Pressure-packed Chase fight moves to Atlanta

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With only two regular season races remaining in the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the end of the Race to the Chase is in sight. And that means the already high tension among those still battling for a post-season bid will only keep building tonight in the Advocare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

For some involved in the Chase fight, it’s about maintaining that balance between wanting to go for a win and making sure to come away with the best finish possible. But for others, only a win will do to truly keep their playoff hopes going into the last regular season race next week at Richmond International Raceway.

Here’s how the Chase hopefuls are looking as we prepare for 500 miles in the Peach State:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (seventh; no wins, +33 points over 11th)
Last five results at Atlanta: 17th, 15th, 22nd, 19th, 7th.
Has completed 99.5 percent of all the laps he’s attempted (8,034 of 8,075) at AMS in his career.

Kasey Kahne (eighth; two wins; +20 points over 11th
Last five results at Atlanta: 1st, 4th, 32nd, 34th, 23rd.
Nine of Kahne’s 16 career Cup wins have come on intermediate tracks (one to two miles).

Greg Biffle (ninth; one win, +17 points over 11th)
Last five results at Atlanta: 10th, 8th, 36, 12th, 15th.
Three Top-5s, nine Top-10s in 18 Cup starts at AMS.

Joey Logano (10th; one win, +4 points over 11th)
Last five results at Atlanta: 22nd, 35th, 27th, 24th, 18th.
Five consecutive Top-10s (plus the win at Michigan) has Logano, No. 22 team surging.

Brad Keselowski (11th, no wins; -4 points out of Top 10)
Career results at Atlanta: 36th, 25th, 6th, 3rd.
Reigning Sprint Cup champion recently tested at AMS. Could that lead to a critical win tonight?

Kurt Busch (12th, no wins; -6 points out of Top 10)
Last five results at Atlanta: 38th, 1st, 6th, 4th, 13th.
“The Outlaw” has had past success at Atlanta (three wins) and has been solid there as of late, too.

Jeff Gordon (13th, no wins; -11 points out of Top 10)
Last five results at Atlanta: 8th, 18th, 13th, 1st, 2nd.
After a win and a runner-up in his last two tries at Atlanta, Gordon needs to come up big again.

Martin Truex, Jr. (14th, one win, Wild Card #1)
Last five results at Atlanta: 26th, 27th, 12th, 14th, 4th.
With his right wrist in a cast, Truex will have to block out the pain with his Chase hopes on the line.

Ryan Newman (15th, one win, Wild Card #2)
Last five results at Atlanta: 9th, 17th, 8th, 20th, 35th.
AMS has been good for him in qualifying (seven poles), but not so much on Race Day (one Top-5 in 20 starts).

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds