Crunching numbers for Atlanta

March, 4, 2010
03/04/10
12:19
PM ET

NASCAR had a nice little two-week vacation. Racers headed to Hollywood to see the sights, maybe lay on the beach and soak up those rays, then it was off to Vegas -- Vegas, baby! -- a city that runs with no restrictor plate if there's ever been one. My advice: Take those race winnings and put it on red. And split your aces. Always split your aces.

Now, however, it's back to work. NASCAR heads back to the Southeast and Atlanta to start one of my favorite sports stretches of the year. First of all, during the course of March, we get races at Atlanta, Bristol and Martinsville. It's flat-out speed, and some short-track racing, a personal favorite of mine. And throw an off week in there as well.

And if you're like me and enjoy the wide array of sports, it's a beautiful time of year. March Madness is coming right up (gentleman, start your brackets), and this week started some televised spring training games, a real treat when you have a TV at your desk.

But I'm here to talk NASCAR, occasionally food and never my plans for world domination. Moving on. … Last year at Atlanta, Kurt Busch simply dominated, putting up a rare perfect driver rating and taking the win by a little more than 0.3 seconds over Jeff Gordon.

Busch was passed only eight times under the green flag in that race, a pretty impressive number. However, that wasn't the fewest for the race.

To compare, Mike Bliss was passed only six times under the green flag for position. Sure, if you want to get picky, Bliss started last and finished last, running only 21 laps before going out with overheating. I might give you some fun stats, but don't ever say I didn't give you the disclaimer.

Now, let's look at some pertinent notes heading into this weekend's race at Atlanta.

Harvick improving

Being brutally honest (because that's what you've come to expect from this blog), Richard Childress Racing -- and especially Kevin Harvick -- had a subpar performance last season. But Harvick ran well at Atlanta, finishing fourth and second in the two races there.

It came as somewhat of a surprise. Even though Harvick won his first start at Atlanta in 2001 and finished third in his second start there, from 2002-07 he never finished better than 15th there. In 2008, he showed a little improvement, finishing seventh and 13th in the two races. It was in 2009 that he showed a huge jump, even with all his struggles at other tracks.

The last time the Cup series was at Atlanta featured Harvick's best performance both of the season and at Atlanta since that 2001 victory. Harvick not only finished second, but he had the fastest average green-flag speed in the race, just a smidge ahead of race winner Kasey Kahne.

Edwards due?

Taking a bigger-picture look at Atlanta, it might be time for a big performance from Carl Edwards on Sunday. The Roush Fenway Racing cars are getting back up to speed, and although Edwards hasn't been as impressive as teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, Atlanta could be a great place for him to break out.

In particular, look for Edwards to be able to cut through traffic, as well as to be among the faster cars on the track late in a run. Check out his ranks at Atlanta going back to 2005:

Overall green-flag speed: First
Speed in traffic: First
Speed late in run: Second
Fastest laps run: First

Edwards' finishes at Atlanta are impressive. In 11 races, he has three wins, a second and two third-place runs. Three finishes of 37th or worse hurt his average finish, but don't let that fool you.

What about Kyle?

OK, I gave you Edwards to be fast late in runs and in traffic, but how about switching it over to the exact opposite view? Hey, don't ever say I didn't give you a little of everything. This is a buffet-style NASCAR statistics blog.

So who do I like if it comes down to a series of shootout restarts, as these races are apt to do? Give me Kyle Busch, brother of last year's winner, to be strong on short runs. Dating back to 2005, no driver has been faster than Kyle Busch on restarts at Atlanta, and he has the second-best average speed early in runs.

Busch was great at Atlanta in 2008, with finishes of first and fifth, but other than that, he hasn't finished better than 12th in nine other starts at the track.

That's all I've got for you this week. Enjoy the race!

Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.

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