NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Concern Shifts from Engines to Tires at Atlanta

The start to the 2009 season has been marred with a rash of engine failures that has not been seen in some time, a trend that has become all but a consensus headline through the first three races.

But none of that seems to be phasing any race camp, or any driver for that matter, coming into this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. In fact, a lack of concern happened to be the drivers’ consensus on Friday.

Said Kevin Harvick of the recent epidemic of engine failures, “It’s just the beginning of the year.”

“Everybody is just pushing the limits right now.”

Of course, many of the sport’s biggest teams are still figuring where to draw that line. The Earnhardt Childress camp saw both Aric Almirola and Jeff Burton suffer engine failures over the course of Speedweeks. Next, it was Hendrick’s turn, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin both lost motors during the 500-miler at Fontana. And last week saw four of five Roush Fenway Racing teams reporting at least some trouble with their power plants, as did Kurt Busch in his Dodge entry.

Toyota went through the ringer at Vegas, too, with no less than five cars needing to start from the rear due to faulty camshafts. Yet all of those cars recovered to make it through the race itself, allowing Michael Waltrip to address the motor troubles his teams endured with confidence Friday. Perhaps more importantly, Waltrip seemed to have a finger on what was causing a lot of the issues in the Toyota camp.

“I’m impressed with their (TRD’s) determination [to provide better motors for their teams],” he said. “I think they’ve sort of determined that maybe some of the viscosity in the motor oils were different and it caused some wear that they hadn’t seen before. They upped the viscosity levels in the oil and they made us run a little bit more oil – and that seemed to address it.”

The Toyota camp isn’t alone in feeling a sense of security after Vegas. Many other drivers seemed to downplay the current engine dilemma, too.

“Mark Cronquist does such a good job at Joe Gibbs Racing that I don’t believe we’ll have engine failures,” said Kyle Busch. “That’s never in the back of your mind.” And Ryan Newman attributed the current upswing in failures to simply being “just the way things cycle.”

Where concern is shifting to yet again in Atlanta is to the tires that will be run this weekend. Expectations were high after Greg Biffle and Juan Pablo Montoya both provided rave reviews of Goodyear’s newest Eagle following a preseason tire test, but so far they do not seem to be living up to the hype.

While many drivers during qualifying found themselves tight due to the track cooling from a daylight practice to an evening pole session, there were others who found the tires to be little improved over the 2008 AMS rubber. Clint Bowyer found himself very loose coming off turn 4 during his run, reporting that he had no grip and was instead sliding all over the racetrack. Reed Sorenson also reported similar problems in his car, reporting a loose condition that was amplified because his car was bouncing through the turns. Sorenson described the Goodyears as being extremely inconsistent going over the bumps in the corners.

Qualifying was not the first time for this issue to come up amongst the drivers. Jeff Gordon was quick to label his experience in practice driving the new tire package as “white-knuckle” and proclaimed in his weekly press conference, “we’re going to have issues.” David Stremme, who did not participate in the March race at Atlanta last year that fueled the current tire controversy at the track, was surprised by how much of a handful his race was.

Said Stremme, “I got out and asked Kurt [Busch] and [Jamie] McMurray, he was right next to me, and I asked did these things drive this bad last year, and they were like – no.”

Kyle Busch was not complimentary of Goodyear’s tire package selection, either.

“I’m not sure why they changed the tire again,” he questioned angrily after stepping out of his car in practice. “I remember testing this tire when they were here, and I remember telling them the characteristics of it were all wrong.”

“But they brought it back anyway.”

Perhaps the most ominous prediction of what to expect from the tires this weekend came from McMurray after qualifying third on Friday night.

“You’re going to hear a lot of drivers bitching about handling.”

The Cup teams have Happy Hour practice tomorrow to shed a lot more light on what is to come on Sunday. Stay tuned to Frontstretch for live updates from the track!

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