The Biggest NASCAR Storylines Ahead of the Sprint Cup Series at Atlanta
Team Penske’s one-two finish at Bristol has made them the team to beat.
But before anyone hands the Sprint Cup to either Joey Logano or Brad Keselowski, this dynamic duo will need prove just how good they are on the 1.5-mile tracks, which make up half of the Chase’s 10 races.
Atlanta Motor Speedway is an old track where the speeds are too fast and the track’s surface is too abrasive. If Team Penske is ready to be cast as the favorite, then they’ll need to conquer Atlanta’s 1.5-mile high banks.
That’s not the only story making news this week.
With only two races remaining before the start of the 2014 Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship, one driver sits on the hot seat. Who is he, what does he need to do (to win)? Atlanta’s tricky 1.5-mile is a test for all the Chase teams. Can Kyle Busch find the magic again?
These stories and more will be on everyone’s radar this week, beginning with…
Back-to-Back for Busch?
Can Kyle Busch shake off the massive headache caused by the past four races, with finishes of 36th or worse, and win Atlanta’s Cup race for the second consecutive season?
At some point this team’s luck has got to change, and a win at Atlanta would not only give Busch three extra bonus points, but it will give the entire Dave Rogers-led squad the positive momentum they’ll need when postseason racing begins in just three weeks.
It’s not as if Busch has forgotten how to drive. When he’s behind the wheel of the JGR Nationwide Series Camry, he’s usually in the front of the field and the first to the checkers. Same for being in a Camping World Series truck.
This team needs to rediscover the magic it had in the beginning of the season, when Busch looked to be the runaway favorite for the title. Although they have a win in their back pocket and have clinched a Chase berth, the No. 18 team needs to find something more if they want to be contenders in Homestead.
Greg Biffle: The Man on the Hot Seat
Roush Fenway Racing hasn’t given Greg Biffle his best season in 2014. Admittedly, the cars haven’t been as fast as Biffle and his teammates—Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.—would like them to be.
Edwards was able to muscle two wins out of his No. 99 Ford (Bristol and Sonoma). Yet Biffle, who might be expected to pull a similar rabbit out of his hat, has yet to do so with the countdown to the end of the season down to two races. He sits precariously on the bubble as driver No. 16. (no pun intended).
The comfort level a win would provide for this veteran driver is immeasurable. Atlanta isn’t one of his better tracks, and neither is Richmond. He’s not won at either place.
If a new driver wins at either one of the remaining regular-season races (and it's not Biffle), it will make an already difficult season even more uncomfortable.
Teams Take to Testing to Close Gap in the Chase
Dustin Long of Motor Racing Network reports that several Sprint Cup drivers, including Michael Waltrip Racing's Brian Vickers, have busy testing schedules in the coming weeks.
The testing is being done mostly at tracks that will host Chase races as teams attempt to close the gap between Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the field during the Chase.
Per Matt Myftiu of the Oakland Press, Johnson admitted at Michigan a couple of weeks ago that, “Those ten tracks in the Chase are really probably nine or ten of my best tracks on the circuit.”
Ouch, as if he had to really rub it in for the other 15 teams.
Ty Dillon to Make Sprint Cup Debut
Ty Dillon will make his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the No. 33 Realtree/Rheem Chevrolet SS for Circle Sport Racing. Dillon competes full-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series driving the No. 3 Yuengling Light Camaro.
Nick Harrison will be his crew chief.
"It's going to be a pretty special moment when I make those first laps this weekend, one that I won't forget," said Dillon, whose older brother, Austin, will also be in the race in the No. 3 Chevrolet SS. "I've been fortunate enough in my racing career to have great opportunities like this one.”
Yes he has. But before you start throwing around the “born with a silver spoon” stuff, Ty has worked hard for everything he’s gotten from his grandfather Richard Childress, including finishing college. He’s had an impressive rookie season in the Nationwide Series and currently sits third in points, 30 behind leader (and fellow rookie) Chase Elliott.
Dillon has enjoyed success on Atlanta’s abrasive 1.5-mile oval. He won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race there in 2012.
Gordon Juggernaut to Continue This Weekend
Take heart, Jeff Gordon fans. Forget about Bristol. It was all a dream. Just wipe its memory completely out of your mind.
The Jeff Gordon you all know and love will be back again this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, a track where your hero has won five time before.
Crew chief Alan Gustafson will bring out his notebook for Atlanta, and you can be sure that not only will he be able to give Gordon a car that will be fast off of the hauler, he’ll have the right changes to make if the car does give your hero any issues. He was sixth at AMS in 2013.
The Gordon juggernaut to the 2014 Sprint Cup title continues after a minor hiccup at Bristol.
"We keep bringing great race cars and race teams to the race track," said Gordon after the race ended at Bristol.
The four-time Cup champion isn’t about to let anything stop his quest for a fifth (and probably last) title.
Can Kurt Busch Step It Up in Time for the Chase?
What’s wrong with Kurt Busch this season?
Remember him? He’s the driver who raced in the Indy 500 and nearly finished 1,100 miles on Memorial Day weekend if not for a failed engine in his Cup car at Charlotte.
He’s also the driver who muscled his way to a victory earlier in the season at Martinsville, a critical win for his first-year team. It secured Busch a spot in the Chase.
But has the addition of a fourth team this season been too much of a stretch for Stewart-Haas Racing? Lee Spencer of Motorsports.com writes, “Had it not been for the elder Busch’s extreme talent there’s no way he would have recovered at Bristol Motor Speedway with a top-five finish.” Spencer goes on to question whether or not Busch is getting the best he could from the organization.
One could argue that Busch, who made it into the Chase last season behind the wheel of the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet, has better equipment this season. So, it would make sense that the Las Vegas native would not only make the Chase again this season, but that his performance would make him one of the favorites.
Unfortunately, that’s not happened.
Earnhardt Jr.'s Team Needs to Come Back Strong in Atlanta
Atlanta Motor Speedway isn’t one of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s worst tracks, but then again, it’s not always been one of his best.
In 26 outings, he’s won only once, but he has eight top-fives and 12 top-10s, which should make for some optimism for the No. 88 team this weekend.
Bristol was just plain miserable for Steve Letarte and his National Guard-sponsored squad. Momentum is so important at this time of year that to have just one bad race like Junior had at Bristol could easily bring the Junior freight train headed to the 2014 title to a screeching halt.
It’s unlikely that this team will have two bad weekends in a row. They haven’t done it all season long. Earnhardt Jr. is having the best season of his career. His 39th-place finish at Bristol was his worst this season.
Come on, Junior Nation. All is not lost. If you didn’t have bad weekends, then you couldn’t have the great ones that follow.
NASCAR Gears Up for the Start of the Chase
Although television ratings for Bristol are not yet available, the previous two races at Watkins Glen and Michigan both showed an increase in viewership. This reflects an up-an-down season for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup television ratings.
Information provided by NASCAR’s Integrated Marketing Communications to its stakeholders states that 16 out of 18 NASCAR Sprint Cup races have ranked as the No. 1 or No. 2 sports broadcast of the weekend, according to The Nielsen Company.
But NASCAR doesn’t just focus on its television broadcasts to reach the fans. NASCAR’s digital footprint has seen tremendous gains. Its Twitter account has more than 1.5 million followers, and its Facebook page has more than 4.3 million “likes.”
This is all good news for a sport that is heavily dependent upon corporate partnership for both its teams, its race tracks and the series itself.
As NASCAR gets ready to compete against the 800-pound gorilla which is NFL football and the Major League Baseball playoffs, it needs to work hard to touch all sports fans across the country. After all, perhaps the most competitive Chase in Series history is about to get underway, one that features Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as well as six-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Truly the best of the best are about to take center stage.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated. Additional statistics provided by NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis