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Daunting challenge ahead for teams at Atlanta

by Pete McCole
Sunday, March 8, 2009


Tony Stewart
Rhonda McCole/
The daunting challenge facing Sprint Cup teams this weekend will be how to get a handle on this tough, slippery track that has confounded drivers and crew chiefs alike.

Balancing the new Car of Tomorrow design with the tires brought along by Goodyear has had teams pulling their hair out trying to adapt their cars to the tracks ever-changing surface which is one of the fastest in the series.

“I think it is like a split personality race track,” said Jeff Burton. “This is a race track that gets really slick, loses a lot of grip. In qualifying it is extremely fast but in the race it gets very very slick, very very low grip.”

Since Atlanta was reconfigured back in 1997, the track has become one the fastest non-restrictor plate tracks on the schedule, but the track’s wide sweeping turns and dog-leg frontstretch leaves a lot of room for error, making it more forgiving to a rookie driver like Scott Speed.

“It’s slippery for sure,” said Speed. “I tend to like tracks like Dover where there’s a lot of grip available.  But it’s fun. You can certainly move around a lot here and that makes the racing a lot better.”

Veteran drivers liken the track to some of the older venues on the circuit like Darlington and Rockingham – a handful to drive and hard to adapt to, and especially hard to find a tire that can adapt to the changing race conditions.

“It is slick. It is an old race track. It is like Rockingham used to be years ago,” said Dale Earnhardt, Jr. “This is an old surface and in this part of the country, these solid surfaces, we are sort of close the Rockingham - Darlington area where you get a lot of age in the track and it turns gray and does like it is. The track surface is really slick. It is a challenge to get a tire to work on it.”

The issue of tires wearing out quickly has been a hot topic this season, as many teams pointed to recent rash of engine failures at the last two races as a result of the tires wearing out – what teams call “falling off” – sooner than they should.

On a fast racetrack like Atlanta, tire wear becomes an even bigger issue as the higher speeds mean higher engine RPMs, and in turn, more wear and tear on the engines.

“Here at Atlanta, you have to be very careful because when you get fresh tires, your car is bad fast,” said Kurt Busch. “It doesn’t matter how bad it’s handling, it’s going to go fast. But the pace drops off fast at Atlanta. You have to be careful at the beginning of the run not to run too hard, not to over-rev the engine, and that’s going to be on everyone’s mind this weekend.”

Several drivers, including Tony Stewart, were highly critical of the tires following last year’s race here. Stewart especially has been vocal about the tires Goodyear has produced so far this season as well.

“I think the track is getting to the point where it’s fallen off worse than what the tires are,” said Stewart. “We don’t have a ton of grip but I don’t know that there’s any solution for that. The good thing is that in race trim I think it will be better. But I’m noticing that we don’t have quite as much grip as what we’ve had in the past but I think that’s the track changing more than it’s the tire right now.”

“When you see the trucks go out in practice and they’re running the top already, that’s normally an indication that the track is changing a lot more because those cars seem to be less picky about the tire because of the aero that they carry. So for them to move up, it almost tells you the track has lost a lot more grip too.”

While some tracks have opted to re-pave their surfaces to improve grip, the popular opinion among drivers is that re-paving makes the track worse for racing, not better, and given the options, they like Atlanta just the way it is.

“I hate repaving tracks,” said Stewart. “As soon as you repave it, it kills the racing and it’s one lane and it takes three or four years before we can do anything and it even puts us in a worse position. I’d rather leave it the same. I don’t know that you have to have a ton of grip here but you want enough grip that when you get around each other you’re not scared to be around each other and that’s the only thing that you’re really concerned about.”

“I don’t think it’s time yet,” said Jimmie Johnson. “At one point, this track was my favorite track and I watched people slice around and I’m like no, it doesn’t need to be changed. And now when I’m out there I’m searching with this car and haven’t found exactly what we need here yet. In the back of my mind I’m thinking, man, if they repaved it we’d probably be just fine. We need different race tracks. We need different surfaces. And I think we need to leave it alone for now.”

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