NASCAR Sprint Cup Preview: Atlanta

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It's the fourth race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup this weekend as the series swings back to the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, and the 1.54 mile Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500.

The track, and its 24 degree banked turns is recognised as one of the fastest on the NASCAR tour. The race also marks the penultimate race where teams are guaranteed starts based on the owner points standings for last season. While the season is still young it still puts pressure on some of the most recognisable names in the sport, names you would expect to thinking of the Chase, even at this early stage.

Ryan Newman's No.39 team is only 12 points clear of the crucial 35th place cut off, one place and six points better off than Marcos Ambrose. Even 2009 breakthrough act Juan Montoya is only 40 points clear in 26th place.

The series' return eastwards is also the perfect time to take stock of what the first three races have taught us. How the new (and old) driver, car, team and (perhaps most importantly given the crucial role of pit strategy in last weeks race) crew chief combinations are working. Who, coming away from two races at the kind of intermediate tracks, muck like Atlanta, that make up the bulk of the season, seem to the ones calling for places to be laid at NASCAR's top table.

Well, firstly Jimmie Johnson is still quite good, as are the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports squad. There may even be chinks of light in the darkness that follows Dale Earnhardt Jr. around.

The major news is those teams behind them, and the resurgence of Richard Childress Racing. After an awful 2009 season Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer sit atop the points standings, the former mostly due to back-to-back second places behind Johnson in California and Las Vegas.

However, we are now faced with the problem as to when does the resurgence becomes 'official'. In this writers opinion it takes more than three good races before a team becomes week-in week-out contenders.

Of an even more questionable nature is the state of Roush-Fenway Racing. In seasons past the names of Roush drivers would have been at the top of every list of potential winners at all the intermediate tracks, let alone Atlanta. But 2009 was sub-par at best and 2010, while three quarters of the team is in the top ten in points, has done nothing to rebuild that sort of reputation.

So, with this knowledge in trail what can we expect from Atlanta?

More of the same.

Jimmie Johnson, one win away from his 50-win milestone, dominates Atlanta statistically, with three wins at the track, the same number as Carl Edwards who has eight top-ten finishes in the last ten races.

However, both are beaten for the number of wins by Jeff Gordon with four, a tally Gordon says he and his team are trying to add to. “For the first five races we're going to be real aggressive to try and get those wins to try to get those bonus points,” he explains. “We're going to take more risks and hope that that pays off for us further down the road.”

But what of the RCR renaissance?

None of their trio of drivers have stand out histories at Atlanta, though Harvick's 2001 win only two races after moving into Dale Earnhardt's RCR seat has a special place in NASCAR annals.

So, a good run for the team here and it might just be time to start mentioning RCR and Hendrick in similar circles, especially at a track that needs a balance between speed and handling on a track renowned for a low grip surface.

“It's like it has to two personalities. You've got this real aggressive, drive hard track when it's qualifying and then when you race it,” says Jeff Burton, driver of the No.31 car for the team. “The place gets really slick, real slimy. It's amazing the amount of grip you don't have.”

He continues, “having a car that makes more grip that you competitors and making the most out of that.”

“Finding a way to do it better than your competition in a real, real, real low grip arena. That's the biggest challenge.”

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