By R. Boden
The pressure is on. With 7 races left before the playoffs, crunch time has fallen upon us. I was having a conversation with Birdies and Burnouts frontman Walker Polivka earlier this week and was telling him how difficult this week’s predictions would be. His response? There will be at least 25 cars out on that track on Sunday who, for at least a moment, have a shot to win this thing. For some of these guys, this is shaping up to be one of those “Game 7” situations. Now let’s see if we can make some sense of this crowded field, where playoff chances are dwindling by the week.
Driver to Fade: Aric Almirola- He’s just not that impressive here, nor is he on most intermediate ovals. In his 13 total career races at Atlanta, he averages just an 18th place finish. He’s on the cusp of a playoff birth right now, but I’m not holding my breath. This isn’t to say he won’t somehow punch his ticket to the playoffs later this season, but he’s just not coming close this weekend. Good thing he’s got two superspeedway races left this season- he may well be a favorite to win down the road. He starts 22nd at Atlanta; not a good look.
Dark Horse: Austin Dillon- His grandpa put the heat on him this past week, and I look for the #3 team to make a little noise this weekend. His best finish at Atlanta is 11th; I look for him to sniff around the Top 10 this week. RCR is coming off a victorious weekend at Road America (and an Xfinity win at Atlanta just last night). Can Dillon keep the momentum going? I wouldn’t be totally shocked. He starts 26th this weekend, but he’ll be up front at some point.
Top 10: Kevin Harvick- Get used to seeing the green Hunt Brothers #4 Ford Mustang up front this week. Why, you might ask? This is a no brainer for me- Happy is at his best here at Atlanta. Another one of these guys on the cusp of a playoff birth, he knows- more than anyone- time is running out on making the big dance. He averages a 9th place finish at Atlanta, with a slew of Top 10’s since 2011. Look for much of the same.
Winner: Ryan Blaney- He’s punching his ticket this weekend. He stole one just a year ago at this very track, and I look for him to do much of the same this weekend. How many stage wins does he have this season? And he’s still on the brink of missing the playoffs? He starts 6th- thanks to the rain- this weekend, which puts him in a prime spot for the kill. BUT, don’t put it past his teammate Austin Cindric to also try and steal one- he starts in the 5th spot, right alongside Blaney. Maybe a bit bold, but we’re going with Ryan Blaney to win the Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart!