Friday's Lead Draft: History Says Atlanta Could Be One Great Race

Here is the latest edition of "The Lead Draft".  I know I called it "Friday First Draft" last week but I changed my mind and have decided to call it "The Lead Draft" instead.

Remember that this is the unedited first draft of my weekly column.  My link to the final version will follow later today.

Atlanta Motorspeedway is this week’s stop on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit.  With me being a fan of the late Dale Earnhardt, Atlanta brings up some great memories for me.

I remember one race in the mid-90’s when the track was in its old configuration with no dog-legs in the front stretch in which Earnhardt schooled Morgan Shepherd in the last 10 laps to win the race.

Another Earnhardt victory that comes to mind was on March 12, 2000 when Earnhardt held off a hard charging Bobby Labonte to win the race literally by inches.  "We just came up short" was all that Labonte could say in the post race interview.

Speaking of close finishes at Atlanta there have be several more since the track’s reconfiguration in 1997 and the Earnhardt - Labonte finish, like the Carl Edwards - Jimmie Johnson finish with the win going to Edwards by a bumper.

But perhaps the most memorable closest finish, and probably the most emotional win ever at Atlanta was Kevin Harvick’s first Cup win in 2001 over Jeff Gordon by .006 of a second.  Harvick was the driver selected by Richard Childress Racing (RCR) to replace Dale Earnhardt after his untimely death on the last lap of the Daytona 500 just weeks before.

Kind of ironic that Harvick should win in just his 3rd race for RCR after replacing the driver of the #3 car, don’t you think?  Heck of a coincidence.

Last week’s race in Vegas didn’t provide the side-by-side finish I was looking for but it still held my interest none-the-less.

On one hand it would have been interesting to see how things would have played out if Jeff Gordon (24) hadn’t blown his tire to bring out the caution flag and on the other hand that caution flag made things real interesting at the front of the pack because some of the lower tier drivers who hadn’t pitted yet got a chance to pit under caution allowing them the chance to stay up front.

One thing that made me happy about last week was the fact that there was little to no chance of rain on race day and it looks like that it might be the same for this weekend too – according to anyway.

Atlanta is a fast multi-grooved race track and this means trouble for some teams.  Since the cars will run wide-open for the better part of the race the motors in these race cars will end up maintaining high rpms for long periods of time - something that makes engine builders cringe.

With the problems that we have been seeing these last few races with engine failures for some of the big name teams I’d expect that the engine departments at various race shops are working overtime this week to get that issue solved before starting the race on Sunday.

I wouldn’t even be surprised to see some teams go with a slightly more conservative gear in the rear-end to keep the rpms low so they can save the motor.

Last weekend Toyota pulled their engines from most of their race teams and gave them new ones because they had a lubrication issue with them.  Those drivers that made an engine change then had to start from the rear of the field, which is where eventual race winner Kyle Busch (18) started because he did an engine change too which was unrelated to the Toyota Team lubrication problems.

According to Toyota has gone back to their old oil pumps until they can figure out this issue.  That is a big step for any auto maker to do, but then so is pulling all of your racing teams motors the day before a race like they did last week.

Officially it will go down in history that Kyle Busch started on the pole because that is where he qualified, but in reality he started almost dead last to win the thing because of the engine change and no one had ever won the race starting from outside the 39th starting position.

Look for Hendrick team mates Jeff Gordon (24), and Jimmie Johnson (48), along with Roush-Fenway’s  Carl Edwards (99) to have good runs this week in Atlanta, but I wouldn’t bet against Matt Kenseth (17), Greg Biffle (16), Kyle Busch (18), or Tony Stewart (14) either.

Other drivers that may stand an outside chance here are Dale Earnhardt Jr (88), Jeff Burton (31), Mark Martin (5), or Brian Vickers (83) who all seem to get around this track pretty good too.

With all this being said, the only thing that can stop this from being a good race is tires.  Last year’s race had some serious tire issues that made for a boring race and Goodyear was criticized heavily after, especially by Tony Stewart, for the ill-handling tire they brought to the track.

Goodyear has done a good job so far this year with their tires so hopefully this trend will continue and we’ll get that exciting side-by-side finish that this track is capable of producing.


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