NASCAR picks pack: 'Cookie-cutter' Atlanta promises Devil's food race

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Montoya runs hot and cold on 'cookie-cutter' tracks, and his finishes at Atlanta are no different. (Getty Images)

WHEN: Sept. 2, 2012 | GREEN: Approximately 7:46 p.m. ET

WHERE: Atlanta Motor Speedway

TRACK DESCRIPTION: 1.54-mile quad-oval

BROADCAST: ESPN | RACE LENGTH: 325 laps, 501 miles

The lowdown

In spite of the dominance of "cookie-cutter" courses in NASCAR Cup competition, it has been quite a while since the series last visited one. The similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks make up 28 percent of the schedule, but the Quaker State 400 was eight weeks ago at Kentucky Speedway and the Coca-Cola 600 was five weeks earlier, which should make fans hungry for some dessert. That puts Atlanta in an interesting spot on the schedule because it kicks off a period in which five races will be run on this track type in the final 12 weeks.

Success on the "cookie-cutter" tracks will not only help determine who makes the playoffs with a strong run this week in Atlanta, it is vital to getting a strong start once the Chase begins at Chicagoland. When the series hits Charlotte and Kansas in back-to-back weeks in October, then Texas in November, maintaining momentum is going to be critical to winning the championship. Last year, Tony Stewart won two of the four "cookie-cutter" races that were held during the Chase.

Winning is still paramount for several teams. Every driver has Victory Lane on his mind, but for several of them, this is their last chance to qualify for the Chase. Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton cannot get high enough in the point standings to qualify for the second wild-card berth with a single win. Aric Almirola and Juan Pablo Montoya would probably climb into the top 20 if they could score two victories, so they will also be rolling the dice for that elusive win as well.

That can be a dangerous proposition. Last week, Edwards showed just how volatile gambling can be. If he had raced a little more conservatively and finished in the top 10, he would have cut his deficit by 1/3 to be 22 or fewer points behind Stewart. Winning is certainly on the minds of Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman, but they also need to try and earn points as well. Watching them race this week and next will be like watching a high-wire act.

10 best drivers at Atlanta

Over the past four races at Atlanta, these drivers have the best average finish.

1. Tony Stewart
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 7.00 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 11.24 in 25 attempts

When the emotion from Bristol faded, Stewart retracted his statement about wrecking Matt Kenseth every time he gets the chance, but if he finds himself too deep in the points later in the season to win the championship, that rivalry could re-emerge. Stewart certainly had a right to be frustrated at Bristol, because his last three races have showcased nearly every way a driver can experience disappointment. He spun by himself at The Glen, lost an engine at Michigan and finally wrecked while battling for the lead. He won't miss the Chase, because even if he falls out of the top 10, he has enough victories to secure a wild-card berth, but he would prefer to enter the playoffs with at least a little momentum this year.

2. Juan Pablo Montoya
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 7.50 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 16.89 in 9 attempts

Montoya can run hot and cold on the "cookie-cutter" courses, and if one looks at his total career, Atlanta is no exception. In addition to his three top fives and four top 10s on this track, he has finished outside the top 15 four times. The good news for his fans is that nearly all of his strong runs came in the last three and a half years. He posted back-to-back third-place finishes in fall 2009 and spring 2010 with a pair of top 15s in his latest two efforts. Another finish just outside the top 10 is the most likely prognosis this week; he has failed to finish in the single digits since the series rolled out of Atlanta last year, but given the disappointments this team has suffered, they will probably be happy with a result in that range.

3. Matt Kenseth
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 8.50 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 12.87 in 23 attempts

Roush Fenway Racing is becoming one of the dominant teams on "cookie-cutter" courses. All three of their drivers have finished in the top 10 on "cookie-cutters" this season and Kenseth may well be the best of the group. Dating back to last fall's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas, he has scored one victory, five top fives and seven top 10s in eight starts. He stumbled briefly at Vegas, but since that was at the beginning of the season, there is a good reason to believe it is completely out of his mind. For the seven drivers comfortably in Chase contention, the next two weeks will be about either winning or testing setups that could come in handy during the final 10 races. Since Kenseth has not yet won on this track, it is easy to determine which of those two strategies dominates his thoughts.

4. Jeff Gordon
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 10.00 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 12.16 in 38 attempts

Gordon has spent the week talking about the confidence level of his team. They have a great set of notes following last year's clutch victory at Atlanta and that makes them confident they can pull off another win this week. While that sounds a lot like Gordon is trying to convince himself, this team has run well enough to back that statement up -- but it will not be as simple as he makes it sound. After winning the 2011 AdvoCare 500, Gordon finished worse than 20th in his next three "cookie-cutter" races. He was 21st this spring at Kansas, but the good news is three of his last four races on this track type ended in results of seventh or better.

5. Kurt Busch
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 12.25 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 17.38 in 21 attempts

When he sustained damage before lap 100 of last week's Bristol race, Busch increased his "batted about" average to 0.417. That would be a great batting average in Major League Baseball, but as a crash percentage, it is painful to watch. In addition, this team has suffered two DNFs from engine failure, which has to be taking a huge toll on James Finch's checking account. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Busch could be a factor at Atlanta if the equipment was capable of taking him to the front. It won't be, however, and this highly emotional driver lacks the patience to run his Chevrolet to the limit without stepping over, so the smart money says he will increase his crash percentage to 0.440 this week, unless, of course, he blows an engine first.

6. Kevin Harvick
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 12.75 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 19.86 in 21 attempts

Harvick is one of about a dozen drivers who have near-perfect records of top-12 finishes in the five "cookie-cutter" races this season. His worst efforts of 11th came at Vegas and Charlotte, but he has largely gone unnoticed. That is because he has failed to crack the top five on this track type since last fall's Geico 400 at Chicagoland. He has been equally consistent at Atlanta and perhaps a little stronger overall. His last eight races there produced seven top 15s and two of those were top fives including a runner-up result to Kasey Kahne in fall 2009.

7. Jimmie Johnson
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 13.25 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 9.95 in 20 attempts

For a long time, Johnson was the king of the "cookie-cutter" tracks and it appears that dominance is starting to return. He finished second in Vegas' Kobalt Tools 400 and the Texas Samsung Mobile 500 early in the season and added a third-place finish at Kansas this June. His last two efforts on this track type have been less spectacular, but he was running third in the Coke 600 before incurring a pit road penalty that ultimately dropped him to 11th. Last year, he finished in the runner-up position to teammate Gordon at Atlanta, and he could play the role of spoiler to the No. 24's championship bid this week.

8. Ryan Newman
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 13.50 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 17.47 in 19 attempts

Last week, Newman lost control of his destiny when he crashed out of the Irwin Tools Night Race. And despite a top-10 record at Atlanta during the last four races, climbing back into the second wild-card berth could be a challenge. He has simply not performed very well on "cookie-cutter" courses this season with 20-something finishes at Texas and Kansas to go along with a 34th at Kentucky. The news is also mixed at Atlanta because his last four races there ended in two top 10s, counterbalanced by two results outside the top 15. Further bad news can be found in the fact that his previous 10 races dating back to 2004 produced a best effort of only 14th and an average of 21st.

9. Marcos Ambrose
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 16.25 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 22.00 in 6 attempts

With his fifth-place finish last week at Bristol, Ambrose earned four consecutive top 10s for the first time in his career and he did so on a wide variety of tracks. His 10th-place finish at Pocono, victory at Watkins Glen and fifth at Michigan combines with last week's effort to give him a lot of momentum that could push him to the front of the pack one more time. With only one top 10 in six starts on this track, Atlanta would seem to be an unlikely place to make that happen, but he finished 11th and 10th in 2010 the last time this track hosted two races.

10. Kyle Busch
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 16.50 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 17.71 in 14 attempts

Throughout his career, Busch has been erratic on the "cookie-cutter" courses, but this year has been an exception. In 2010, he earned only two top 10s on the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks, but one of these was a victory at Kentucky and the other was a second place at Charlotte. In 2012, he replaced some of that strength with consistency. He finished 23rd in front of the hometown crowd in Las Vegas, but his worst effort in four races on this track type since has been an 11th and his best finish was a third in the Coca-Cola 600.

10. Greg Biffle
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 16.50 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 17.78 in 18 attempts

Biffle will almost certainly improve over his three-year average at Atlanta because he has been one of the standouts on "cookie-cutter" tracks all year. He entered the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky with a five-race streak of top-five finishes on this track type that included a victory at Texas in the spring. At two miles in length, Michigan does not get counted as one of the "cookie-cutters," but his win there two weeks ago is much more predictive of how he will run this week than a 19th at Bristol. Spilt the difference and he is a lock for a top 10 and a good bet for a top five so long as he stays out of trouble.

OTHERS OF NOTE

14. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 18.25 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 12.75 in 24 attempts

With his last Atlanta top 10 coming in 2008, Earnhardt doesn't quite have the recent record to get into this week's top 10, but that doesn't mean he will not be strong on Sunday. While nearly a dozen drivers have been almost perfect in regard to top-12 finishes on "cookie-cutter" courses this season, he is the only one with an uninterrupted streak of top 10s. Only one of these was a top five, but that came in his most recent effort at Kentucky and he has been steadily improving on this track type all season. Moreover, half of his last eight races this season have ended in fourth-place results, so he has the confidence to finish in the top five this week.

17. Denny Hamlin
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 19.50 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 17.50 in 12 attempts

Hamlin was a surprise contender last week based on the fact that he had not earned a top five at Bristol since 2009 and also because he had only one top 10 during that span. He is proof that the old adage of "that's why they run the race" applies every week. His recent Atlanta numbers would suggest that he will not be much of a factor this week, but they are skewed by one 43rd-place finish in 2010. In the Emory Healthcare 500, he blew an engine shy of the halfway mark, but the motor was strong at the start of the race because he led the field to green that afternoon after winning the pole. Last year, he rebounded to finish eighth.

18. Martin Truex Jr.
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 19.75 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 22.85 in 13 attempts

Truex has been one of the strongest drivers in recent weeks with seven results of 11th or better in his last eight races. The one race in which he failed to finish that well was the Coke Zero 400 lottery at Daytona and he drew the number 17 that week. If he is going to keep that streak alive, it will mean he has to beat his Atlanta average by a wide margin. Truex has finished better than 11th only twice in 13 races in Georgia, but there is some good news in the fact that he enters the weekend with back-to-back top 15s in his two most recent attempts on this track.

22. Brad Keselowski
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 22.33 in 3 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 22.33 in 3 attempts

Keselowski is still young enough that some of his records simply need to be put aside. He got off to a rough start at Atlanta with a 36th in his first attempt as a rookie in 2010. Actually, to say that was a rough start is a bit of an understatement because he was intentionally wrecked by Carl Edwards in retaliation for an earlier incident and nearly flew into the grandstands. He sustained crash damage again that fall to cross under the checkers 25th in line, but when he finally stayed out of trouble last year he managed to finish in the top 10. This year's effort on "cookie-cutter" courses also got off to a disappointing start, but Kez has rebounded in his last two races to finish fifth at Charlotte and win at Kentucky.

23. Clint Bowyer
Last four races average finish at Atlanta: 23.75 in 4 attempts
Career avg. finish at Atlanta: 17.36 in 11 attempts

For all the success that Michael Waltrip Racing has experienced this season, Bowyer has struggled on the "cookie-cutter" tracks. He finished sixth in the Kobalt Tools 400 at Vegas back in March, but his best effort on this track type since then has been a 13th. If Bowyer overcomes his personal odds, it is still improbable that he will earn a top five. His best finish at Atlanta is sixth and, remarkably, he has come that close to cracking the top five on four different occasions -- all of which came in a span of five races from 2007 through 2009.

All Drivers: Last four races at Atlanta
DriverAvg. finish (attempts)DriverAvg. finish (attempts)
1. Tony Stewart7.00 (4)21. Jamie McMurray22.00 (4)
2. Juan Pablo Montoya7.50 (4)22. Brad Keselowski22.33 (3)
3. Matt Kenseth8.50 (4)23. Clint Bowyer23.75 (4)
4. Jeff Gordon10.00 (4)24. Scott Speed25.00 (4)
5. Kurt Busch12.25 (4)25. David Gilliland25.50 (4)
6. Kevin Harvick12.75 (4)26. Joey Logano27.00 (4)
7. Jimmie Johnson13.25 (4)26. Regan Smith27.00 (4)
8. Ryan Newman13.50 (4)28. Bobby Labonte27.25 (4)
9. Marcos Ambrose16.25 (4)29. David Stremme29.50 (2)
10. Kyle Busch16.50 (4)30. Casey Mears 31.00 (4)
10. Greg Biffle 16.50 (4)30. David Ragan31.00 (4)
12. Jeff Burton17.75 (4)30. Sam Hornish Jr.31.00 (3)
12. Kasey Kahne 17.75 (4)33. JJ Yeley32.50 (2)
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr.18.25 (4)34. Mike Bliss 33.25 (4)
14. Paul Menard18.25 (4)35. Landon Cassill33.50 (2)
16. Mark Martin19.00 (4)36. Travis Kvapil 33.67 (3)
17. Denny Hamlin19.50 (4)37. Dave Blaney37.75 (4)
18. Martin Truex Jr.19.75 (4)38. Joe Nemechek39.50 (4)
19.Reed Sorenson20.50 (2)39. Michael McDowell40.67 (3)
20. Carl Edwards 20.75 (4)

Caution to the wind

Most caution flags: 14 (2007 Pep Boys Auto 500)

Fewest caution flags: 1 (1970 Dixie 500, 1961 Festival 250)

Average number of caution flags per race: 6.0

Final Caution, last five races:
September 2011: Lap 251 of 325 - 2-car accident on backstretch, (Mark Martin and Regan Smith)
September 2010: Lap 304 of 325 - debris
March 2010: Lap 333 of 341 (second attempt at a green-white-checkered finish) - 7-car accident in turn 4 (Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, David Gilliland, and Martin Truex Jr.)
September 2009: Lap 310 of 325 - 1-car spin (Clint Bowyer)
March 2009: Lap 323 of 330 (to set up a green-white-checkered finish) - debris

Most caution laps: 99 (1977 Dixie 500 - and another whopping 98 in 1965 Dixie 400)

Fewest caution laps: 7 (1986 Atlanta Journal 500)

Average number of caution laps per race: 40.7

Leading the way

Most leaders: 17 (2000 Cracker Barrel 500)

Fewest leaders: 3 (1977 Atlanta 500)

Average number of leaders: 8.6

Most lead changes: 45 (1982 Atlanta Journal 500)

Fewest lead changes: 7 (1961 Dixie 400, 1960 Atlanta 500)

Average number of lead changes: 21.5

Victory Lane

Last five winners at Atlanta (starting position):
September 2011: Jeff Gordon (5th)
September 2010: Tony Stewart (5th)
March 2010: Kurt Busch (11th)
September 2009: Kasey Kahne (2nd)
March 2009: Kurt Busch (2nd)

Worst starting position for race winner: 39th - Bobby Labonte (Nov. 2001)

A race at Atlanta has been won by the pole sitter 14 times and from the front row 26 times in 104 races.

Active winners at Atlanta

Bobby Labonte (6)
Jeff Gordon (5)
Tony Stewart (3)
Kurt Busch (3)
Jimmie Johnson (3)
Carl Edwards (3)
Mark Martin (2)
Kasey Kahne (2)
Kyle Busch (1)
Kevin Harvick (1)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1)

First-time winners at Atlanta

Carl Edwards: 2005 Golden Corral 500
Kevin Harvick: 2001 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500
Jerry Nadeau: 2000 NAPA 500
Jim Hurtubise: 1966 Atlanta 500
Bob Burdick: 1961 Atlanta 500
Bobby Johns: 1960 Atlanta 500

Next three "cookie-cutter" courses (since 2009)

There are a total of seven "cookie-cutter" tracks (Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas, Las Vegas, Kansas, Chicagoland and Kentucky). A chart that includes all of these average finishes simply will not fit on this page, so for simplicity's sake, only the next three tracks are shown for comparative purposes; the "Combined Avg.", however, includes all seven tracks and 33 races since the start of the 2009 season.

DriverCombined Avg.Combined AttemptsAtlantaChicagolandCharlotte
Matt Kenseth10.61339.2019.007.57
Tony Stewart11.48337.204.6716.86
Jimmie Johnson11.553312.4014.3318.14
Kevin Harvick12.393311.0018.3313.29
Denny Hamlin12.523318.2014.6713.71
Carl Edwards12.553317.206.6714.14
Jeff Gordon12.70338.409.6713.57
Kasey Kahne12.793315.607.0012.43
Greg Biffle13.643320.0030.6715.00
Kyle Busch14.283316.8024.008.00
Kurt Busch15.183310.0016.3317.00
Ryan Newman15.393315.2012.0016.14
Clint Bowyer15.703320.206.6716.86
Dale Earnhardt Jr16.643316.8013.6723.00
Mark Martin17.283221.408.3322.43
Martin Truex Jr18.033317.8015.0018.71
Juan Pablo Montoya18.123311.4013.3319.71
Marcos Ambrose18.453320.6019.3320.43
Jeff Burton18.793317.0019.6720.29
Joey Logano19.093327.6017.6710.29
Paul Menard19.213320.2021.6721.29
Brad Keselowski19.503022.3318.3316.50
Trevor Bayne20.679--27.50
David Ragan21.423328.6016.0018.00
Jamie McMurray21.883320.6021.6720.29
Regan Smith23.502827.0018.5016.40
Sam Hornish Jr27.161932.5031.0028.25
Casey Mears27.663228.0032.3327.29
Aric Almirola28.361132.50-16.00
Bobby Labonte28.483329.8029.0025.29
Scott Speed29.312627.0033.6729.50
David Gilliland30.243325.2036.6728.71
Reed Sorenson30.951924.6725.5029.50
Ken Schrader31.333---
Landon Cassill31.952033.5034.5030.75
David Stremme33.092427.3334.3334.33
Travis Kvapil33.372735.7537.5033.33
Dave Blaney36.823438.4040.3335.86
Mike Bliss37.892835.2035.3337.71
JJ Yeley39.002232.5040.0038.50
Michael McDowell40.562840.6743.5039.83
Joe Nemechek41.183339.4041.3341.14
Josh Wise41.9010--44.50
Stephen Leicht42.003--39.00

Beaver's Best Bets for Atlanta

Winner: Jimmie Johnson. The battle will come down to teammates this week. It will be close, but Jeff Gordon is going to have to go into Richmond still needing to win in order to qualify for the Chase because Johnson is going to take the AdvoCare 500.

Dark horse top 10: Marcos Ambrose. Momentum is a powerful force and Ambrose will get his fifth consecutive top 10 this week.

Don't bet on it: Clint Bowyer. With his struggles on the "cookie-cutter" courses this year, it is difficult to imagine Bowyer finishing in the top 10; I predict a finish in the low teens, however.

Beat Beaver -- Predicting the top 10

Atlanta hosts only one race per year now, but with seven tracks and 10 "cookie-cutter" races on the schedule, there is plenty of data to consider. This week's top 10 come from drivers who have been solid on this track type all season.

1. Jimmie Johnson
2. Jeff Gordon
3. Matt Kenseth
4. Greg Biffle
5. Kasey Kahne
6. Carl Edwards
7. Kyle Busch
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
9. Martin Truex Jr.
10. Marcos Ambrose

LAST WEEK'S PICKS

Short track racing is tough. Last week, 18 cars sustained damage in the Irwin Tools Night Race. Several of my top-10 choices were impacted, including my top two picks Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth.

For any driver correctly picked in the top 10, five points are awarded. For any driver picked in his exact finishing position, five bonus points are awarded. For correctly predicting the winner, a total of 20 points are awarded. So for a perfect top 10, a total of 110 points are available. One point is subtracted for each driver picked who finishes outside the top 10.

Predicted DriverActual FinishPoints
1.Brad Keselowski30-1
2.Matt Kenseth25-1
3.Kyle Busch65
4.Jimmie Johnson25
5.Martin Truex Jr.11-1
6.Ryan Newman36-1
7.Jamie McMurray17-1
8.Marcos Ambrose55
9.Carl Edwards22-1
10.Jeff Burton33-1

Total points for Bristol = 8 (out of a possible perfect score of 110)

Season best: 37 points (Charlotte, May); Season worst: 2 points (Daytona, July); Season avg.: 22.0 points (14 races)

For more stats and analysis, follow @FantasyRace on Twitter.

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