Saturday, October 28, 2006

Atlanta Tricks and Treats

Atlanta is one of the fun tracks on the NASCAR Cup circuits. True, it's a 1.5-mile "D" shaped oval, like Lowe's, Texas, Kansas City, Chicago, and Las Vegas, but each one of these venues has its own personality, and Atlanta is the "fun" one. All the drivers like it, and if you are there and have a ticket, you can see the entire track, which also makes it very fan friendly.
The surface of the track at Atlanta Motor Speedway is termed "abrasive." This means that the tires will grip, for about ten or eleven laps, but then the cars will start sliding and moving up and down the track as the rubber is used up, and the track becomes slick. The good drivers like this--if the car is set up well. We can expect, during the first part of the race, every pit stop to be for four tires and fuel. There won't be that many tricks for fuel mileage until the last quarter of the race, and this depends on how many cautions there are. There may be a caution or two within the first 30 or so laps, but we should see more green flag laps than we did at Lowe's a few weeks ago.
The real trick will be catching--or should I say "katching"--Kasey Kahne. The cute little guy has had an excellent run on the 1.5-mile tracks, winning at six such races so far this year. He won, in fact at the Atlanta race last Spring, and sweeping another venue as he did at Lowe's two weeks ago will be some added incentive for him. There is no reason to believe that he can't win another one. Unless he has engine problems.
The Everham teams--Kahne in the #9, Scott Riggs in the #10, and Elliott Sadler in the #19--have all been gaining in strength. The engine problems suffered by Sadler and Riggs in the last few races are being dealt with, and hopefully we will not see such problems at Atlanta. However, because of the speeds an gearing used at Atlanta, the question of engine durability will remain a concern..
Hendrick Motor Sports (HMS) also has had some problems with engines this season, and if not with engines, then with gearboxes. It seems to be the biggest problem which has kept Jeff Gordon from getting to the top of the points race. Jimmie Johnson, who is only 41 points out of the lead, has also had such mechanical problems throughout the season. The #48 team is good at overcoming obstacles, and it should be remembered that Johnson has never finished a season outside of the top four in points. With that in mind, I am adding Johnson to my list of "drivers who I would not be unhappy to see win the Cup." He is on a roll, coming off of the victory at Martinsville, and he may just have the trick that will get him to Victory Lane.
An engine problem for Jeff Burton at Martinsville is what put the Chase for the Championship back to the piont where any of the top nine drivers can take the Nextel Cup. Kevin Harvick is now in second place, and Burton dropped from first all the way back to sixth, but still only forty-eight points out of the lead. Richard Childress Racing, the team for which both Burton and Harvick drive, is known for engine reliability, which is why the engine failure last week came as a surprise. Hopefully, the team engineers know what went wrong and have been able to remedy it, and they will be able to stay in the race to the finish. I'm expecting top five finishes for both of them.
Possibly the meanest trick was the rain. For A.J. Almendinger, the former Champ Car series driver, it was. Atlanta was to be his first Cup race in NASCAR, but, because of rain, he didn't get a chance to qualify.
For the Chase drivers, the rained out qualifying session was the biggest treat, for the cars start in order of owner's points, meaning the top ten start in the top ten positions. We could probably see a relaxing of the insanity that has marked the start of most of the races so far this year, because the chasers will be careful not to take each other out in the first few laps of the race. For fans of insanity, there will still be plenty of that from about twentieth position on back.
Matt Kenseth starts on the pole position, with Kevin Harvick next to him. Harvick will probably take a shot at the lead from the start, but Matt will most likely prevail, coming out of turn two, and be able to lead a few laps.
For those of us who are Mark Martin fans, he has declared that he will win the race. This is uncharacteristic of the driver who has been, at the most, pessimistically optimistic about his chances for winning a race, so we should pay attention to him. Martin is one of the greats, with a unique racing style, and the ability to quickly fill any space in front of him. If he says he will win, we better take that as a strong possibility that he will.
The treat for the multitude of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans is in the fact that the #8 team has strengthened greatly on the 1.5-mile tracks, and we should see a strong showing for Junior. As a driver, Junior is smart, and his car control abilities are among the best. Atlanta is a track that is good for Junior's style of driving, and he may move up some in the points standings by the end of the race.
Being in the top ten, and in contention for the championship is a treat for Wonder Rookie Denny Hamlin. He has shown some amazing ability to adapt to any type of track, and he is starting in fourth position. We expect him to back off a little in the first part of the race, letting others make their own mistakes, but he will be there at the end. To think, his goal at the beginning of the year was "to finish most of the races and to get Rookie of The Year." Those goals have been met, and there is a very strong possibility that he will be the first rookie in the history of NASCAR to win the championship.
It is my mind, not my heart that is picking Kyle Busch to win this race. He is energized, seeing that he is once again in reach of the points lead, after Burton's engine failure and the finishing order at Martinsville virtually reset the Chase. I'm not a big fan of The Schrub, but we must recognize his talent and his ability, and, if he doesn't put himself in the position of being taken out in retaliation, determination and skill will make for very exciting finishing laps, and victory.
In the end, it will come down to engine durability and pit strategy, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that no-one in the Chase has engine problems, just to keep the points close, and the Chase for the Championship exciting.

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