A few thoughts heading into Sunday night's Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway …
While the top three, four or five teams may have had the luxury of a point cushion, allowing them to gamble, experiment or cruise into the playoffs, the seven or eight other teams may, in fact, be better prepared come New Hampshire.
The stress conditions of the 10 Chase events will not be any different than the environment the bubble drivers have been in for a month. Busch and Vickers won the last two races under some difficult circumstances. That will certainly help in their next two races, but could pay even greater dividends if they qualify for the Chase.
Not only will the bubble drivers be the beneficiaries of the stressful conditions they are operating in right now, but so will their teams. The crew chief, jack man, spotter and tire changers will be battle hardened, so to speak.
Don't misunderstand me that one of these bubble drivers is the favorite. Jimmie Johnson has been, and still is, my favorite to win the title. He and the 48 team have earned that honor.
If you look back on the last two seasons, the 48 team has recognized that urgency to enter the Chase with momentum, something I believe is a priceless commodity in this sport. In each of the last two seasons, Johnson has won the final two regular-season races leading into the Chase.
If he is to be denied a fourth consecutive title, I believe it will come from a team having been tested – a team that has shown the ability to lead laps on the track and be exceptional on pit road. Whether it's the circumstances or their conditioning, the 5 (Martin), 18 (Busch) and 83 (Vickers) teams have demonstrated all that of late.
Atlanta is good racing …
I am convinced that drivers and fans can never completely agree on what qualifies as good racing, and Atlanta Motor Speedway is at the core of the debate.
Atlanta is a driver favorite, but the track doesn't get the same attention from fans and media like Talladega or Bristol do. No, fans won't see three-wide bump drafting like at Talladega. Nor will they witness the lap-after-lap intensity of Bristol. But what they will see is real high-speed, high-horsepower skill.
Atlanta could be considered a "driver's track." Because the surface has aged, the entire race track comes into play, and using every inch of the track may become a necessity. The surface can be described as abrasive, which increases tire wear, forcing drivers to either slow corner-entry speed or transition to a higher line through the turns.
Each driver has his preference in terms of lane choice, and some even resist transitioning toward the top. If the race has extended green-flag runs, then these drivers are punished the most. If the race has evenly timed cautions, where drivers have access to fresh tires throughout the event, then they are rewarded for committing to the bottom of the track (the shortest distance).
I enjoyed Atlanta as much as any track I competed at, and enjoy it equally as much watching today. I think Atlanta is the perfect track to help determine who makes or misses the Chase, as it requires driver versatility and allows faster cars the room to maneuver through the field.
I received mail this week …
I've learned through the years that as business goes, NASCAR offers few retirement or going-away parties. It is, always has been and always will be, a performance-driven environment.
Though I know this and experienced it first hand, it is hard to accept. Somewhere in the conversation it was probably expressed to Bobby, "Hey, don't take this personal. It's a business decision."
Ok, it just feels personal!
I have always subscribed to the idea that you finish what you start, and there is no greater insult to a driver than showing him the exit when the finish line is within sight. And replacing him prior to competing at arguably his best track (he has six wins at Atlanta) only adds insult to injury.
I have the highest regard for Robert and Doug Yates. Having worked with them and having been powered by their engines en route to my first Cup win, I can attest they treat team members like family.
Obviously, it has been a trend in this sport for some time now to replace experienced drivers with young talent in hopes of capturing them in their prime, and this car being unsponsored for seven races only worsened the situation.
As for Eric Darnell, I was first exposed to him as a member of "The Roush Gong Show" in 2005. He was one of five drivers from the 25 contestants who stood out as above average to me. His style, watching him then and now, is Matt Kenseth-like: fast, but always appearing in control.
Whether that works for this car in this series we'll have to wait and see. We can draw little from his Nationwide or Truck series statistics, not only because the vehicles are inherently different, but perhaps more importantly, because some drivers are better suited for the longer, 500-mile races.
As for Bobby Labonte, I am glad to see he will be in Atlanta for this weekend's race in the No. 71 car.
- Atlanta Motor Speedway