With two regular season races remaining NASCAR's race Chase is down to the wire, and the fast and unpredictable Atlanta Motor Speedway will be an arduous for man and machine alike. As you watch Sunday's AdvoCare 500, here are the particulars you need to follow.
Goodyear's new tire could be a game-changer
This weekend has seen Goodyear introduce a right-side tire that many think will revolutionize the sport. The construction of the tire is based on a "zone tread" concept that was first used in developing tires for everyday passenger use. Two-thirds of the tire has a softer compound that will increase grip, while the remaining inside third is harder and not susceptible to excessive wear.
The new design is in response to complaints that hard tires with little drop in performance and wear has led to an abundance of single-file racing -- especially on intermediate tracks that make up the bulk of the schedule. If the tire is successful in theory, it should improve the quality of racing and increase passing opportunities.
"I think it's gonna be a great thing," Greg Biffle said Friday. "We're thinking it can provide more grip and tire wear and fall off, but yet still have the safety of not getting too hot and blowing out or getting the inside bead too hot.
"I think it's a great opportunity for our sport and Goodyear and everybody to experiment with this."
How will Atlanta impact the Chase?
A trio of Cup champions find themselves on the wrong side of the Chase cutoff with just two races to go, as Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon occupy positions 11 through 13 in points. And with each winless, none are eligible for one of two wild cards available to gain entry into the playoffs.
The balance that must be struck in the next two weeks is between being conservative and not doing anything to lose valuable points while also aggressively pursuing victory.
"My primary focus is just on winning the race," Keselowski said. "If we can get that done, then everything takes care of itself."
One driver who is in the Chase as of now is Martin Truex Jr., who holds the No. 1 wild card slot thanks to his win at Sonoma. But he fractured his wrist in an accident last week at Bristol and is competing this weekend with a cast on his right hand -- not an ideal situation for a driver who needs every point he can accrue.
Truex says he's unconcerned about going the distance Sunday, but he will have Scott Speed on standby just in case. And it's unfortunate for Truex that he enters Atlanta at less than 100 percent. He has excelled this season on mile-and-a-half tracks, the only driver to record top-10s in all five races on 1.5-mile ovals.
"It was obviously unfortunate for something like that to happen this time of year with the position we're in and where we are at in points and trying to make the Chase," Truex said. "But I feel good that we're able to come here and race and do the best job we can do.
"We've had some good runs here in Atlanta. I love this race track and feel like we've got a good opportunity here to make something happen, so hopefully we'll be able to do that this weekend."
Jimmie Johnson searching for his lost form
A month ago Jimmie Johnson held an imposing 75-point lead and had an aura of invincibility. But following two accidents and an engine failure, the No. 48 team appears to be reeling as the regular season winds down.
Yet there is no concern in the 48 camp with Johnson ever confident that his recent problems were a mere blip in his season. And it would shock no one if he went out Sunday and won his fifth race of the year while sending a firm reminder that he is still the guy to beat for the championship. As if he wanted to reinforce this belief, Johnson posted the fastest time Saturday's final practice.
- Due to engine changes made Friday, a pair of Toyota-powered drivers, Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers, will have to forfeit their starting positions and move to the back of the grid. Hamlin had qualified fourth, while Vickers was to start 22nd.
- Because of a rain shower pre-race, NASCAR has called for a competition yellow on Lap 25 to allow teams to check for tire wear.
- Rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will lead the field to the green flag after winning first pole-position in qualifying Friday. A driver eligible for Rookie of the Year has not won a Cup race since Joey Logano in 2009 at New Hampshire.
1. Matt Kenseth
With its abrasive surface and multiple grooves Atlanta is unlike any other track on the circuit. But you can't ignore that three of Kenseth's five wins this season have been on tracks the same length as Atlanta, and it's more than a coincidence that the No. 20 car was among the fastest in practice.
2. Carl Edwards
Roush Fenway Racing has battled inconsistency this season, but the team has provided Edwards with a quick Ford this weekend. He qualified second and was no lower than third in the three practice sessions. It's also worth mentioning that Edwards is three-time Atlanta winner.
3. Martin Truex Jr.
He says his wrist isn't a concern and it only bothers him slightly when he shifts, which means you have to take Truex at his word and can't ignore how strong he is on mile-and-a-halfs.