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Atlanta Night Race Could Lessen Drivers’ Outside Chances

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 5 2009
Racing under the lights may change the nature of Atlanta Motor Speedway. (NASCAR file photo)

Racing under the lights may change the nature of Atlanta Motor Speedway. (NASCAR file photo)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

There’s lots of excitement around Atlanta and throughout NASCAR over the prospect of running a nighttime Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on a holiday weekend.

Sunday’s Pep Boys Auto 500 could provide the kind of boost the track needs to increase attendance and quell the talk of the speedway losing one of its two Cup dates. Already ticket sales have jumped compared to recent races, and there’s still the likelihood of a strong walk-up crowd on Sunday night.

But there are worries any time there is a change.

One that has occurred to some is whether the racing that has made Atlanta a fan and driver favorite over the years will be affected by the switch from day to night.

In years past, all the way back to the days when the track was a true oval, it was a multiple groove speedway.

Fans from the 1960s and ‘70s remember how late in the afternoon, when the track was hot and slick, Richard Petty in his blue Dodges and Plymouths would be riding the rim through the turns, sweeping as high as he could go without brushing the guardrail. It often paid off, as he won six races and posted 22 top-five finishes at the Atlanta track.

Even under the new configuration, the late-race drama often featured a driver making a last-lap pass while running right up against the outside wall.

The late Dale Earnhardt used the high line to beat Bobby Labonte in 2000 and score his ninth and final AMS win. The next year, Kevin Harvick, driving Earnhardt’s old car renumbered 29, beat Jeff Gordon in similar fashion.

At Atlanta in 2005, just after taking his first ever Cup victory with a dramatic last-lap, last-turn pass of Jimmie Johnson, Edwards said he thought to himself as the two drag raced to the finish line: “I know I’ve seen this movie before.” What he couldn’t remember was whether the inside or outside driver won.

In most cases, as with Edwards, it’s the outside driver who prevailed.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who likes to rim ride at AMS and a lot of other tracks, said that may not be the best place to be once the sun goes down and the track cools off. Then again, he said, it might. He’s basing his opinion on the results of past Camping World Truck Series races at AMS, which were run at night.

“The grooves don’t change in truck races at night,” he said. “They can still make passes around the top. They have success with that even though you would assume the bottom groove would be the more preferred line as it gets darker.

“In day races, the hotter and slicker the track gets, the groove moves upward towards the top.”

Earnhardt, who won the spring race at AMS in 2004, said he figures to be prepared for racing wherever the track is fastest.

“We may practice more to get cars to working on the bottom,” he said. “I still think it will provide an exciting finish.

“Some of closest, tightest finishes in our sport have been at Atlanta.”

- Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 5 2009
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