A lot has changed since our last, very rainy, trip to Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2011. For one, Jimmie Johnson is no longer the Sprint Cup Series champion. That distinction now belongs to Tony Stewart. But it's near the bottom of the standings where you'll find the most surprise.
There you'll find some of the sport's biggest names fighting for the last wild card playoff spot. It's a huge surprise once you recall where some of these names were at this time last season and what they went on to do the rest of the season.
No driver better represents this polar distinction than Carl Edwards. Last year's championship runner-up had one win, at Las Vegas, and was in the middle of one of the best regular seasons of the Chase Era. Despite not winning a race the rest of the season, the momentum resulted in a virtual championship tie with Stewart, the latter receiving the championship based on the number of race victories.
The inability to find victory lane has continued into 2012 and the consistency never showed up. Unlike some of the other wild card contenders, Edwards doesn't even have a single race win. He's in desperation mode as evidenced by his failed Bristol fuel-mileage gamble; a play that may have prematurely ended his championship hopes.
The rest of the wild card picture entering the Advocare 400 is discussed after the jump.
Finishes of 24th, 4th, 12th, 34th, and 21st derailed Gordon's championship hopes before it even begun and the bad luck continued into 2012. Gordon is 15th in the standings, his only victory coming in the rain at Pocono. He may need one more victory to drop Kyle Busch from the final playoff spot.
Atlanta provided Gordon with considerable momentum last fall, and it could hold the key to salvaging his championship hopes in 2012.
Kyle Busch is as consistent a driver in the Sprint Cup Series as any in the long-history of the sport. Typically good for four wins a season, Busch would be close to that by now if not for the inconsistent Joe Gibbs engine program and numerous crashes throughout the summer, including two weeks ago at Watkins Glen.
Busch is partially responsible for the wild card rule, having won four races in 2009 but missed the Chase due to the lack of consistency. The rule devised in response might be the key to regaining his championship form.
Busch currently holds the final wild card spot but is just 16 points ahead of Gordon. Another blown engine or aggressive move gone wrong could signal the end of his season. It wouldn't be the first time such luck has struck.
Things haven't changed much for Marcos Ambrose, whose repeat performance at Watkins Glen has him in the same place he was in last season -- needing one more win to make the Chase for the Championship.
And don't look at Ambrose as just a road course ringer. His fifth-place at Bristol is just a snapshot of what the Aussie is capable of on ovals. Look no further than his statistical averages at Atlanta and Richmond:
Atlanta: 11.0 average finish since 2009
Richmond: 16.7 average finish since 2009
He's clearly better than his reputation would suggest.
The current wild card picture is as follows:
Atlanta Motor Speedway answered most of NASCAR's playoff field questions in 2011 and could play the same role on Sunday night. It's also one of the most dramatic races on the schedule, producing some of the closest finishes in Sprint Cup history. The stage has been set and the actors cast.
NASCAR Ranting and Raving Content Editor Matt Weaver will be on-site at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend and will be posting live-updates to the blog and on Twitter at @MattWeaverSBN - check it out!