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Race Day: Atlanta A Hot Track For The Drivers

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 6 2009
Race day at Atlanta can be something to stand and cheer about. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Race day at Atlanta can be something to stand and cheer about. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Fans may or may not enjoy tonight’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. When it comes to the drivers, however, there is virtually no “may not”. They love the wide, racy AMS 1.5-mile D-oval and they don’t mind shouting about that to the world.

Here is what drivers have to say about Atlanta?

Tony Stewart: “I do like Atlanta, this is one that a number of us really enjoy.  We like it because the tires give up.  You want it to have grip, but you don’t mind if the lap times fall off as long as you feel like you can race side-by-side with each other, which we typically are able to do here, but the surface gives up enough to where during the race you’re not going to stay in one groove on the race track the whole entire run.  You will move around on the race track.  You’ll move from the bottom to the top.  After a while you may go back from the top to the middle of the race track or a groove down.  That’s something we like as drivers — we like having that ability to help determine our own fate by moving around on the race track and knowing that where we’re at now may not be where we’re going to be 10 laps into the run.  This is a driver’s race track.  The guys that are true drivers are the guys that really run well here and run well consistently.”

Jimmie Johnson: “This race track has taken its own character now and the way you drive this track, the set-up that you end up with here, really doesn’t apply to Texas or Charlotte any longer. You can’t sacrifice mechanical grip here for aero balance. Where, on the other tracks, the asphalt is still pretty new and the tire wear isn’t as high and you can focus solely on aero advantage and not really worry about tire life. And it’s quite the opposite here. This track reminds me more of Darlington the way it used to be than any other 1.5-mile track.”

Kurt Busch: “It’s a track that demands a driver’s attention every lap because of how you’re sliding through the corners; you’re not guaranteed to have all four tires underneath you at the same time. When you have that, it allows the driver to do quite a few things with the steering wheel, the throttle and the brake. It just doesn’t seem as if we’re running slot cars around. I think drivers get excited about that. Tracks like Darlington that drivers say is their favorite. Tracks like Richmond fall into that category. Michigan falls in that category. I think you are going to see some guys that ran good at Michigan this summer run really good here this fall based on the tire change and some of the similarities of the track surfaces. It’s just one of those fun places that the driver knows he has more control than what the engineer and crew chief do.”

*Role change
Atlanta now sets up the Chase. It used to be in the Chase. Whatever. Over the years AMS has had a big impact on picking a champion.

A look back at Atlanta’s Chase dramatics:

2008 — Carl Edwards dominates, but standings leader Jimmie Johnson storms from 10th place during the final 16 laps to finish second, denying Edwards, his closest pursuer, a huge points gain.

2007 — Johnson wins, cutting then-Chase leader Jeff Gordon’s margin over him to nine points.

2006 — Tony Stewart, then the defending series champion and a non-Chase participant in ‘06, wins his second of what will be three victories during the Chase.

2005 — Edwards wins, sweeping both Atlanta races in a standout first season. He eventually finishes third overall in his first Chase.

2004 — Johnson triumphs in an emotional victory for Hendrick Motorsports, which had suffered a fatal team plane crash the previous week. Then second in the standings, he also gains ground on Chase leader Kurt Busch, who finishes 42nd because of engine problems.

* Chasing the Chase
The number of opportunities to maneuver ones way into the Chase are down to two: Atlanta and next week’s cutoff event at Richmond, which sets the Chase field.

Twelve drivers are competing for nine unclaimed Chase berths.

And only 89 points separate seventh-place Ryan Newman (No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet) from 14th-place Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota).

“I just go out there and do my job,” Newman said. “We have more things to consider in respect to the points and that doesn’t necessarily put pressure on you, it just means that you have to educate yourself about your surroundings in respect to the points.”

The current 12th-place driver, Matt Kenseth leads 13th-place Kyle Busch by only 34 points, but history may be on his side.

First, Kenseth is the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. Experience counts.

Second, he’s one of only two drivers — reigning and three-time series champion Jimmie Johnson is the other — to qualify for all five Chase events since the format’s 2004 debut.

Then this: With two races left, drivers have overcome at least a 34-point deficit to make the Chase three times in its five-year history. One was Kenseth, the reigning Daytona 500 champion, who made up an 11-point deficit in 2005.

“You do the best you can do and that’s it,” he said. “You certainly don’t want to make any kind of mistakes, but there are 26 races that go into who makes the Chase and these just happen to be the last two.”

Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) erased a 90-point deficit over two races to make what was then a 10-driver Chase field in 2006.

Mark Martin (No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevrolet) — currently 10th in the standings and only 26 points ahead of 12th — and Jeremy Mayfield both made up 35-point deficits in 2004 to make the inaugural Chase.

Behind Busch, Vickers trails 13th place by only five points and Kenseth by only 39 points. Clint Bowyer (No. 33 BB&T Chevrolet), in 15th, trails Kenseth by 112 points.

* Edwards flops on flips
Should Carl Edwards win tonight, there will be no back flip. Not after his Frisbee accident and not with his ankle in a special boot.

“I hate to say it, but I probably won’t be doing a backflip for six to eight months no matter how many races we win. But it was pretty cool yesterday at the Aflac Cancer Center.  Jody Lawrence, the girl who designed my car, she said, ‘It’s no problem.  I’ll be there and I can do a backflip,’ so Jodi volunteered to do one if we won on Sunday.  The car is pretty good, soshe better be ready.”

* Stewart Not Pushy
Tony Stewart
was asked his opinion on the new IndyCar use of push-to-pass buttons. Does he think NASCAR will start using them?

“I hope not. If I wanted to play a video game, I would go back to the bus,” Stewart said.

Fast Facts
The Race: Pep Boys Auto 500

The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway (1.54-mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, Sept. 6

The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 325 laps/500.5 miles

TV: ESPN, 7 p.m. ET

Radio: PRN and Sirius Satellite

2008 Winner: Carl Edwards

2008 Polesitter: Jimmie Johnson

2009 Polesitter: Martin Truex Jr.

Up Next
Richmond International Raceway

The field for the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup will be set next Saturday night, Sept. 12, at Richmond International Raceway (7:30 p.m. start on ESPN).

It’s “the cutoff race” — race No. 26 of the 36-event season. The top 12 drivers in the standings following the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 will compete for the series title during the season’s final 10 races.

Three-time and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson is the defending race winner.

Then-standings leader Kyle Busch started from the pole after qualifying was cancelled due to rain; the starting lineup was set per the series rulebook.

Drama is inherent at Richmond: Last year, Clint Bowyer cemented his Chase spot by starting the day 12th in the standings, then finishing 12th in the race.

Schedule: Saturday—Practice, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Final Practice, 1-2:30 p.m. Qualifying, 4:40 p.m.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 6 2009
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