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CUP: Fast Times At AMS

Over the last 11 weeks, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has raced from coast to coast, from New England to Northern California, on half-mile bullrings, a triangle-shaped track and even the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

What they haven’t done much is race on 1.5-mile tracks. In fact, only once in those 11 races have the Sprint Cup boys had at it on a 1.5-mile track, that being six races ago at Chicagoland Speedway, where David Reutimann was the victor.

On Sunday night, though, the Cup boys will do battle around the furiously fast 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, a key race in the championship preparations for the various teams and drivers. While it’s true that AMS isn’t part of the season-ending, 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, it ought to be a good barometer of what happens in NASCAR’s playoff rounds.

That’s because four of the final 10 races of the season will take place on 1.5-mile tracks. Each of those four tracks — Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead — has its own unique characteristics and challenges, so getting it right on these so-called intermediate tracks will be one of the keys to winning a championship.

Atlanta Motor Speedway holds the distinction of being the fastest 1.5-mile track in NASCAR history. The facility was repaved in 1997, and during the first race on fresh asphalt, Geoffey Bodine stunned the garage by putting his No. 7 Ford Thunderbird on the pole with a lap of 197.478 miles per hour, a mark that’s never been surpassed at a similarly sized track.

Since then, as the track has weathered, it’s lost a little of its speed. Dale Earnhardt Jr. captured the pole here in March with a fast average lap of 192.761 mph — still plenty fast, but well off Bodine’s mark.

Two characteristics define AMS now: 1. Its pavement is every bit as abrasive as the track surface at Darlington, which means lap times fall off very quickly; and 2. There are multiple lines drivers can choose from, and those lines will change as race wears on.

One driver definitely looking forward to his return to Atlanta is NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Kevin Harvick, who won his first Cup race here as a rookie in 2001. Last year, Harvick captured the September NASCAR Nationwide Series race at AMS, adding a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win last March. In his most recent three AMS Cup starts, Harvick has finished ninth, second and fourth.

Atlanta and Phoenix are the only two places Harvick has won races in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions.

“Anytime you can win in any of the top three series, it makes for a lot of fun, let alone win in all of them at one track,” said Harvick. “I know there are a lot of race tracks where we have won in a couple of races in a couple of different divisions, but not in the Truck divisions. Hopefully we can knock a few more of those off, but Atlanta has been pretty successful for us.”

And with just two races left in the Sprint Cup regular season and a staggering 279-point lead over second-place Jeff Gordon, Harvick is locked into the Chase, which means he can go for it at Atlanta Sunday, looking to pick up 10 bonus points for a race victory. If he doesn’t win outright, it doesn’t really matter whether Harvick finishes second or 42nd.

“Atlanta has been a really good track for us and it seems like we have a really good base set-up; the only difference is the tires,” said Harvick. “ ... Hopefully going back it's still a race track that works good for us and our confidence is really high.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.