Chase Viewer's Guide: Round 7

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Steve Byrnes

Steve Byrnes is a host and reporter for NASCAR on FOX. A broadcast veteran, he has covered racing for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter.

Atlanta Motor Speedway is fast with cars going 200 mph into the corners. Listening to Carl Edwards and Elliott Sadler talk amongst themselves earlier this weekend, they were talking about being on the ragged edge and on the verge of out of control in Turns 3 and 4. But as Jimmie Johnson put so articulately, the drivers like the track because it gives them options. At a lot of tracks, there's a preferred groove that they call "the fast way around." Or there are tracks where drivers have to hunt for the groove because it changes during a race as rubber gets put down or weather conditions change. But drivers can run wherever they want at Atlanta — the bottom, middle or the top. Drivers will experiment during a race, check out different lines and follow different people in traffic.

Who to Watch

  • Carl Edwards: Describing Atlanta as a big dirt track, it fits Edwards' background. He's used to running sideways, and that's what you do at Atlanta. You get up on the high side. It's like hitting the cushion on a dirt track.
  • Jeff Gordon: With four wins, a track-best 26 top 10 finishes and more top five finishes than just a handful of drivers have top 10s, Gordon's a great pick at Atlanta. Although he has a good track record, if I'm looking at one to watch based on performance this year more than anything, the No. 24 team has won every way you can with strategy and superior performance.
  • Jimmie Johnson: Like Gordon, Johnson has won at Atlanta, and he's also lost a close race to Carl Edwards. With four races left in the Chase, the championship and each race are between the No. 48 and the No. 24.
  • Clint Bowyer: Taking nothing away from Bowyer, I don't know if I'd pick him as a favorite. For what they've accomplished this year, they shouldn't just get a pat on the back. It's nothing short of amazing what the No. 07 has done. Sunday's race is only the 69th Cup start of his career, but he's still battling two of the great racers of our time and of all-time in the case of Gordon.
  • Tony Stewart: Until somebody says he's definitely out of the title hunt, Stewart is still racing for the championship. He's led close to 800 laps at Atlanta, and there's a lot of fight left in the two-time champion.
  • Kasey Kahne: The fastest car in two of the three practices this weekend, Kahne has won before at Atlanta. He's had a disappointing year, but he could be a surprise on Sunday.
  • What to Watch

  • Fewer caution flags: At Martinsville last week, there were 21 mini-Big Ones while a Talladega wreck can wipe out one-third of the field in one lap. By contrast, there were only 27 caution laps at Atlanta in the spring.
  • Engine attrition: Teams have to worry about their engines because the RPM band stays high for a long time. However, these teams have a lot of experience with the current car at Atlanta so it should provide great racing.
  • Fuel over tires: Atlanta isn't a place where you see guys gambling on two tires or no tires. If anything, they're focused on fuel mileage. With fewer cautions, teams have to be spot on for fuel mileage. It isn't a race like Martinsville where you can stay out and get on a different strategy. It's much more of a performance track than a strategy track. It's such a fast racetrack that you don't see many teams gambling.
  • Petty and Gordon: It's hard to believe that it's been 15 years since "The King," Richard Petty, drove his last race, and Jeff Gordon — who now has 81 wins — made his first start. It was figuratively and literally a passing of the torch. Petty was then and remains an iconic figure, not just in sports, but American history. With Gordon giving the command and Petty waving the green flag, it's an appropriate and rewarding gesture.
  • Pit Perspectives

    A lot of comparisons to performance and teamwork can be made between NASCAR and other major league sports, like baseball and football, but testing with a new team before your season is over with your current team is unique to our sport. The Atlanta Car of Tomorrow test on Monday and Tuesday makes a lot of sense, especially since NASCAR has limited tests. It's not like Brett Favre saying, "I'm going to play for the Panthers next year, so I'm going to go down and practice." It's a very different scenario in NASCAR. Being acclimated to the car is a big part of the equation. Plus, there's a lot of pressure on NASCAR to make this Car of Tomorrow competitive. The best way to do that is to put the drivers with their new teams and essentially debrief, and drivers don't have a lot of experience at 1.5-mile tracks yet with the Car of Tomorrow. It's important for J.J. Yeley to get to know the boys at Hall of Fame Racing while Kyle Busch works with Joe Gibbs Racing and Dale Earnhardt Jr. reunites with Tony Eury Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports. If any tweaking needs to be done, these drivers should be able to provide NASCAR with feedback on what they think the cars need or don't need.

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    Finish Line

    While pit crews are important every week, I've seen great Atlanta runs undone by pit road incidents. After winning there in 2005, Edwards ran into somebody on pit road the following spring, and it took him out of the race. Joe Nemechek had a great run cut short by a loose lugnut. Pit road is like the red zone in football. If you get inside the 20-yard line, you're expected to score. It's where you've got to execute and make your plays really count. In the NFL, they talk about red zone efficiency, based on how many times you score inside the 20. It's the same thing on pit road. If these teams stop six or seven times, winning can come down to how effective you are on pit road — from the pit stop to getting on and off pit road to negotiating your way out of your stall. All of it is important.

    FOX football focus

  • Colts at Panthers, 1 p.m. ET: The Panthers have named Vinny Testaverde as the starter. The Colts are so good on defense, and Dwight Freeney is going to create big problems for Testaverde. The Colts offense is balanced with Joseph Addai and Peyton Manning. Even if Marvin Harrison doesn't play, they've got so many weapons that Indianapolis will overwhelm Carolina
  • Redskins at Patriots, 4:15 p.m. ET on FOX: The Patriots look unbeatable, and they do so many things well. Manning and Tom Brady are the best quarterbacks in the NFL today and among the best ever. The Patriots will win, but it's going to be a much closer game than New England may expect because of a strong Redskins defense.
  • Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Elliott Sadler, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Joe Nemechek

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