Things certainly got heated in Bristol, didn’t they? Tony Stewart smoked his helmet at Matt Kenseth. Danica Patrick waved her finger at Regan Smith. And Denny Hamlin used an aggressive late-race pass to knock off Carl Edwards. The old Bristol was certainly back, and in a big way. With just two races remaining on the regular-season docket, here’s a look at the top-10 drivers heading to Atlanta Motor Speedway:
1. Jimmie Johnson (Last week: 3) – Another week, another top-five for Mr. Five Time. Johnson is peaking at the right time, too, with only three finishes outside the top-seven since June 3. That shouldn’t change this week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he has two top-fives in his last three races at the 1.54 mile oval. Oh, and if the Chase started today, JJ would be tied for first with Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart at three wins apiece. I smell six.
2. Greg Biffle (Last week: 2) – The Biff took a step back last week with a 19th at the unpredictable Bristol Motor Speedway. But that isn’t enough to drop the current points leader, who is showing he can win (he’s got two) and be consistent (14 top 10s). His 9.5 average finishing position is the best on tour. He’ll have his work cut out for him this week at Atlanta, a track that has given him trouble of late with one top 10 in his last three races.
3. Clint Bowyer (Last week: 4) – His quiet consistency continues. With five top-fives in his last six races, Bowyer has found his stride and is slowly but surely making his way up the ladder where he is currently sixth in points – he was ninth when he left “The Magic Mile” on July 15. Just how in the groove Bowyer is will be much clearer after Sunday at Atlanta, a track he has an average finish of 22 over the last three years.
4. Brad Keselowski (Last week: 1) – #Bristol #30th #Ouch It might be a bit unfair to drop Mr. Twitter three spots after a difficult night at BMS. But given his recent success there and his recent success overall this season, it becomes more justified. The guy still has four top-fives in his last six races (two runner-ups) and is an absolute threat to contend for this year’s championship. Atlanta could provide a speed bump, though, with only one top-10 in three career starts.
5. Kasey Kahne (Last week: 6) – There really hasn’t been anyone better over the last month and half, including his teammate in the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet. Kahne has three top-threes, including four top-10s and a win (at “The Magic Mile”) in his last six races. With two wins he currently owns the top wild-card spot, and barring anything crazy over the next two weeks is almost a shoe-in to appear in his third Chase.
6. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week: 5) – Like Bowyer, Truex is just quietly going about his business, ticking off top-10 after top-10. Since an 11th at New Hampshire on July 15, Truex has finished eighth, third, 10th, 10th and 11th. He’s never a threat to win, but he seemingly never finishes outside the top-15, something he’s done only six times this year. Like his competition above, Atlanta isn’t a favorable track for Truex, who has only two top-10s in 13 career starts there.
7. Marcos Ambrose (Last week: 9) – The Aussie might be a legitimate Chase contender if he raced as consistently all season as he has over the last three weeks. His win at Watkins Glen breathed life into a team that’s cracked the top-five for three straight weeks – something they hadn’t previously done once all season. Atlanta hasn’t been a horrible track for Ambrose, who has a top-10 and a 14.0 average finish over the last three seasons.
8. Jeff Gordon (Last week: 10) – Still 55 points behind 10th-place Tony Stewart, it’s going to take a win for Gordon to get in. But the 24 rebounded after poor finishes at The Glen and Michigan with a third last week at Bristol, and with Atlanta (five-career wins) this week and Richmond (two-career wins) next week left on the schedule, there’s still a very realistic chance that Gordon can sneak his way into the Chase.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Last week: 8) – Not a bad week, not a great week for the 88. Junior is comfortably in the Chase, but he’s looked a little complacent over the last few weeks given his position in the standings (third). It might be wise to treat the next two races like Chase races as he eyes his first championship. He’s won once at Atlanta with 10 top-10s, including eight top-fives, in 24 career starts.
10. Denny Hamlin (Last week: N/A) – It’s consistency that’s rewarded on this list, but it’s a tough sell to keep Hamlin off after a terrific performance last week at Bristol. His third win of the year not only bumped him up a couple spots in the Chase standings, but has all-but secured him a spot in NASCAR’s Cup playoff. Common theme here, though – Atlanta is not one of his best tracks, so staying on this list next week might be difficult.
Off the pace: Ryan Newman (Last week: 7) – 36th at Bristol
Bump-drafting: Tony Stewart – He’d rank first on the helmet-tossing list.
Rankings and opinions are expressed solely of the writer.