Top 10 Head To Atlanta

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The following is a glance at the NASCAR Top 10 in the championship heading into Sunday's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC), Race 33 of 36 on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule. Each driver also has an outlook for projected movement in the NASCAR Top 10 based on past performance at this weekend’s track.

No. 1 – Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford), Roush Racing. Points: 4548. Previous ranking: 1. Kenseth, who leads the NASCAR Winston Cup Series with 23 top-10 finishes, finished 13th in Sunday's Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway for his third effort outside the top 10 in his last four starts. The damage was minimal as he lost just 27 points to No. 2 Kevin Harvick and heads to Atlanta with a 240-point lead with four races remaining (Atlanta, Phoenix, Rockingham, Homestead). Kenseth holds the No. 1 ranking for the 29th consecutive week, dating to the spring race in Atlanta. He has been outside the NASCAR Top 10 just one week this season, opening the season ranked 19th following the Daytona 500. Kenseth heads to Atlanta enjoying a run of top-10 finishes in his last three starts at the 1.54-mile oval. He has sandwiched a ninth-place effort in this event last season with fourth-place finishes in last season’s spring race and the spring race earlier this year. Overall, he has four top-10 efforts in seven career starts.

No. 2 – Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet), Richard Childress Racing. Points: 4308. Previous ranking: 2. Harvick posted his fifth consecutive top-10 finish with a seventh-place performance at Martinsville. The effort allowed him to gain 27 points on No. 1 Matt Kenseth, but he trails by 240 with four races to go. Harvick has made a dramatic charge with his run of five top-10 finishes in a row, coupled with Kenseth's finishes during that span, allowing him to trim 223 points off the deficit during that stretch. He maintains his career-best No. 2 ranking for the fifth consecutive race week. Harvick was outstanding in his first two career starts at Atlanta with a pair of top-three finishes, including his emotionally charged first NASCAR Winston Cup win in March of 2001, but has not been able to manage a top-15 effort in his three starts since. He had two DNFs at Atlanta last season (39th in March, 40th in October), but improved in his most recent appearance with a 19th-place effort in March.

No. 3 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), Dale Earnhardt Inc. Points: 4265. Previous ranking: 3. Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth at Martinsville for his fourth top-10 finish in his last six races. It also was his 12th top-five effort of the season, a total that ranks third in the series. He led two times for 61 laps at Martinsville, marking the seventh race in a row he has led and earned bonus points. He remains No. 3 for the fourth consecutive race week and closed to 43 points of No. 2 Kevin Harvick and 283 of No. 1 Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt Jr. heads to Atlanta, where he has registered top-10 finishes in his last four appearances, including his last three being among the top five. His best effort was second in last season’s spring race. He followed with a fifth-place finish in this event in 2002 and added a third in March of this season. He kicked off the current streak in the fall of 2001 when he finished seventh after capturing the Bud Pole. He also has led in his last four starts at the 1.54-mile oval.

No. 4 – Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge), Penske Racing South. Points: 4248. Previous ranking: 4. Newman registered his series-leading 15th top-five finish with a fifth-place performance at Martinsville. It also was his fifth straight top-five finish and sixth in the last seven starts, which includes three wins. He did not lead a lap at Martinsville, marking only the third time in the last 15 races he has not led a lap and earned bonus points. He remains at a career-best No. 4 for the third consecutive race week and trails No. 3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 17 points and No. 2 Kevin Harvick by 60. Newman has been a model of consistency to the extreme at Atlanta as he has finished 10th in all three of his career appearances. He also has led in all three starts and has started among the top six in each, including the Bud Pole in March.

No. 5 – Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 4242. Previous ranking: 5. Johnson finished runner-up to teammate Jeff Gordon at Martinsville for his fifth top-10 performance in the last six races. The effort was his second top-five finish in a row – he was third at Charlotte the previous week – and 10th on the season. He remains at No. 5 for the third race week in a row and edged to six points of No. 4 Ryan Newman and 23 of No. 3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. He is the only driver to remain in the NASCAR Top 10 for the entire season and enters Atlanta having been among the top 10 in the championship for 65 consecutive race weeks, dating to last season. The streak is tops among active drivers. Johnson has finished outside the top 20 in three of his four career starts at Atlanta, including 32nd in his most recent visit in March. His lone highlight is a third-place finish in March of last season.

No. 6 – Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 4202. Previous ranking: 6. Gordon completed a season sweep of Martinsville with Sunday's win in the Subway 500. The win, his second of the season and 63rd of his career, was his 13th top-five effort of the season, which ranks second in the series to No. 4 Ryan Newman (15), and fifth in a row. He had reeled off four straight top-five finishes prior to the triumph at Martinsville. He maintains the No. 6 ranking for the sixth consecutive race week, but is within striking distance of the next three positions. He is situated 40 points behind No. 5 Jimmie Johnson, 46 behind No. 4 Newman and 63 behind No. 3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gordon has recorded top-10 finishes in eight of his last 10 starts at Atlanta, including back-to-back wins that came in the fall of 1998 and the spring of 1999. Overall, he has 13 top-10 finishes, including three wins, in 22 starts. He has led on 14 occasions, including in six of his last seven appearances. In his most recent appearance in March, he finished runner-up to Bobby Labonte. Gordon’s first career NASCAR Winston Cup start came in this race on Nov. 15, 1992, starting 21st and finishing 31st.

No. 7 – Tony Stewart (No. 20 The Home Depot Chevrolet), Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 3971. Previous ranking: 7. Stewart, the defending NASCAR Winston Cup champion, registered his fifth consecutive top five finish with a third-place effort at Martinsville. The five-race tear has pushed him from No. 11 in the championship to No. 7 for the second week in a row. Although he is 231 points behind No. 6 Jeff Gordon, he has been able to open a 131-point cushion over No. 8 Bobby Labonte. Stewart has been on a roll in Atlanta with top-10 finishes in his last four starts, including top-five efforts in his last three. The streak included a victory in the spring race last season, and he has led at least 17 laps in each of those starts. He was fifth in his most recent appearance in March. He also has been strong on the qualifying side there with top-10 starting positions in his last three starts.

No. 8 – Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet), Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 3840. Previous ranking: 8. Labonte finished 41st at Martinsville due to engine woes and joined No. 1 Matt Kenseth as the only drivers in this week's NASCAR Top 10 that did not post a top-10 finish at the .526-mile oval. It matched his season-worst finish from the Daytona 500, but he was able to maintain the No. 8 ranking for the second race week in a row. He trails No. 7 Tony Stewart by 131 points and heads to a track where a strong rebound may be in order. He has been outstanding at Atlanta, especially in the fall race. He has won four of the last seven fall events at Atlanta and his six wins overall ranks first among active drivers. His most recent victory came in March when he started fourth and led 172 laps en route to the win. Overall, he has 11 top-five finishes in 21 career starts, including six of his last nine appearances.

No. 9 – Terry Labonte (No. 5 Kellogg's/got milk? Chevrolet), Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 3775. Previous ranking: 9. Labonte finished sixth at Martinsville, ending a five-race run without a top-10 finish. The effort at Martinsville was his best performance since his win at Darlington on Aug. 31. This marks his seventh straight week in the NASCAR Top 10 and second in a row at No. 9. He trails his brother, No. 7 Bobby, by 65 points heading to Atlanta. Labonte has 24 top-10 finishes in 50 career starts at Atlanta, but he has managed only one (5th, spring 2001) in his last nine appearances. His best finish was a runner-up effort in March of 1996. Atlanta also provides a historical footnote for the two-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion. He won his first career NASCAR Winston Cup pole at this track on March 15, 1981.

No. 10 – Bill Elliott (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge), Evernham Motorsports. Points: 3685. Previous ranking: 12. Elliott collected his third consecutive top-10 finish with a ninth-place effort at Martinsville and moved into the NASCAR Top 10 for the first time since last season. Elliott improved two positions from No. 12 with the performance and joins the NASCAR Top 10 for the first time since being ranked No. 8 following the Oct. 13, 2002 race at Charlotte. Elliott, who trails No. 9 Terry Labonte by 90 points, replaces Kurt Busch at No. 10 and holds a 19-point margin over him entering his home track. Elliott, the Dawsonville, Ga. native, has five career wins at Atlanta and 18 top-10 efforts overall in 53 career starts. However, he has struggled there in recent seasons with just one top-10 finish in his last 14 starts (10th, spring of 2000).


Most weeks in the NASCAR Top 10: Johnson, 32; Kenseth, 31; Busch, 30; Earnhardt Jr., Harvick, 29; J. Gordon, 28.

Largest gain among the NASCAR Top 10: No. 10 Elliott, 2 positions. Dropped out this week: No. 10 Kurt Busch.

Closing on the NASCAR Top 10: No. 11 Busch, 3666 (19 points out); No. 12 Michael Waltrip, 36119 (47 points out); No. 13 Jeff Burton, 3540 (79 points out).

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