Nine to watch for this weekend's race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway
Now that the haulers have left Daytona behind them, NASCAR's real regular season kicks off at the 1.5 mile track in Atlanta. The restrictor plates are off and fans will get their first real look at the new rules package for 2015. Four of the last ten races at Atlanta were won by drivers who won't be in the field (Kurt and Kyle Busch). The race has also moved from the end of summer to late winter which could make a major difference in who runs up front. The door is wide open for another car to punch its ticket for the Chase before winter disappears for the year. Who will be the favorite? Who would be a major surprise? Let's dig into the past to see what the future holds at the Atlanta Motor Speedway
Before going any further, a quick note. We'll be looking at the statistics over the past ten races, all courtesy of racing-reference.com. Going any further back takes us into fourth generation cars and a completely different race environment in terms of competition on the track. We're also in no way advocating gambling in any way shape or form. These odds are purely for informational purposes only. Finally, you'll rarely see the backmarker teams as a sucker's bet. By their very nature those teams are unlikely to win and there's little skill in predicting a 35th place team won't win in a given week.
Watch last year's Atlanta race on YouTube
Driver: Kasey Kahne
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Odds of Winning: 6-1
Kahne squeaked into the Chase last year by winning in Atlanta shortly before NASCAR's playoffs began. But it was a race his team had circled on their calendar long in advance. Kasey has won two of the last ten events and three overall in Atlanta. He also averages a starting spot in the top ten over that period. Track position is incredibly important at these kinds of tracks and Kahne will likely have it. If Kahne cannot run up front here it will put a huge question mark on Hendrick in general and Kahne in particular for 2015.
Driver: Carl Edwards
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Odds of Winning: 12-1
Like Kahne, Edwards has three overall wins in Atlanta (one in the last ten) and expects to run up front. He also has the advantage of having Matt Kenseth as a teammate once again and Kenseth is another outstanding performer at Atlanta. The only note of caution is that Edwards' luck at Atlanta is either very good or very bad. He has three DNFs to go with five top five finishes over the last ten Atlanta races. Moreover, those top fives are the only time Edwards finished on the lead lap. As long as he can avoid any broken mirrors or black cats, Edwards should be a contender all race long.
Driver: Jeff Gordon
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Odds of Winning: 15-1
At 8.1, Gordon is tied for the best average finish over the last ten events at Atlanta. He has a win and four top five finishes over that span, finishing on the lead lap in every race. Those finishes come in part because of great qualifying efforts with an average start of 7.5. Like teammate Kahne, the greatest threat to Gordon's run may well come from the new rules package. We have yet to see the entire field running under that setup and there is no way to know whether Hendrick is at or ahead of the curve (as they normally are). There's also the risk in being caught up in someone else's mistake, a risk Gordon will look to minimize with another stellar qualifying effort.
Driver: Matt Kenseth
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Odds of Winning: 25-1
As noted above, Kenseth has an excellent track record in Atlanta. He's tied with Gordon for the top average finishing position (8.1) and has also finished on the lead lap in each of the last ten events. Kenseth's reputation here is quieter because he hasn't picked up a win before. Yet despite that fact, he's been in contention and is a good bet to be near the front as the race winds down. Finally his finishes come in spite of a pedestrian qualifying average (15.8). His increase of 7.7 positions during the race is tops among drivers with five or more starts in the last ten races.
Driver: Kyle Larson
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Odds of Winning: 35-1
Larson may not have a lot of history but he has done well with what he's had. Larson finished 8th in Atlanta a year ago in his only prior Sprint Cup start. In two Xfinity series races at the track, he's finished 3rd and 5th. Some tracks just “feel” right and Atlanta looks to be that kind of place for Kyle Larson. If he can move toward the front early, Larson could very well set sail on the field and punch his Chase ticket this weekend.
Driver: Martin Truex Jr.
Team: Furniture Row Racing
Odds of Winning: 50-1
2014 was a year best forgotten for both Truex and the team. They went into the year with high hopes; Kurt Busch drove the #78 into the Chase in 2013 and Truex had brought over his pit crew to be the missing puzzle piece. Yet the car led only one lap all year long, scored only one top five fiishe and landed 24th in points. So why pick Truex here? Aside from the momentum Martin brings from a solid week in Daytona, Atlanta is one of his better tracks. He has a pole start and a pair of top five finishes in the last ten races. He's led 112 laps, finished all ten races (including seven lead lap finishes) and a respectable average finish of 15.5. He won't be a favorite but Martin Truex Jr. will be someone worth watching.
The Suckers Bets
Driver: Joe Nemechek
Team: Front Row Motorsports
Odds of Winning: 10,000-1
Normally a Front Row entry would not be worth mentioning in this category as expectations for the team are limited at most tracks. Yet with the team inexplicably allowing David Ragan to fill in for Kyle Busch, they made an even odder decision in bringing aboard Front Roe Joe. Nemechek has started all 10 of the last 10 races in Atlanta and has an average finish of 39.5. Let those numbers sink in for a minute. He's run ten races and has averaged a finish of nearly 40 in a field of 43 cars. To expect anything beyond beating a few start-and-park operations would require the use of substances on NASCAR's banned list.
Driver: Sam Hornish Jr.
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
Odds of Winning: 500-1
Full disclosure, I am an enthsiastic supporter of Hornish getting the ride with RPM. I think he's been overdue for a competitive Cup ride and he's the kind of driver that a team can build with. But not at this racetrack. Hornish has run seven of the last ten events here and has an average finish of 27.1. He has zero laps led, zero top ten finishes, and the only bright note is that his finish is a couple spots ahead of where he's qualified (29.6). He might be able to add to his lead lap finish count (once), but given his past here that in and of itself would have to be considered a win for Hornish.
Driver: Jamie McMurray
Team: Earnharadt Ganassi Racing
Odds of Winning: 400-1
While McMurray's average finish at Atlanta isn't too far removed from Kasey Kahne's (19.7 vs. 19.9), the way the drivers got there could not possibly be more different. Kahne has a win and multiple top ten finishes. McMurray has finished outside the top ten during the same time frame. He's finished all ten of those races yet landed on the lead lap only five times. He also has zero laps led. He seems to be at the opposite side of the spectrum from teammate Larson in that Atlanta just seems to flummox McMurray where it slows down for Kyle. This is one case where the veteran may well benefit from watching the youngster as Larson has already achieved more success despite far fewer races.