Atlanta Motor Speedway playing major role in NASCAR title

NASCAR drivers Kasey Kahne, left, and Jimmie Johnson will be among the favorites for this weekend’s Oral-B 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Special Photo: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

NASCAR drivers Kasey Kahne, left, and Jimmie Johnson will be among the favorites for this weekend’s Oral-B 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Special Photo: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

HAMPTON — The national spotlight will shine on Atlanta Motor Speedway as the next to last race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship starts.

With only two more races before the Sprint Cup playoff field is set, Sunday’s race will play a pivotal role in the Chase with its night time race.

“The intensity and pressure should be at its highest point of the season, and that is a big win for race fans,” Atlanta Motor Speedway president and general manager Ed Clark said.

One of the hottest drivers on the circuit is Thursday Thunder alum Joey Logano who is one of five drivers this season with three victories. The one-time Alpharetta native claimed his third victory of the season in the Irwin Tools Night Race NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Logano took the lead from Matt Kenseth with 44 laps remaining in the 500-lap race and remained up front for the win.

Last year at this time, Logano was needing a strong showing to remain in a position to get into the Chase. This will not be the case when he heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend.

Logano is already locked into the 10-race playoff format.

But that doesn’t mean he is not hoping for a strong showing.

“We’ve got a good plan going forward of how Team Penske is going to test for this Chase, and those plans are already laid in stone going forward, and we’re just trying to execute them,” Logano said.

Logano’s Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski has also been running well coming into the Atlanta race. Keselowski passed Kenseth with 31 laps remaining to take second.

Kenseth finished third, Jimmie Johnson was fourth and Kurt Busch rounded out the top five.

“Just a heck of a weekend for everyone at Team Penske, all three drivers winning races this weekend,” Keselowski said. “I think that’s a testament to how bright the future is for Team Penske, and look for more big things to come in years to come, but certainly don’t want to lose sight of tonight’s accomplishments and the accomplishments to date.

“I feel like Joey and I both have three wins. We’re entering the Chase strong in a lot of different ways, and I think we’re both legitimate threats to win the championship this year, and I’m proud of that.”

As the standings currently sit, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle would qualify for the Chase based on points, while a race victory would guarantee one of those remaining spots.

With two races left in the regular season, Kenseth — fifth in points — is the only driver in the top eight of the standings without a win. He posted a series-high seven victories last season, finishing runner-up to six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Kenseth nearly picked up a win on Saturday in Bristol, but the strategy not to pit might have cost him the win.

Kenseth declined a chance to get new tires during a late-race caution and claimed the lead, but he couldn’t hold off Logano and Keselowski, who had fresh tires.

“At the end there, I just figured we’d try to stretch it out a little bit and hopefully hold those guys on tires off, but they cleared everybody way too fast on that restart and we did everything we could to hang on,” Kenseth said. “Overall, it was a good night. I didn’t quite feel like we had the speed we needed to win the race tonight, but we tried our best to put ourselves in position to do it and ended up with a decent finish.”

Left out of the 10-race playoff format would be a group of drivers that have experienced adversity as of late. As a result, The Oral-B USA 500 figures to be a win-at-all costs event for drivers with Chase aspirations.

Two-time Atlanta winner Kasey Kahne is on the list of drivers likely to be heavily motivated to contend for a race victory this weekend. Mechanical problems spoiled a strong run for him at Bristol on Saturday night.

Austin Dillon is coming off a 28th place finish as early-race damage started his night off in the wrong foot, and early adversity proved to be too much to overcome.

He is hoping to be the first rookie to make the Chase.

“For me being a rookie I don’t have much to lose,” Dillon said. “There has never been a rookie make the Chase. This would be a great opportunity to do that. I think that we have three solid races we are going to give ourselves that opportunity. Atlanta I’m really looking forward to that weekend. We tested there.”