Last year's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway meant a milestone for Jeff Gordon. His 85th career victory, after a gripping duel down the stretch with teammate Jimmie Johnson, put him in sole possession of third place on NASCAR's all-time win list ahead of Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
This year, an Atlanta triumph would have even more immediate importance for the four-time Sprint Cup Series champ, who heads into Sunday's AdvoCare 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at the 1.54-mile track in an almost must-win situation.
Last season, Gordon was securely locked into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs after Atlanta, fifth in points with three wins. This year, Gordon's career win total stands at 86 after he prevailed at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 5, but his Chase status remains in limbo with a 14th-place spot in the standings with two races left in the regular season.
"Obviously with what's going on for the Chase, it could be a crucial race for us," said Gordon, a five-time Atlanta winner. "We never go into any race banking on anything. We go in there working hard to win the race, but that's a track where I feel like there's been so few changes, it gives us a little more confidence that we can go in there and have a great weekend."
The top 10 in Sprint Cup points have a mathematical chance of securing their Chase fate after Sunday's 500-miler. The top four of points leader Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth punched their ticket for NASCAR's 10-race postseason last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The hunt for the remaining two wild-card berths remains a lively one. Kasey Kahne remains in control of the first wild-card slot with two wins and his 11th-place position in points. An Atlanta victory would distinguish Gordon from a gaggle of one-win drivers, including provisional second wild-card Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano. Among those one-win drivers, only Gordon and Busch have previously won at Atlanta.
Plenty of other factors could shake up the wild-card race before the regular-season finale Sept. 8 at Richmond International Raceway. If Tony Stewart, a three-time winner this season, were to teeter out of his 10th-place spot in the standings, he would lay claim to a wild-card berth. Additionally, Chase long shot Carl Edwards -- winless, currently 12th in points and a three-time Atlanta winner -- could sneak into the wild-card discussion with a victory Sunday.