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Getting to Victory Lane
1. Tony Stewart went six straight races without a Top 15 at one point during the season. In the 14 races since, Stewart has six Top Fives and 11 Top 10s. In addition to the steady finishes, Smoke is also qualifying much better. Over the last five races, Stewart has started no worse than sixth. At Atlanta, Stewart led a race-high 176 of 325 laps. Stewart also held the best Average Running Position of the evening (second) and was one of only three drivers to spend the entire race in the Top 15. Of the 10 tracks that make up the Chase, two are held on 1.5-mile tracks with identical banking to Atlanta: Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. Stewart's dominating victory in the Dirty South makes him a squeaky clean pick for those events.
2. Carl Edwards led 32 laps at Atlanta after leading a total of six in the 24 races held earlier this season. His ARP of fourth was the second-best of the race and a personal best for the season. Edwards has finished 12th or better in eight straight starts including five Top Fives and two runner-up performances in that span. Given the wide variety of tracks Edwards has been running so well at, it could be just a matter of time before he's back to Victory Lane.
3. Jimmie Johnson put a stop to his streak of seven races without a Top Five on Sunday. Bad luck and misfortune were largely responsible for Johnson's slump as he led at least one lap in six of those races. No such issues would find him on this night. Johnson held an ARP of fifth, led eight laps and was one of three drivers to spend the entire race in the Top 15. Over the last 18 races, Johnson has started on the front row seven times while qualifying outside the Top 10 only twice. Anyone who was lulled into thinking the four-time defending champ would go down without a tough fight just got the wake up call.
4. Jeff Burton would go one lap down by on Lap 91, but would eventually get the free pass and back on the lead lap. His team would make a call for four fresh tires on Lap 304, which allowed Burton to drive through the field and steal a Top Five finish. Burton held an ARP of 17th and spent just 43.7 percent of the race in the Top 15, by far the worst for anyone that finished in the Top Five. Given all issues Burton has experienced in late-race situations this year, some good luck finally managed to come his way. This was Burton's first Top 10 finish this year on this type of 1.5-mile track, so don't automatically assume this will carry over into the Chase.
From the spotter's tower
The Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt, each overcame early issues to finish fifth and sixth, respectively. Kyle Busch started third and appeared to beat the field out of pit on Lap 50 but was too fast entering pit road. On Lap 70, Busch would pit again with a loose wheel and would go a lap down. A caution on Lap 143 would get him back on the lead lap and able to finish fifth. Older brother, Kurt Busch, struggled mightily from the drop of the green flag, a huge surprise given his sheer dominance during victories at this site in March and again at Charlotte. After starting 11th, Busch quickly faded through the field and soon went a lap down. After extensive adjustments on pit road, he would take the wave around after the caution on Lap 152. The older Busch brother stayed out with 52 laps to go and lead 10 of them before he would, in his own words, "fade gracefully" into a sixth-place finish. The strategy played out perfectly for the Blue Deuce, but you have to be concerned about starting him at Charlotte
and Texas after he once looked like an automatic selection.
Juan Pablo Montoya would not be faulted for asking if he can get a do-over for this season. If not for seven DNFs he just might have had a chance to make the Chase for the second straight season. The debacle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has clearly gotten this team refocused. Over the last four races, Montoya has a win and three other consecutive finishes inside the Top 10. In May, Montoya finished a career-best sixth at Richmond International Raceway, the next track on the schedule. Montoya began last year's Chase with four straight Top Fives and five such finishes in the first six events. JPM may miss the postseason but that doesn't mean he can't help you win a fantasy championship.
Martin Truex, Jr. finished 12th but looked to have a Top Five locked up before fading in the final laps. His ARP of sixth was the fourth-best of the evening and he was one of only three drivers to spend the entire race in the Top 15. Over the last seven races, Truex has two Top 10s and five Top 15 finishes. He's not the safest play out there, but Truex could offer a great value if he can start bringing similar runs on a more consistent basis.
The starting grid
Among A-List Drivers in the Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Auto Racing game, Edwards continues to get no love. He was just sixth in ownership (18.88 percent) for the second straight week, but rewarded owners finishing second in performance among his tier. Edwards finished a career-best fifth at Richmond earlier this year and is looking like a great value yet again.
On the B-List, Ryan Newman started from the outside pole giving bonus points and first-place performance points among his tier. Not known as a top driver on intermediate tracks, Newman was just eighth in ownership (30.77). At Charlotte in May, Newman won the pole and finished ninth after finishing 11th at Texas a month earlier. At Richmond, Newman has three straight Top 10s and an average finish of 11.4 in 17 career starts. Short tracks suit him best, but Newman could offer a lot of value on the remaining intermediates, certainly if he continues to qualify so well.
For the second straight week the top C-List driver was Reed Sorenson. He entered 11th in ownership (3.34) and finished 14th with an ARP of 25th. Sorenson spent just 4.6 percent of the race in the Top 15, the worst among any driver that finished 19th or better. Regan Smith finished second in performance and fifth in ownership (9.08). Most owners have been using rotating A.J. Allmendinger, Paul Menard, Scott Speed and Sam Hornish Jr. to navigate through the shallow C-List depths. The latter two are especially risky, making Sorenson and Smith the primary and better-valued alternatives.
Marcos Ambrose finished 10th with an ARP of 18th and 39.4 percent of laps in the Top 15. The Australian finished 11th at Atlanta in March and 17th at Texas in April. Success on 1.5-mile tracks and similar ovals will ultimately dictate his success as he heads to Richard Petty Motorsports next season. Richmond is the only other non-road course that Ambrose has a Top 10 finish at this season. Consider him a very risky sleeper pick.
Matt Kenseth finished 11th with an ARP of 19th and 12.9 percent of laps in the Top 15. The car ran poorly for much of the night, going down a lap at one point. Adjustments made on the last two stops helped the car greatly. A late call to stay out on old tires nearly stole a Top 10 for Kenseth and his crew.
David Reutimann finished 16th but never really had a chance to show what he had. The Double Zero went down two laps early in the race after losing radio communication with his crew and spotter. Earlier this season, Reutimann had equipment failures at both Atlanta and Texas, but finished fifth at Charlotte. He's among the most consistent performers on intermediates and should be trusted down the stretch.
Kasey Kahne finished 32nd with an ARP of eighth and 16 laps led. Contact with Newman led to a Kahne losing a tire and a subsequent issue with the water pump. After spending time behind the wall, Kahne came back onto the track and attempted to spin Newman out with just three laps remaining. As one of the elite options on 1.5-mile tracks, owners are clearly disappointed to see a Top Five finish disappear so quickly. Look for him to rebound at Charlotte, a site where he's won three times, and Texas, where finished fifth last time out.
Kevin Harvick finished 33rd with an ARP of 13th but blew a tire late. Expect the points leader to be just fine going forward. Harvick finished third at Richmond earlier in the season. Two of his three wins this season have come on restrictor plate tracks; make sure Harvick is active for the Chase race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Menard finished 35th with an ARP of 18th. For the most part, intermediate tracks have been good to him this season. In fact, Menard was running ninth at the midway point. However, a lost cylinder would trigger an engine failure.
Greg Biffle finished 36th after spinning out on Lap 152 and he eventually lost power on Lap 227. As long as he starts the race at Richmond, The Biff will just have enough points to make the Chase.
Denny Hamlin finished in last place due to an engine failure. After winning the pole and leading 74 laps, Hamlin had a great opportunity to break the tie with Johnson for the most wins this season thus entering the Chase as the top seed. He'll have one more excellent chance this weekend. Hamlin won last year's September race at Richmond by leading 299 of 400 laps.
Around the corner
Last call for Chase drivers! The cutoff race will be held under the lights Saturday night at the popular short track in Richmond, V.A.
*All stats up-to-date as of 9/6.
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