Expert picks for Atlanta
Will Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s contract extension give him the mental boost he needs to end his drought? Can Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski stay hot enough to take another checkered flag (and some Summer Showdown bonus cash)? ESPN NASCAR personalities Ricky Craven, Johnny Benson, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett and Jamie Little share their predictions for the top three finishers at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Ricky Craven's winner
Carl Edwards has had an impressive Sprint Cup season, but he's stalling at the wrong time of year. Atlanta is a great track for him to get a win and turn things around. It's an abrasive racetrack -- really hard on tires -- and it requires drivers to transition from the low groove on new tires to the middle groove and eventually the high groove on more worn tires. But Edwards is very good at finding the groove that fits his tires' condition or driving style.
My second-place finisher, Kasey Kahne, is at his best on 1.5 mile tracks, and he has a lot to race for. If he's able to win, all of a sudden he changes the complexion of the wild-card race. Kahne's been fast this year, and he's qualifying better than most drivers.
What really stands out to me about Dale Earnhardt Jr. this weekend is the timing of his five-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports. It may seem small, but a move like this is wind to your back as a driver. I remember making some mistakes during a contract year, but soon after my three-year contract extension with Tide, we won a race. I absolutely believe it's strategic that Rick Hendrick made this announcement when he did. With a few races to go, a little mental momentum never hurts.
Johnny Benson's winner
The No. 99 has a good balance of running well at the bottom and top of a racetrack and that will really benefit him at Atlanta. You need to be able to run anywhere on the racetrack while gauging the grip your tires need in order to keep your speed up.
Not having Brad Keselowski in the top three would be ignoring this incredible roll he's on and the success Penske cars have had at Atlanta. Kurt Busch won there last spring and the team is really clicking right now. The more I watch Keselowski, the more I see his aggressiveness balance out with his tire management. And that's a dangerous combination.
I had a hard time deciding between Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart to finish third. But I'm taking Kenseth because he has great patience and that's key at Atlanta. You have to time your runs. He may not be out front the whole time, but I think he'll be in the picture at the end of the race.
Rusty Wallace's winner
Jeff Gordon is fast at Atlanta and has some momentum right now. I like the way his cars are handling well right now, showing some real depth, and he's been around this course enough times to know what he's doing. A win would really keep his momentum heading into the Chase.
For this particular track, I like Edwards to finish second. I like how he runs at Atlanta, and he's won there before. On this type of track, you need to be what I call a rim-rider, staying up on that high lane and really keeping some momentum built up. Carl is excellent at doing that; in fact, one of the victories he had there, he won off a last-lap pass in Turn 4 by running that high lane. That experience will pay off.
I still think Jimmie Johnson is going to be the guy who will win the Sprint Cup championship. He looked strong at Bristol last weekend, and he's been good at Atlanta. I would not be surprised in the least to see him up on the podium this weekend.
Dale Jarrett's winner
I'd like to pick one of the guys trying to win $3 million in the Sprint Summer Showdown, but I just don't see it happening. Obviously, Keselowski has been strong for a few weeks, but this is a tough race track and I think experience is what pays off here. We're starting to see Johnson get things more in line, and I believe this will be the race where they do a big tune-up for the Chase. When this clicks, they win. So I've got Johnson on top of the podium Sunday.
I've been thinking about these picks all week, and I had been leaning toward Gordon for the same reason. He's experienced, and he knows how to handle a tricky racetrack like Atlanta. I think his team and Johnson's team have been performing as well as anyone, and it gives them a good opportunity to run up front all day -- or night, as the case may be.
Jamie Little's analysis
I'm going with Kyle Busch to win it this weekend at Atlanta. His stats aren't great there (three top 10 finishes in 13 starts), but he has won at the track before (spring '08), and remember, a $3 million Summer Showdown bonus is on the line.
Behind him, I have to go with Keselowski. I have been hesitant to add him to my top three in the past, but after his win at Bristol, I'm a believer. He's the hottest driver in NASCAR right now, and I believe he can continue his momentum with a second-place finish.
Rounding out the top three, I'd usually say Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards, but neither one has been too impressive the last couple of months. I'm going to say the guy who brings home the third-place finish this weekend is Johnson. He has an average finish of 10th there and three Atlanta wins under his belt.