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Tick-Tock: Time Slipping Away For Drivers Trying To Find Spot In Chase

Time is running out for several big-name NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers, including one “Brickyard legend,” to make the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup heading into the Labor Day Weekend night race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

And it all depends on a driver that is tied for the series lead with three wins this season – Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind. – a three-time Cup champion and two-time Brickyard 400 winner.

Stewart is 10th in points, which means he would make the 12-driver Chase field through the points accumulated in the regular season if he is in the top 10 after the 400-lap race Saturday, Sept. 8 at Richmond International Raceway. But if Stewart falls out of the top 10, he would be the first “wild card,” which goes to the two drivers with the most victories in positions 11-20.

Kasey Kahne has the first wild card because he is 11th in points and has two wins. But after that, Carl Edwards is 12th in points with no wins and would be eliminated from Chase consideration, giving the position to Kyle Busch, who is 13th in points with one win.

Four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon also has one win but is 14th in points, which means Gordon, who grew up in Pittsboro, Ind., needs to win Sunday night in Atlanta to give him a decent chance of claiming one of the two wild-card positions.

Stewart won the pole for the AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta, and Gordon qualified fifth.

No one realizes how important Sunday night’s race is more than Gordon, who has five wins, 15 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes in 38 starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“We want it bad,” Gordon said. “We go out every practice trying to get the most out of the car. You have ups and downs. It's how you handle those ups and downs and minimize them from being big peaks and valleys that allow you to stay focused.

“When you've had the type of season that we've had, it's a little hard to rebound from those. When you go through them, everybody goes through them, but the teams that are winning and are up in the top 10 in points, especially the guys that are top four or five, they're going through them and rebounding from them pretty easily.”

Gordon is the defending winner of this race and scored his 85th Cup win here last year. It was also 20 years ago at Atlanta that Gordon started his first career Cup Series race.

“Yeah, time flies,” Gordon said. “Last year was an amazing experience. Atlanta, in general, this year celebrating 20 years of DuPont, 20 years in this sport, all the way back to that race in 1992 right here, I've been able to relive a lot of great moments and memories that I have from Atlanta. Right from the beginning, this was a special place for me, even in the Nationwide Series.

“To get 85 last year here and have this 20th anniversary paint scheme with DuPont this weekend is very special. Can't wait to slide around like we do here at Atlanta Sunday night. It's such a fun racetrack. The surface is one that I think everyone really enjoys the challenges that come along with this track, its abrasiveness. I know we certainly look forward to it on Sunday.”

Ryan Newman, from South Bend, Ind., is 15th in points but has no wins this season. He would virtually have to run the table by winning the next two straight races to claim a wild card.

Newman’s Atlanta record is no wins, one top-five and six top-10 finishes in 19 starts. He starts 17th Sunday night.

“Atlanta is fast, especially when the conditions are right,” Newman said. “You have to hit your marks. It’s bumpy enough that those bumps can spit you right out. Getting into Turn 1 and the middle of 3 and 4, you’ve got catch everything just right. It’s kind of like surfing or wakeboarding – you’ve got to catch the wave’s right and, obviously, put the car in the right spot to do the right things with the gas and the steering wheel. I think it’s the combination of the tire grip we have, initially, and it’s a wide-open racetrack. There’s plenty of room to race there. It’s one of the best racetracks we go to for three- and four-wide racing in the corners. With Atlanta being a one-off race, it has a different feel to it now and a different feel to it than a lot of tracks we go to. But, in the end, we are there to do the same job, and that’s to win.

“Atlanta (Motor Speedway) is one of my favorite tracks. It races really well and it’s a lot of fun, especially with it being a night race now. The race track itself with the old pavement that is hard on tires makes it a lot of fun. It’s kind of a throw-back track that we all enjoy going to.”

Paul Menard, the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, is winless this season with no victories. Jamie McMurray is 19th in points with no wins. Both are virtually out of contention for a wild-card berth short of a two-race winning streak.

As for Stewart, if he makes the Chase through the top-10 in points it will open a position for another driver to get in as a wild card. He has three wins, 10 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 25 starts at Atlanta.

Further up the standings is four-time Brickyard winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who is second in the standings and will start his Lowe’s Chevrolet eighth on the grid.

He has three wins, 11 top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 20 Atlanta starts. He was second last year and third in 2010.

“This car especially slides a lot so the tire and the surface with all the sliding it wears the tires out quickly,” Johnson said. “I typically do well on those types of tracks. It has taken us a little time to sort out the COT (Car of Tomorrow) there and I feel like I have been a lot more competitive over the last trip or two. I’m excited to go back I think we will have a good shot at winning. It’s a unique track that challenges you honestly every foot around the racetrack.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never won at the Brickyard but he is third in points entering Atlanta, where he has one win, eight top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 24 starts. He was 19th last year.

Kevin Harvick won the Brickyard in 2003 and starts 24th. He has one win – his first career Cup victory in his third start in 2001 – four top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 21 starts at Atlanta.

And then there is Danica Patrick, who starts her second straight Sprint Cup race in 23rd place. Patrick was the 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year after her fourth-place finish, and her third-place finish in the 2009 Indy 500 is the highest ever for a female driver.

“I’ve heard lots of great things about Atlanta,” Patrick said. “It’s good racing. The tires definitely go off with the surface, and the line moves around a lot. I’ve heard a lot of really good things about it. For me, it’s going to be a big weekend, not only from the standpoint that there’s Cup and Nationwide, but it’s a big Coca-Cola weekend, so I’ll be really busy. I think nothing is better than going to a new track and having lots of track time.”

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