Ambrose is quick to point out "We have really been on a roll lately. We have been fast all season, but now, we are getting the finishes we deserve. The last few weeks, we may not have had the best car, but Drew (Blickensderfer, crew chief) and the team made the right calls to get us there at the end. We have been good at the intermediate tracks since the middle of the season and should unload quick this weekend."
LOOKING BACK: Ambrose was all smiles after finishing eighth at Bristol. "That's two top-10s in two weeks," said Ambrose. "We had a good few weeks here and I've just got to thank everyone at Richard Petty Motorsports for giving me the opportunity to run like that. We didn't start off great tonight and we didn't finish great handling wise, but we fought hard all night and got some track position at the end that really helped a lot."
ETC.: Both Ambrose and Blickensderfer feel the recent Chicago test will boost the team's chances this weekend in Atlanta. "We're learning more about this car," said Ambrose. "So hopefully we can get us a third straight top-10 and maybe even a win." Adds Blickensderfer, "Our test at Chicago allowed us to try out some new things."
17 RICKY STENHOUSE, JR., Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 23rd, 103 points out of the top 10, 10 points out of the top 20. Lost two spots last week.
ATLANTA RECORD: Will be making his Sprint Cup debut. Won the Nationwide race last year after finishing third in 2011.
LOOKING AHEAD: Stenhouse said, "Atlanta is one of my favorite tracks on the circuit. It's an older track that is rough but fast. The rough tracks suit my driving style because of my dirt racing background. Our 17 team is getting better every week and I believe that we will get our first top-10 soon. I feel confident that we will have a strong run in our Best Buy Ford this weekend."
LOOKING BACK: Stenhouse was forced to pit for fuel with two laps remaining as he finished 18th at Bristol. "We gambled on staying out during that last caution, and we just came up a couple of laps short," said Stenhouse. "My guys fought hard all night, we just keep having some bad luck."
ETC.: Stenhouse is dating Danica Patrick and at the same time the two are competing for the Rookie of the Year title on the Sprint Cup Series. But Stenhouse said, "We don't really talk about it too much. I don't even know how many points I have in the Rookie of the Year standings (194 to 184 for Patrick). Away from the race track, we don't really talk much about racing."
11 DENNY HAMLIN, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 25th, 229 points out of the top 10.
ATLANTA RECORD: Won the race a year ago after leading 105 laps. Will be seeking his third straight top-eight finish.
LOOKING AHEAD: Hamlin said he still believes he can "win two to three races going down the stretch. Obviously, anyone that would hear me say that would think that's a stretch the way we've been running, but this is a team that is capable of winning a lot and we know that. We can turn it on at any time. We're just trying some things. Trying to get better. Trying to get a better feel so we have something to work on for next year. If we hit on something like we did at Bristol on Friday, then we can be pretty tough going into the Chase and be a spoiler."
LOOKING BACK: After winning the pole, Hamlin had high, high hopes for the weekend. But after leading twice for 23 laps, he was run into by Brian Vickers with only 53 laps to go. The contact cut Hamlin's right-front tire, sending him hard into Ryan Newman to trigger a multi-car accident that included several Chase contenders. "We cannot catch a break," said Hamlin, who ended up 28th. "You've got to laugh at it at this point. It's somewhat humorous. We had a car that could run in the top five. I thought we were better than the 5 (Kasey Kahne, who finished second). Who knows what would have happened."
ETC.: Hamlin admits he has chronic back pain. "My daily life is miserable," said Hamlin. "Once I'm strapped in (his race car) I'm fine." But he also said that Watkins Glen (earlier this month) "definitely took its toll." Hamlin described the situation as "a nagging pain that just won't go away." As for what the future holds, Hamlin adds, "I have to weigh the options. There are 10 different things you can do to help with either pain or the structure of your back. I just have to figure out which one is the right one for me."
55 BRIAN VICKERS, Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: The team stands 19th in the car owner point standings, 48 points out of the top 10.
ATLANTA RECORD: Three top-seven finishes in his last four races.
LOOKING AHEAD: In 10 Cup starts this season, Vickers has one win, and four top-10 finishes. He believes he can improve on that impressive resume in the final 12 races of the year. "We've got a lot of good tracks coming up for us, beginning with Atlanta," said Vickers. "While we are looking forward to 2014 (and a full-time ride in the Cup Series), we want to finish this season on a high note."
LOOKING BACK: Despite being the cause of two accidents, Vickers was able to rally in the final 50 laps to finish fourth at Bristol. "We had an incredible car there at the end," said Vickers. "It was quite the fight. We were up and down all night. I hate it for Denny (Hamlin) on that incident on the backstretch - the 17 (Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.) was blowing up and I went to go under the 17 and I guess Denny was to my inside. Really proud of this Aaron's effort. No one gave up and we got another solid top-five."
ETC.: The team announced Monday that Scott Miller, the vice-president of competition, will "oversee" the crew chief duties on the 55 car for the remainder of the season. Miller is replacing Rodney Childers, who will be moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Billy Scott, a race engineer on the 55 car for the past two seasons, will take an "elevated role" in car set up and race weekend preparations. The team was quick to point out Childers will remain under contract with MWR through December 31.