This week begins much the same way it did last week after California, much to the dismay of folks everywhere--Jimmie Johnson wins again. For the second consecutive week, Johnson makes a late charge to the front and wins giving him the checkers in two of the three races run this season.
It’s not that Johnson has said anything to give the fans anything to be angry about, it’s quite the opposite because he really doesn’t say anything with any real venom. It’s what he’s doing on the track that is irritating NASCAR Nation which is just being better than everyone else.
It’s a shame that he can’t be revered as one of the greatest franchises in sports history. When we think of great dynasties in sports history with four of more Championships in a row, like Johnson has done, you can count them all on one hand.
Right now, even though he hasn’t taken possession of the top slot yet, Johnson looks to be right on pace to get that fifth title in a row. In fact, he’s even ahead of the pace because he’s been a slow starter the last three seasons. Two wins out of the gate with the team he has gives memories of his teammate/boss Jeff Gordon from his magical year of 1998 where Gordon won 13 races.
Gordon’s wins haven’t come like they used to and they’re even getting harder with Johnson clipping them off like he did last week in Las Vegas where Gordon led 219 of the 267 laps until only 17 laps remained where Gordon was a sitting duck thanks to some great pit work on the final stop by Johnson’s crew, and a two-tire change by Gordon's crew gambling to remain out front.
Since bringing Johnson under his wing, Gordon hasn’t won a title and can’t come close to the 49 wins Johnson has accumulated over that span. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if Gordon had some resentment for bringing Johnson into such a great situation since it’s altered his career along the way.
“Today I do,” Gordon said after Sunday‘s Vegas race. “Five, 10 years from now, when I’m cashing in on it, I’m not. Somebody once told me that, if you’re going to get beat, make sure you’re getting a piece of it. That’s one positive to take out of it.”
Looking back on Gordon’s career over the years, there’s no better place to start then with this weeks race in Atlanta. This is where it all began for Gordon who made his NASCAR Cup series debut there in 1992. It was sort of a changing of the guard even though we didn’t know it at the time because The King, Richard Petty, made the final start of his great career in that race.
Over his 35 career starts in Atlanta, only one driver has been more consistent than Gordon’s average finish of 12.3 on the track. Yep, you guessed it, it’s Johnson again taking some thunder away from Gordon.
However, if we shorten up the window over say the last 10 years, Gordon is tops with a 9.2 average finish compared to Johnson’s 10.7. Johnson has three wins to Gordon’s one, but the consistency race after race that Gordon shows in differing eras of his ride with multiple crew chiefs is pretty amazing.
For his career, Gordon has four wins, 14 top-5’s, and 23 top-10 finishes in those 35 starts. Last season he finished second in this race and ninth in the fall. Look for Gordon to finally get that win this week which would surprisingly be only his second overall win since the beginning of the 2008 campaign.
However, Gordon’s nemesis, a creation of his own doing, will be there again to slay in order for him to win and it will be tough. Johnson has proven the last two weeks that he can win with a proven past winning chassis at California as well as a brand new chassis like he brought to Las Vegas.
This week Johnson brings another proven winner with the same chassis that won at Charlotte last October. The sister tracks of Las Vegas, Charlotte, Texas, and Atlanta are all equally similar 1.5-mile high banked tracks where information gained from place to the other transfers over well.
The top contenders to take on the mighty Hendrick machine, whom we only mentioned two of the quality candidates thus far, are from the Childress group led by Kevin Harvick. Who could ever forget the magical moment of 2001 when Harvick had just taken over the car after the passing of Dale Earnhardt and drove to victory in only his third career start. Harvick followed up that win with a second in the fall making Atlanta look like pretty easy stuff.
Then the luck ran out and it became tough for Harvick who would go 14 straight races in Atlanta without having another top-5 finish. It was until last season that he halted the streak and captured two top-5’s with a best of second place in the fall.
Those two races for Harvick were sandwiched by some pretty bad runs at all tracks but the positive note is that momentum from the fall race last season has carried over into this year. He finished second in Las Vegas last week and currently leads the Cup series in points.
I hate to go by what happened last week, but the Vegas race is such a good barometer for this week and the fact the info is still fresh on the team’s mind because it’s such a short turnaround makes it hard for me to believe there are better cars out there this week than Harvick, Gordon, and Johnson’s.
Next on the list of contenders we go back to Hendrick with Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Martin is bringing his chassis that sat on the pole at Indianapolis and finished second there as well as a fourth-place run at the fall California race. He’ll be good this week and will be looking for his first Atlanta win since 1994, and no that isn’t a typo. Only three other current drivers have been driving since then.
Earnhardt Jr and Lance McGrew will be bringing a brand new car this week and if there ever was a place to get Junior fired up it would be Atlanta. It’s been 60 races since he’s won a race anywhere, but over the last five seasons of NASCAR loop data for Atlanta, he’s ranked No. 4. A top-10 finish wouldn’t be out of the question this week.
Clint Bowyer is currently second in points and has had consistent success on the track. In eight career races, he has either finished 20th or worse four times or finished sixth. He has four career sixth place finishes, quite odd, but very consistent and it may be where he ends up again this week.
Joey Logano has now become the featured driver thus far of the season for the Gibbs trio. We normally talk about Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin, but the kid has now taken center stage and he’s earned it with a great run the last two weeks. He’ll be bringing his same car that finished fifth at California two weeks ago.
Kyle Busch sits 12th in points even though he hasn’t had a top-10 finish in any of the three races. He’s been consistently mediocre thus far, but based on practice last week, he looked like he should have been able to contend for the win. The long green flag runs didn’t help him much either. Look for his best run of the year this week.
Kurt Busch had so many expectations last week after sitting on the pole in his home town but got tangled in a wreck caused by Jamie McMurray. He won this race last year in dominant fashion with his favorite car. That car ran last week and had minor damage, but it’s still not likely at this point that they would be able to have it repaired in enough time to race this week. His chances are also less likely to win based on last years notes just because he has a new crew chief this year.
The Roush drivers have all come on strong at every track this year, especially Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle who each have top-10 finishes in all three races. Kenseth looked very good at Vegas, almost capable of winning the race while Biffle looked strong in practice. Carl Edwards is a three time winner in Atlanta, something Kenseth and Biffle have never been able to do. These three Roush drivers are at least reliable and can be counted upon to do well in driver match-ups. They may not contend for the win, but all three should run in the top-10.
TOP 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
2) #29 Kevin Harvick (12/1)
3) #5 Mark Martin (10/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (10/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (9/2)