HAMPTON, Ga. – Observations, questions, garage whispers and some random thoughts following the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Was the real story this weekend Carl Edwards' sweep of the two Atlanta events and his moving into fourth in the Chase or Jeff Gordon's second strong showing in as many weeks? For me, it was all about Gordon. The four-time champion has experienced what may be the most difficult and frustrating season of his NASCAR career. Watching the No. 24 Chevy run up front two weeks in a row put a smile on a lot of faces.
Also on the comeback trail is Dale Earnhardt Jr. That he led 142 laps on Sunday (the most of any driver) with a strong race car that he could drive just about anywhere he wanted to – until the final 20 laps – says this team already is in '06 mode.
But I'm not about to make light of the fact that we did get to watch another backflip from Edwards. It's been a long, dry summer for the young Roush protege; he hadn't flipped since Pocono in June. After his nearly flawless performance in the spring race here – which was his first career Cup victory – it probably would have been an even bigger story had he been terrible on Sunday, to be quite honest.
Expect an announcement about the NASCAR Hall of Fame before the end of the year. We saw posters and billboards for the Hall of Fame plastered everywhere in the Charlotte area a few weeks ago, but the best Atlanta could muster were buttons being worn by several people at the track. It made Atlanta's effort to get the Hall look very weak.
The grandstands at Atlanta Motor Speedway were conspicuously sparse – especially the back straight and Turn 3 grandstands. Let's not blame it on the Atlanta Falcons, who had a bye week. Something tells me that Georgia may produce some of NASCAR's best race car drivers but not many race fans. Those empty stands surely hurt Atlanta's chances at getting the Hall of Fame.
Legendary Porsche sports car driver Jochen Maas was the guest of team owner Roger Penske on Sunday. Penske is developing a Porsche sports car for the ALMS series, and I can only assume that The Captain was showing the German racing legend what real racing in the United States is all about.
I hear that the teams expected to go Toyota in 2007 (yes, they are coming in both Busch and Cup in '07) have told the Japanese manufacturer "thanks, but no thanks" to having Toyota build their cars and motors for Nextel Cup competition. Toyota currently builds the trucks and engines for all of their teams in the Craftsman Truck Series. Where does that leave Toyota Racing Development?
Ed Clark and the entire SMI organization, along with an army of more than 1,000 workers, did an amazing job rebuilding the facilities at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The photos taken after the tornado devastated the property in June serve as reminders how bad it really was.
Tires were/weren't an issue. When several Craftsmen Truck teams had problems – blistering and chunking of the right side tires – during the first practice sessions on Friday, Goodyear engineers got together with NASCAR officials and mandated a minimum tire pressure of 47 psi for both the Truck and Cup races. Fortunately, the solution worked this time around. There were problems during the Craftsman Truck race but apparently none to speak of during the Cup event.
Jack Roush said, "As far as Goodyear managing the tire and the risk to the tire with air pressure, as long as they do it for everybody, it's great."
He added that the mandated tire pressure made teams work harder to manage the tires, which was a good thing.
Add road racer and former Indy car driver Max Papis to the list of drivers looking to NASCAR for their future. The 2004 Grand Am Series co-champion has tested the No. 48 car for Hendrick Motorsports with good results. Papis is a proven winner in open wheel and sports cars, and along with Sebastien Bourdais deserves a real shot in stock cars. NASCAR now is attracting more and more of the world's best drivers because of its close competition – and, of course, it's where the money is.
When Richard Childress Racing unveiled the bright orange paint scheme of Reese's, the new co-primary sponsor of the No. 29 Chevrolet driven by Kevin Harvick, someone commented, "Now we won't know if it's his [Harvick's] paint or [Tony] Stewart's on the side of someone's car."
Winner of the What Was I Thinking? Award this weekend goes to Jack Sprague. What was the past Craftsman Truck Series champion thinking with his reckless attempt at a Rowdy Burns ("Days of Thunder") maneuver on eventual race winner Kyle Busch? Everyone knew that Busch, with four fresh tires, was unstoppable – except for Sprague.
From where I was sitting in the press box, it sure looked like Sprague deliberately put Busch into the Turn 4 wall. His actions sent most of the field spinning and scrambling down the front straight and across the finish line. It also sent Bobby Labonte head-on into the wall (he was OK) and sent rookie Todd Kluever on a scary ride across the infield grass and onto a very crowded pit road.
Does Sprague's new team owner Jeff Wyler condone this kind of racing? And does TRD, which builds the trucks, think that the long-time Chevy driver is a positive representative for the manufacturer?
Last week it was Kyle's brother Kurt Busch who got a penalty at Martinsville for hitting an ill-handling Kyle Petty. This week Kyle Busch was given the Busch Penalty when he was sent to the tail end of the lead lap after being driven into the grass on pit road.
NASCAR called it passing. I saw it as the rookie driver trying to avoid a collision on pit road (he was hit by Greg Biffle anyway). The minor damage and the fact that his team wasn't able to keep up with the race track for the remainder of the race gave the younger Busch a 12th-place finish after he had spent much of the race running in the top five.
Winner of the Hard Luck of the Race Award goes to Mike Skinner, who cut a tire on lap five and hit the Turn 1 wall hard enough to retire his Dodge. I hear that Skinner will be in the No. 22 Dodge for Bill Davis Racing next season.
Jimmie Johnson already has had his mulligan race – Talladega, where the two-time championship runner-up finished 31st. Johnson just can't have any more 16th-place finishes if he expects to win the title this year.
Even when Tony Stewart has a bad day, it's still a good one. The championship points leader really never was a contender for the win, but he still finished a solid ninth. That's a sure sign of a championship winner.
Here's one to think about: Stewart has finished out of the top 10 only twice (18th at Dover and 25th at Lowe's) since Pocono in June. And he's won five times since then. Is that a remarkable streak or what?
With both Jeremy Mayfield and Rusty Wallace having bad races (I swear Wallace spent more time sitting on pit road than he did running on the race track), their hopes of winning the title have all but evaporated. That means it's down to Ryan Newman – who also had a tough day – if Dodge is to score its first title.
Polesitter Newman had another day during which he just couldn't get a handle on the car or the track. His collision with the wall while running a lap down midway through the race didn't help. Newman is tied with Carl Edwards for fourth in the points, 107 back from leader Stewart.
Next week, the NASCAR traveling circus heads to Texas Motor Speedway for the inaugural running of the Dickies 500. It's another 1½-mile track, but unlike Atlanta, it places a higher premium on downforce. That should favor both the Roush and Hendrick cars.
And the fact that it's a race track should favor Tony Stewart.