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Geoffrey Miller's Four Things to Watch at Atlanta Motor Speedway
1. Atlanta Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s “raciest” track
The newest version of Bristol Motor Speedway again produced a memorable NASCAR Sprint Cup Series performance last week after several years of uninspired shows. If all goes well and Atlanta Motor Speedway follows its recent trend, Sunday night’s race should be a notable, too.
It’s a testament to the well-aged surface of the 1.54-mile track.
“It's a track that races really well and it's a lot of fun, especially with it now being a night race,” said Paul Menard. “The race track itself has older pavement, which makes it hands down the raciest track we go to on the schedule. It's kind of a throwback track that we all enjoy racing."
The old pavement—it’s the second oldest surface in the Sprint Cup Series, dating to 1997—grinds tires much like the Darlington Raceway of old. That translates to wildly different lap times during the course of a fuel run, thanks to changed handling. Those change often result in more passing, side-by-side racing and riskier pit road decision-making.
Essentially, it makes everything a bit “racier.”
“You want the asphalt to be worn out,” said Menard’s teammate Kevin Harvick. “I don't know why so many tracks keep repaving without any rocks in them. Rocks wear the tires out and everyone likes to watch the cars slide around when the tires fall off."
There may be bad news on the horizon at Atlanta, however. Talk started in 2012 from speedway officials discussing the need for the track surface to be replaced thanks to general deterioration from water freezing and thawing under the surface in the winter.
Enjoy it while you can.
2. Goodyear rolls new tire to Atlanta to address Gen-6 concerns
The largest overhaul of the racing tire used in NASCAR since teams were forced to switch fully from bias play-constructed tires to radial tires in 1992 is occurring this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
After tire tests at the track with the Gen-6 car revealed significant concerns in the tire used for Atlanta’s 2012 race, Goodyear went to the drawing board to find an appropriate solution. The result: A dual-tread tire designed to both handle the high outer temperatures while also adding more grip. The hope is that drivers will turn the extra grip into better racing without fear of a tire failure.
On Twitter, defending series champion Brad Keselowski called the tire revolutionary. Clint Bowyer says it’s a proverbial curveball in the important race weekend.
“Atlanta is going to be a wild card race heading into the Chase. Goodyear is bringing new tires and I don’t know if anyone knows what exactly to expect,” Bowyer said. “Martin Truex and the No. 56 team took part in the Goodyear tire test at Atlanta in June and we think we have a pretty good handle on it, but you never know until you get there and unload how that will work out exactly.”
3. Chase picture wildly in flux with two races left
Keselowski won’t be defending his title. Jeff Gordon won’t be in the Chase for the first time since 2005. And Kurt Busch’s dreams of bringing the No. 78 team to an improbable Chase berth are dashed. Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle all breathe a sigh of relief as they’re in. And Joey Logano makes his first Chase.
That’s the reality of NASCAR’s postseason picture as it stands right now. Unfortunately for Truex, Newman, Biffle and Logano, two races remain in the regular season stand before those positions are cemented. That’s fortunate for the likes of Busch, Gordon and Keselowski.
Amid the dash for Sunday’s race win will be the story of who will and won’t be in contention for title after Richmond. It’s a tight race, too: Keselowski needs to beat Logano by five points over the next two races (96 points available) to earn an outright, top-10 bid. Busch needs seven points. Gordon needs 12.
Truex and Newman—currently the wildcard qualfiers—have to hope they don’t lose more ground while Keselowski, Busch or Gordon win a race.
Confused yet? It’s no problem if you are. Just remember Sunday night’s race will have some major implications over each and every position for these six drivers.
4. Injuries beset numerous Sprint Cup Series drivers
Between Bristol and a bicycle, an unusual number of NASCAR drivers came down with injuries this week.
Truex, already under enough pressure thanks to his shaky Chase position, heads to Atlanta ready to battle with a blue cast—it’s NAPA blue, according to the Michael Waltrip-trained Truex—on his right wrist. He broke a bone in his shifting hand as part of the late multi-car crash at Bristol that left the No. 56 with a DNF.
Truex still plans to race in the critical event to help his title hopes.
Fellow Toyota driver Denny Hamlin also suffered a hand injury in the same crash, caused when Hamlin’s right-front tire was cut after contact with Brian Vickers. Hamlin revealed that injury during a radio interview Thursday night and said it was causing pain his thumb. Hamlin, the defending Atlanta winner, is wearing a splint but fully expects to race Sunday night.
Last, Bobby Labonte—scheduled to drive for Phoenix Racing in Sunday night’s race—suffered a crash on his bicycle Wednesday and spent the night in the hospital for treatment of three broken ribs. Labonte opted to miss Sunday’s start as he recovers.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images