- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

HAMPTON, Ga. | Grab hold of that steering wheel and hang on - it’s time to go racin’ in Atlanta.

The best stock car drivers in the world are preparing for another treacherous day on the high-banked oval that resembles an old country road from up close but feels more like a sheet of ice when pushing the pedal toward speeds of 190 mph.

It’s a throwback to old-style tracks like Darlington and Rockingham, the winner usually determined by which driver is most adept as straddling that fine line between going as fast as possible without ending up in the wall.

“As confined as Darlington is, it’s still easier to drive than this place,” said Mark Martin, who’ll start from the pole in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “This thing is so big, so sweeping. When you’re sliding for your life from turn 1 to turn 4, you’re sliding for your life for a long time.”

Sounds like this should be known as “The Track Too Tough To Tame.”

While the quality of tires provided by Goodyear is often the focus of handling issues - few will ever forget Tony Stewart’s memorable tirade against the company after last year’s spring race in Atlanta - it’s really a perfect storm of various factors that forces cars to slip-slide their way around the 1.54-mile oval.

Start with the Car of Tomorrow, which is a lot harder to control than the previous generation of cars. Then go racing on a track that hasn’t been paved in 12 years, leaving a rough, gritty surface. Throw in long, sweeping turns that generate some of the fastest speeds on the Cup circuit. And try to keep it all together on four tires that are designed for reliability first, speed second.

“It’s a handful, man,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose father won nine Cup races in Atlanta, all but one of them on the track’s old configuration.

In 1997, the facility was redesigned from a pure oval into a quad oval. The main straightaway became the backstretch. A slight bend was inserted into the new front stretch. The entire surface was repaved, transforming Atlanta into the fastest of the non-restrictor plate races.

Now, a dozen years later, the place is showing plenty of wear and tear.

“The track just developed these bumps and swells that continue to grow,” three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “When you walk out there, there’s nothing but jagged rocks and stones sticking out.”

So they need to repave, right?

Nope. Most drivers despise a new surface because it takes years to reform the grooves that naturally work their way into a track, allowing for more passing.

“As soon as you repave a track, it kills the racing,” Stewart said. “You’re down to one lane, and it’s three or four years before you can do anything. That puts us in an even worse position. I like it when they leave it the same.”

Note - Kyle Busch held off Kevin Harvick on the final lap to win his second straight NASCAR truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Even though he struggled on restarts after losing a couple of gears Saturday, Busch surged past Todd Bodine on the back straightaway with five laps to go and held on the rest of the way to win the American Commercial Lines 200.


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