For many of the top drivers competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Tuesday's rain-delayed race at Atlanta Motor Speedway is more than just an average outing. Instead, it's one of their final chances to surge into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, or a golden opportunity to salvage what has been a subpar season. So who has the most at stake this weekend? We take a look:
McMurray needs a win as badly as anyone in the series. Last year, he won three races but failed to make the Chase, a situation that many feel helped contribute to the rule change to include a pair of wild-card spots for race winners outside the top 10 this season. McMurray was expected to contend for either a top-10 or a wild-card spot. Instead, he’s 26th in the standings with just a pair of top-five finishes to his credit this season. A win or two might not put him in the Chase (he’d have to be in the top 20 to be eligible for a wild-card spot), but it certainly would go a long way toward boosting his team’s confidence and getting things back on track.
Team owner Childress is coming off a rough weekend as he tries to gain ground with his four Cup teams. At Bristol, Jeff Burton led the group with a 15th-place finish. Kevin Harvick was 22nd, Clint Bowyer was 26th and Paul Menard was 30th. The group will be looking to dramatically improve on that in Atlanta, especially with Bowyer and Menard angling for spots in the Chase field. Childress’ teams are generally strong at Atlanta — look for that to continue.
Denny Hamlin’s crew chief is tasked with keeping his driver and his team calm and on track. A group that should have expected to have multiple wins and be among the top five in the standings at this point finds itself fighting for a berth in the Chase. Hamlin has a win and is in position to snare at least a wild-card berth into the field, but the dynamic of who wins these next two races could derail him. Hamlin wants to be the guy who wins those and sweeps into the Chase on a roll. He wants to be locked into the field after this week. It is Ford who carries the weight of those expectations — and of keeping his group focused on the task at hand and from getting caught up in the overall scenarios of what could go wrong.
Ragan may face as much pressure as anyone heading into Tuesday’s race. He’s racing on his home turf, trying to finish well enough to move back into the top 20 in the standings to be eligible for a Chase berth and trying to win another race to get into better position for a wild-card berth. He’s also working on elements for next season such as sponsorship with his team. All of that, and he’s got to just keep taking one race at a time. How he handles all the distractions he faces could determine whether he is able to sneak into a spot in the Chase.
When he shocked the field with his win in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier this year, Menard looked like a prime candidate for one of the wild-card slots for the Chase. He’s still in position to snare that should Denny Hamlin or Brad Keselowski break into the top 10 in the standings. Menard has endured some recent setbacks, but he’s still in the top 20 in the standings and challenging for a berth. A win at Atlanta, or a top finish and the points that yields in the next two races, could put him right back into Chase contention.
A year after challenging for the championship entering the final race of the season, Hamlin finds himself in a fight for a wild-card position. He’s 13th in the standings with one win. That puts him in the slot for the final wild-card spot — not a particularly comfortable position to hold with just two races remaining before the Chase begins. Hamlin needs to pick up some ground, or a win, to gain some security. That makes Atlanta an unusual race for the driver and his Joe Gibbs Racing team — one in which a fuel-mileage gamble or anything of that nature takes on added meaning and pressure.
Talk about pressure. Bowyer is working on a contract while trying to keep his focus on making the Chase — and he’s not in position to do so at this point. Bowyer enters Atlanta 22 points outside of the top 10 that will lock into the Chase field, and he lacks a win to put him in position for a wild-card spot. Therefore, he needs to gain ground quickly. Bowyer may be forced to take a gamble in order to get a win and hope that boosts him either into a wild-card spot or into the top 10 in the standings.
Keselowski has gone from being a guy trying to get into the top 20 in points so he could take a wild-card spot to one on the verge of breaking into the top 10. It’s been a hectic four-week swing for the driver and his Penske Racing team. And while he is virtually assured of snaring a wild-card berth by virtue of his three wins, Keselowski is hungering to break into the Chase field the old-fashioned way — by being in the top 10. He’ll face the pressure of continuing his hot streak at a track where he has a top finish of 25th in two Cup appearances. While he has that cushion of three wins to fall back on, Keselowski still wants to make up a little more ground.
Stewart is in a precarious position in terms of making the Chase. The two-time Cup champion knows he needs to stay ahead of the slate of drivers chasing him for a spot in the title-determining field. He’s only 21 points ahead of red-hot Brad Keselowski in the battle for the final Chase spot. And with no wins this season, Stewart cannot afford to falter and fall out of the top 10 at this point. A win at Atlanta would add more security to his position, but he really can’t afford to take a gamble and risk giving up points to get that victory. For Stewart, there’s a lot more than just racing on the line in Atlanta.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr. heads to Atlanta not only seeking a return to Victory Lane at the track, but also with his eye on playing a little defense. He and his Hendrick Motorsports team are ninth in the standings, 39 points ahead of the team in 11th. There are only two more races until the top 10 teams lock into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a field he last joined in 2008. Earnhardt will be both looking to snap his 117-race winless streak and to remain in the top 10 in the standings. It’s a delicate balancing act for him and crew chief Steve Letarte — and one in which making the Chase should take precedence.