1. Denny Hamlin: Hamlin beat Martin Truex, Jr. out of the pits on the race’s final caution, and then held off Jeff Gordon to win the AdvoCare 500. Hamlin’s fourth win of the year will give him the top seed in the Chase in two weeks, barring a win at Richmond by Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, or Brad Keselowski.
“I kept Gordon out of the winner’s circle,” Hamlin said, “which may have put Kyle Busch in the Chase. You may think I’m doing Kyle a favor. Not so. In fact, I’m doing myself a favor, by letting a driver in the Chase who has no chance of winning the Cup.”
2. Jimmie Johnson: Johnson sparked a wreck with 56 laps to go when he made contact with Sam Hornish, Jr. sent Johnson into the wall. The No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy spun sideways and was slammed by Newman’s No. 39. Johnson finished 34th, 58 laps down.
“I guess I didn’t see Hornish,” Johnson said. “That’s probably because he’s been ‘invisible’ since coming to NASCAR from Indy cars.”
3. Brad Keselowski: Keselowski finished third at Atlanta with his tenth top-5 finish of the year. He is now sixth in the Sprint Cup point standings, 48 out of first, and by virtue of his three wins, will start no worse than second in the Chase.
“Joey Logano will be my new teammate in 2013,” Keselowski said. “If he’s anything like me, and nothing like A.J. Allmendinger, then he won’t take anything from anybody.”
4. Greg Biffle: Biffle started on the front row at Atlanta, but struggled with handling issues for much of the night and finished 15th. He still leads the point standings with one more race before the Chase For The Cup field is set.
“I’m just happy to still be on top in the point standings,” Biffle said. “Even if it’s for just one more week, I still have more ‘staying power’ than some of my Roush Fenway teammates. If it’s not Matt Kenseth telling us he’s going somewhere, it’s Carl Edwards telling us he’s not going somewhere. For the Chase, it seems, none of us are going anywhere.”
5. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Earnhardt surged on the green-white-checkered finish at Atlanta, taking seventh in the AdvoCare 500. He moved up one spot to second in the point standings, where he trails Greg Biffle by eight.
“They say once the Chase begins,” Earnhardt said, “the ‘cream rises to the top.’ Does that explain why I’ll tumble down the standings when the points are reset?”
6. Tony Stewart: Stewart struggled at Atlanta, running two laps down for much of the race before finishing 22nd, one lap down to the leaders. Stewart has not finished better than 19th in the last four races, and is tenth in the Chase, 18 points ahead of Kasey Kahne.
“As you know,” Stewart said, “I’m losing Office Depot as a primary sponsor. Whereas the No. 14 has been ‘Office Depot’d’ for many years, it’s now being ‘Office Deposed.’ It seems that sponsorships, like helmets, are going ‘Mobil.’”
7. Matt Kenseth: Kenseth led the Roush Fenway charge at Atlanta, finishing ninth for his 15th top-10 of the year. He is third in the point standings, 21 out of first.
“Tony Stewart said there is no ill will between us from the Bristol helmet toss,” Kenseth said. “Considering Stewart’s history of holding grudges, I’m skeptical when he says ‘We’re cool.’
“I’m finally able to officially announce my signing with Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s not like it was a secret, so I was quite taken aback by all the questions ‘thrown’ at me at the press conference.”
8. Martin Truex, Jr.: Truex hopes for his first win of the year crumbled when Jamie McMurray slammed the wall with five laps to go. Truex was edged out of the ensuing pit stop by Denny Hamlin, and eventually finished fourth. He is fifth in the point standings, and unless he wins at Richmond on Saturday, will start at the bottom of the Chase field.
“I, along with NAPA, signed on for another three years with Michael Waltrip Racing,” Truex said. “Now, I think I’d rather ‘dot the eyes’ of McMurray as opposed to those of the contracts.”
9. Kevin Harvick: Harvick led 101 laps, second to Denny Hamlin’s 105, and finished fifth, his first top-5 result since a second at Dover. Harvick is ninth in the point standings, 72 out of first.
“A water bottle may have cost me the win in Saturday’s Nationwide race,” Harvick said. “I only wish the explanation for my lack of Sprint Cup wins could be explained as easily.”
10. Kyle Busch: Busch kept his Chase hopes alive, with help from Joe Gibbs teammate Denny Hamlin, with a sixth in the AdvoCare 500. Hamlin’s win prevented Jeff Gordon from an all-important second victory, thereby allowing Busch to maintain a wildcard spot.
“If anyone deserves to be a ‘wild card,’” Busch said, “it’s me, although the ‘old’ Kyle Busch was wilder and more of a card than the ‘current’ Kyle Busch. Strangely enough, for once, people are encouraging me to ‘go wild.’”