The Sprint Cup season has reached the point where the conventional point standings are essentially meaningless. It’s possible, for instance, that over the next two weeks Jeff Gordon could lead the most laps, finish second twice and fall from 3rd in points to 8th. At the same time Kyle Busch could finish 36th twice and climb from 13th in points to first. (That’s because the 12 “Chase” drivers will be ranked according to the number of races they’ve won.) With all that in mind, we’ve ranked the drivers according to their true status.

The Sprint Cup season has reached the point where the conventional point standings are essentially meaningless. It’s possible, for instance, that over the next two weeks Jeff Gordon could lead the most laps, finish second twice and fall from 3rd in points to 8th. At the same time Kyle Busch could finish 36th twice and climb from 13th in points to first. (That’s because the 12 “Chase” drivers will be ranked according to the number of races they’ve won.) With all that in mind, we’ve ranked the drivers according to their true status.

Sure Things
Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are the only three to have clinched Chase berths. For them, the lone incentive at Atlanta is to try to win and improve their seeding in the Chase. Any other finish, from second to last, does them neither harm nor good.

Pretty Sure Things
Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch, the drivers ranked 4th through 6th, are fairly comfortable. It would take a complete collapse –consecutive finishes outside the top 20 – to put any of them in jeopardy. So expect Busch, who won at Atlanta in March, and Edwards, who’s winless in ’09 but has three career wins at Atlanta, to mix it up with Stewart, Johnson and Gordon in a go-for-broke attempt to improve their seeding.

Boys on the Bubble
Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers, ranked 7th through 14th, respectively, comprise the most compelling group. In all likelihood two of these eight drivers, who are separated by a total of 89 points, won’t make the Chase. On the other hand, three of them – Martin, Kenseth and Busch – have multiple wins and are vying not just to qualify for the Chase but to get the top seed. Among the bubble bunch, Newman and Montoya would appear to be most vulnerable this weekend. Newman’s 4 career top-10s at Atlanta all happened more than five years ago, and Montoya’s average Atlanta finish is 24.4.

Faint Hopes
Clint Bowyer, in 15th, has a mathematical shot at the Chase but not a realistic one. A 112-point deficit would be tough enough to overcome with just one driver to overtake. Bowyer has to overtake three. He does, however, have a higher average finish at Atlanta than those he’s chasing. Sixteenth-place David Reutimann has to overcome a 160-point deficit and overtake four drivers, and he has a miserable track record at Atlanta (average finish: 30th).

Also-Rans
Just because they’re out of running for the Chase doesn’t mean that the drivers from 17th on back have no reason to show up. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick would love to end long losing streaks. For David Ragan, a first career win (at his home track, no less) would prove that last year was no fluke. For upstart Marcos Ambrose, a first career win would prove that this year is no fluke. And then there are drivers like Scott Speed and John Andretti, who are battling to keep their teams in the top 35 in owners’ points, which offers guaranteed-starter status.

NEXT RACE Pep Boys Auto 500 Atlanta Motor Speedway
THE LOWDOWN In an effort to boost attendance at each track, California’s Auto Club Speedway and Atlanta switched dates this season. Auto Club Speedway moved to October (and picked up one of the 10 Chase races in the process) while Atlanta took the unusual step of forfeiting a Chase date for the Labor Day weekend slot. But the move could very well add an element of suspense. Atlanta, one of the fastest tracks on the circuit, has a history of close finishes. Add the bizarro Chase arithmetic to the equation, and you could end up with a last lap for the ages.

PAST WINNERS
2008    Carl Edwards
2007    Jimmie Johnson
2006    Tony Stewart
2005    Carl Edwards


ABOUT Atlanta
TRACK: Atlanta Motor Speedway (Hampton, Ga.), 1.54-mile high-banked asphalt oval
RACE LENGTH: 325 laps, 500.5 miles
FIRST RACE: 1960
SERIES: NASCAR Sprint Cup

Driver Profile Matt Kenseth
WHY HE MATTERS: He’s on the Chase bubble
WHAT HE SAYS: “It’s 26 races from Daytona to Richmond and every race is important.”
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: Two wins to start the season, just two top-5s since

Quote of Note
“I feel pretty devastated, because I let my boys down.”
–Marcos Ambrose, after his last-lap gaffe opened the door for Carl Edwards to steal Sunday’s Nationwide series race at Montreal

Where to Watch
Saturday’s pre-race show on ESPN starts at 6:30 p.m. EST, followed by the race at 7:30.

UP TO SPEED
As Goes Atlanta…
How’s this for a performance barometer? Of the current top five in Sprint Cup points, four are also in the top five for highest average finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway (see chart). The lone exception: Denny Hamlin, who’s 4th in points, ranks 10th at Atlanta in average finish. Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the other hand, has the 3rd-best average finish at Atlanta but is 21st in points.

International Incident
After wresting second place from Canadian upstart Andrew Ranger at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Carl Edwards took advantage of a blunder on the last corner of the last lap by Australian Marcos Ambrose to snatch the win on a wild day in Montreal. For the second straight year, NASCAR ordered teams to switch to rain tires in order to complete the NAPA Auto Parts 200 Nationwide Series on the 2.709-mile road course. Even so, the race was slowed by 11 caution flags that consumed 31 laps – more than 40% of the total run. That stretched the race out to 3 hours, 49 minutes, 19 seconds, longest in series history. But for Edwards, who not only won his first road-course race but trimmed 56 points off of Kyle Busch’s lead in the season standings, the wait was worth it.

First in Second City
For Kyle Busch, who finished 10th at Montreal after being involved in an accident, the weekend wasn’t a total bust. Busch won the EnjoyIllinois.com 225 NASCAR Camping World truck series race at Chicagoland Speedway in the trucks’ first appearance at the track.

Speedway Illustrated

WEEKLY STATS
Average Finish at Atlanta

RANK            DRIVER            AVG. FINISH
1            Jimmie Johnson        9.1
2            Carl Edwards        10.7
3            Dale Earnhardt Jr.        11.6
4            Tony Stewart        12.0
5            Jeff Gordon            12.4
6            Clint Bowyer        13.7
7            Matt Kenseth        13.8
8            Greg Biffle            15.9
9            Jeff Burton            16.5
10            Denny Hamlin        16.5
11            Mark Martin            17.2
12            Bobby Labonte        17.3
13            Kyle Busch            18.2
14            Brian Vickers        18.4
15            Kasey Kahne        18.5
16            Ryan Newman        18.5
17            Kurt Busch            18.6
18            Jamie McMurray        19.8
19            Robby Gordon        20.7
20            Casey Mears            20.9
*Active, full-time drivers with at least 5 starts