The Bass Pro Shops 500 is the 33rd race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup Series schedule. The Cup Series visits the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway twice in 2006 – they raced here in March. AMS has hosted Cup races since 1960, although it was changed to the present configuration in 1997. The first Cup winner at AMS was Fireball Roberts. It is a high-banked tri-oval track with 24 degrees of banking in the corners and five degrees on the straightaways. The field will include 2005 polesitter Ryan Newman and defending winner Carl Edwards.
48 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the Top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. 2006 owner points determine who is in this group for qualifying purposes for the remainder of the season. Qualifying runs consist of two laps, with the fastest lap setting a team’s time. The Nextel Cup Series qualifying record at AMS is 197.479 mph, set by Geoffrey Bodine in 1997.
To the Point
Martinsville proved to be the great equalizer as the points underwent another shuffle, settling out with less than 100 points between first and eighth spots. Jeff Burton suffered an early engine failure, and Matt Kenseth, finishing 11th, was able to pounce on the top spot while Burton slid four spots to fifth. Kevin Harvick jumped to second, 39 points back, after rallying for a ninth-place finish, overcoming early problems. The biggest gainer of the week was Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson, who gained 105 points and four spots on the top spot, now sitting 41 points out. Denny Hamlin very nearly pulled off the Martinsville win, and his runner-up finish was enough to elevate him two spots to fourth. Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s late-race mistake cost him a spot as he slid to sixth, and Mark Martin slid three to seventh. Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch rounded out the top 10.
What to Expect
Atlanta is the fastest track on the Nextel Cup circuit – speeds routinely top 200 mph heading into turn 1. Cars tend to spread out, and cautions for contact-related crashes are usually relatively rare. Tire problems and debris are more likely culprits, but expect a lot of green-flag laps on Sunday.
Atlanta has been host to some of the most exciting finishes NASCAR has witnessed; Dale Earnhardt edging Bobby Labonte by inches in 2000, Harvick taking Earnhardt’s former car to victory lane in the same fashion following Earnhardt’s death a year later, Edwards snookering Johnson coming off turn 4 for his first Cup win. Don’t switch the channel or make a snack break in the last 10 laps.
What does all this mean to the Chase? It means that the teams that get every detail right; qualifying setups, maximizing practice time, a good-handling, adjustable car, fast pit stops and good fuel mileage, will likely come out on top. Although crash cautions are less common here than some other tracks, crash damage is often heavy and irreparable. At best, a team who suffers a crash may make up a few positions if they return to the track and there’s more attrition. Atlanta won’t crown a champion, but it can take the title out of reach.
Who to Watch
Of the Chase drivers, Kahne seems to hold an edge. He won at AMS this spring from the pole, won at Lowe’s Motor Speedway twice this year… in short, he’ll be bringing a very fast car. Kahne has been the king of the cookie-cutter tracks this year, and that won’t change this week. The numbers suggest that Kahne’s top Chaser competition may come from Johnson. Johnson’s Martinsville win finally gives the No. 48 team some momentum, and this is one team that will take momentum straight to the top. They’re eyeing the championship now, and an Atlanta win would make their claim stronger. Another Chaser who could shine this week? Earnhardt. Junior is third-best of all the championship contenders at AMS in terms of average finish-and his team has really stepped up in the last few weeks. Junior is in position to set himself up for a championship run with a top finish this week.
Of course, the Chasers aren’t the only ones looking for bragging rights. Labonte has quietly gotten stronger in the second half, and he has owned Atlanta in years past. Labonte leads all active drivers with six AMS victories, and he’ll have a solid run if his equipment can match his skill. Labonte’s teammate Kyle Petty scored a top 10 at AMS in March as well, and both claimed top-10 spots last week. Hometown boy Reed Sorenson had an impressive 10th-place finish in the spring race and this rookie has only gotten better this year.
Did You Know?
- That Richard Petty finished in the top 10 in more than half of his AMS starts? The King had 33 top 10s in 65 AMS starts-both records for the track. He ran his last race at AMS in 1992, a race that was also Gordon’s first Cup start.
- That Atlanta’s first winner, Roberts, got his nickname on the baseball diamond? Roberts earned the nickname for his blazing fastball and prowess on the pitcher’s mound.
- That there have been six season sweeps at AMS since 1960. The most recent was Edwards last year, and Georgia native Bill Elliott is the only driver to have done it twice.
You Don’t Say
“It has its set of bumps. You need to make sure your car gets over the bumps but still turns well. Normally, if you turn after you hit the bumps, you’re tight. If you turn before you hit the bumps, you’re loose. Just finding that common balance – getting the car over the bumps but having it turn at the same time – that’s what you’re shooting for. And because the track is such a momentum racetrack, if you’re a little bit off it seems like you’re way off. If your stuff isn’t right, you can’t expect to run with the pack all day. You’ve got to be on your game, because it seems like there’s always two or three guys who always get it right. And everybody’s who’s just a little bit off – it shows up big time on the clock.”- 2005 Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart on making a fast lap at Atlanta
“Atlanta is a really cool racetrack. It’s a big, fast racetrack. The pavement has gotten a little older and it has finally given up and made it a really fun place to race. From top-to-bottom, it’s one of the best places that we go to race. It usually makes for a great show and a great race. We’ve been really strong there over the years and we’ve had some good runs the last few times that we’ve went there. We’ve been close to a couple of wins there in the past few races and we finished second in the spring, so hopefully we can break out of our string of bad luck and get a solid finish this weekend. We’ve had really good cars the last couple of weeks and pretty bad luck. My car last week was as good as any car I’ve had at Martinsville and we got ourselves caught up in someone else’s wreck again and were lucky to stay on the lead lap and finish the race. This weekend we need to get the best finish we can, so we can stay within striking distance in the points. There is still a lot of racing left and we haven’t given up yet.”- Mark Martin on AMS and his Chase chances
“I don’t think the win was necessary as far as the spark for the team. We’ve had the spark and speed and excitement and desire. The fire’s been lit.” – Jimmie Johnson on his team’s readiness to make a run for the Nextel Cup title
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