Nine drivers have shot at points lead
They will compete in Bass Pro Shop 500 Sunday.
SPORTING NEWS NASCAR WIRE SERVICE
If the 2006 season were like the first two versions of the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup, we'd already be talking about magic numbers - where the points leader has to finish in the next four races to clinch the title, that is.
With four races left this season, however, the only relevant number is "9." That's how many drivers could possibly hold the points lead after Sunday's Bass Pro Shops 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Of the Chase competitors, only 10th-place Kyle Busch, who is 171 points behind leader Matt Kenseth, isn't within reach of the top spot in a single race.
With the top five drivers within 48 points of each other, no team can afford to approach the Chase conservatively.
According to Kevin Harvick, who moved into second place when Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton dropped out of last Sunday's Subway 500 at Martinsville with a blown engine, each of the Chasers is pushing his equipment to the limit.
"Everybody is pushing everything to the extreme, whether it's engines, bodies, drivers," Harvick said. "No matter what it is, you're pushing everything as hard as you can, so you're walking that ultra-thin line of being good with an advantage of more horsepower or more downforce or whatever the case may be, being more aggressive on the racetrack.
"But when you push it too far, you wind up crashing the car or blowing an engine or whatever you're pushing it on - and everyone is pushing everything. It appears to be sloppy, but it's just that a lot of us have had good fortunes through the year, and now it seems like some of those bad fortunes have caught up to us. But on the performance side, we're still OK and able to salvage good finishes out of it."
Stats show free-for-all
As close as the Chase is, NASCAR's loop data statistics also suggest a free-for-all at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the fastest track on the circuit since the introduction of restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega.
Geoffrey Bodine holds the qualifying record at 197.478 mph (Nov. 15, 1997) at the 1.54-mile oval, which also presents a variety of racing grooves to the drivers.
Of the Chase contenders, Mark Martin has the highest driver rating at 114.3 over the last three races at AMS (second overall to Greg Biffle's 122.5).
Jimmie Johnson (third overall at 109.1) is next among Chase drivers, followed by Kasey Kahne (sixth at 96.7) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (seventh at 95.1).
Of all the Chasers, only Harvick (30th at 63.2) has a driver rating outside the top 17.
But bear in mind that Harvick won at Atlanta in his second race after taking over the Goodwrench Chevrolet after Dale Earnhardt's death, and a victory in Sunday's race could propel him toward a Nextel Cup title to go with the Busch Series championship he already has clinched.
"We have had some fairly good success in Atlanta, obviously winning our first race there," Harvick said.
"Under the circumstances that we did, and performed as a team, we won't ever forget that moment, just because of everything that went on. I think, when you start thinking about it, it brings those same chills back to you that you got at that particular time of winning my first race and knowing that you can't do that again, and then obviously, you go back to the circumstances.
"For us, I think it lights that fire back up, because you want that feeling. I think this situation is very close to that situation, just in a whole lot different way.
"Those are the kinds of situations as professionals that you dream about, and you look for the opportunity to take those moments and try to capitalize on them. That's how we're trying to approach it."