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Race Day: The Chase To Stop Jimmie Begins Early

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 7 2010
Richard Childress Racing drivers Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton are early season contenders to challenge Jimmie Johnson. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Richard Childress Racing drivers Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton are early season contenders to challenge Jimmie Johnson. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

It’s begun early this spring. Not the sprouting of flowers or the rising of gas prices. Rather, something more gloomy and depressing if you happen to be a NASCAR driver with hopes of winning the Sprint Cup championship.

This spring, Jimmie Johnson has heated up before the daytime temperatures in Georgia. He has two victories in three races. Two in a row, even.

Only once before has he been this hot this early – in 2006, the year he won the first of his four straight championships.

And the last two seasons, he has come to Atlanta winless.

So just how has his rapid launch affected the demeanor of those out to knock him from the top? This weekend in the garages at Atlanta Motor Speedway, site of today’s Kobalt Tools 500, the mood as been kind of; whatever. Seems that monotony has settled in when talking about Jimmie Johnson and winning races.

The team which seems to have the best shot at slipping one of its drivers past Johnson at this point in the season is Richard Childress Racing. All three of its drivers are in the top seven in points.

So what does the Childress bunch think about Johnson and his quick start on the weekend of Race No. 4?

This:

Kevin Harvick (First in points): “Obviously they have made it happen and have won the first couple of races but I don’t think they are any better than we are right now, I just think it’s just that we have to limit our mistakes and they do a really good job at limiting their mistakes and when they get something going their way, they capitalize on it and those are the things that we have to do as those opportunities present themselves to us.  Got to capitalize on things when they go your way and when they are not going your way you have got to make them happen so to me that is the thing that they are the best at is when things aren’t going their way, they figure out how to make it go their way.”

Clint Bowyer (Second in points): “Somebody is going to (end the 48 car’s streak) and it could be this year.  I believe this could be the year that somebody could stop them in the Chase.  Competition is getting closer and closer to catching them.  Have they won two of the last three, yes. Was one of them, I’m going to say that with one of them there was a little bit of luck involved in that. Nonetheless, when they got up front, they drove away from my teammates and my teammates couldn’t run them back down.  I feel like the competition is getting closer to the 48.”

Jeff Burton (Seventh in points): “My motivation isn’t knocking them off; my motivation is us doing better.  I think that’s the only focus you can have.  I don’t race Jimmie with animosity; I don’t race him with jealousy.  I’m envious of him, no question, who wouldn’t be?  The only way I can do it is to go out and do it. To do that, we just have to focus on all the things that we have to focus on.  The 48 isn’t it, that’s not what we have to focus on.”

The facts

What: Kobalt Tools 500

Where: Atlanta Motor Speedway; Hampton, Ga.

When: 1 p.m. ET

TV: Fox, noon ET

Radio: PRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 128

Track layout: 1.54-mile oval

Race distance: 325 laps/500.5 miles

Estimated pit window: 50-55 laps

2009 winner: Kurt Busch

2009 polesitter: Mark Martin

Today’s polesitter: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Points leaders: 1. Kevin Harvick, 506; 2. Clint Bowyer, 459; 3. Mark Martin, 457; 4. Matt Kenseth, 448; 5. Jimmie Johnson, 443; 6. Greg Biffle, 443; 7. Jeff Burton, 430; 8. Joey Logano, 413; 9. David Reutimann, 397; 10. Carl Edwards, 389; 11. Tony Stewart, 386; 12. Kyle Busch, 375.

Earnhardt chances

Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. starts today’s race from the front of the field. Will he finish there?

Stats say perhaps.

Earnhardt has one victory at AMS. His average finish is 11.9. He has 10 top-10 finishes in 21 starts.

Atlanta history

Races: 101

Pole Winners: 44

Youngest Pole Winner: Terry Labonte (03/15/1981 – 24 years, 3 months, 27 days)

Oldest Pole Winner: Harry Gant (11/14/1993 – 53 years, 10 months, 4 days

Race Winners: 42

Youngest Winner: Kyle Busch (03/09/2008 – 22 years, 10 months, 7 days)

Oldest Winner: Morgan Shepherd (03/20/1993 – 51 years, 5 months, 8 days)

Races Won from Pole (or 1st Starting Position): 14

Last Race Won from 1st Starting Position: Kasey Kahne (03/19/2006)

Race Record: Dale Earnhardt 163.633mph (11/12/1995)

Qualifying Record: Geoff Bodine 197.478mph (11/16/1997)

Trivia time

Two drivers got the first victories of their careers at Atlanta. Who are they?

Montoya on feud

The big feud of a week ago was Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray.

The wrecked each other on the track and then Montoya trashed McMurray in the garages.

Is it over?

“Yeah. I went home. He sent me a text saying la-la-la-la-la and he was sorry and the whole thing and I said don’t worry about it. He asked if I wanted him to call me and I said don’t worry about it. It happens. It’s racing. Move on. Really, I was really pissed at the time because we had a DNF the week before with an engine problem. And this week being taken out by your teammate is something that you don’t really expect but it happens. It’s part of racing and move on.”

Burton on tires

It could be a sign that the world is coming to an end but, the tires are getting high marks this season.

Jeff Burton had this to say about the tires: “Goodyear’s hardest job to do is to figure out what makes the best racing. And when you have 40 drivers, you have 40 opinions. And so that’s a really, really tough thing. For me, I like a tire that makes good grip, doesn’t make crazy grip, but it keeps a fair amount of grip during the run. What I’ve seen is that the racing is better when the tire makes more grip. I told all you guys (the media) last year that the racing was going to be better this year because of the new tire that was coming. And I was right; just for the record. And so personally, that’s really what it’s about.

“I’d love to have a tire that falls off a great deal and we could use that as our advantage because every team and every driver says that worse the tires are then we’re going to be better because we’re better than everybody else. That’s what you want to believe. But the reality of it is, the tires have to make reasonable grip. They have to keep a reasonable about of grip as the grip falls off, if you want to see a good race.  So when I do a tire test, that’s what I look for. I look for a tire that is durable and that makes good grip and a tire that will keep reasonable grip. It needs to fall off. It’s going to have to fall off. But that falloff can’t be huge. That’s my opinion.

Milestones

Jimmie Johnson is looking for his 50th Cup victory.

Trivia answer:

Getting career victories No. 1 at Atlanta were Kevin Harick in 2001 and Carl Edwards in 2005.

Up next

The series takes a weekend off before heading to Bristol Motor Speedway on March 21.

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, March 7 2010
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