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Race fans will have many ways to spend their time this weekend when NASCAR returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway.
But strip away all the pre-race festivities, the driver appearances, charitable track walks and other assorted events (there's even a Ferris wheel in the parking lot) and it's the competition that continues to draw fans to the 1.54-mile track.
"In this business, everything revolves around what happens on that ribbon of asphalt; it always has and always will in my opinion," track president and general manager Ed Clark said.
Site of this weekend's Great Clips/Grit Chips 300 Nationwide Series and Advocare 500 Sprint Cup Series races, Atlanta presents one of the two remaining opportunities for Cup teams to earn a berth in this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Atlanta has been host to NASCAR events since 1960. From 1987 through 2001, the Cup series wrapped up its season at the fast, demanding track, with eight different drivers either clinching Cup championships or putting the finishing touches on titles already sealed.
Clark, who has been at the speedway for 22 years, said the new tire being provided by Goodyear (which features two different compounds on the tire's surface) represents a huge commitment on the part of the tire supplier. But he doesn't expect the action to be "any different from any previous race at Atlanta."
"If they do a full green-flag run, (lap times) will drop off a second and a half or more," he said. "And that's what drivers like. At whatever point that (drop-off) is, it becomes a driver's race and not just an 'equipment' race. So we find out who the real drivers are.
"They like it because all of a sudden it kind of showcases them and they have more of a role. It's not just 'this is what my car is doing and this is all I can get out of it.' ?That's one reason they raise Cain and say 'don't ever pave it.' "
The abrasive track surface, worn thin since it was last paved years ago, presents a number of challenges for drivers and teams. It also presents a number of opportunities.
"The pavement is just so incredibly worn out and slick, it's hard to get ahold of," Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth said. "The car changes drastically from the beginning ? until the end of a run. It's one of the most fun tracks to drive, honestly."
Kenseth, last week's winner at Bristol Motor Speedway, has yet to win a Cup race at Atlanta -- his best finish came in 2010 when he was runner-up to Kurt Busch. He does have a pair of Nationwide Series wins at Atlanta (2004, '08).
Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards is a fan of the surface as well. "I think if you could make the pavement at all of these tracks like Atlanta, I think we'd have better races, so I enjoy it," he said.
Clark said he knows that eventually the track will have to be repaved, but admitted he's in no hurry to begin the process.
"Ours is 16 years old," he said, "and it's been worn out for five years.
"My take is we're going to leave it along until there are weeds growing through it and we have dirt showing."
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