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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta

Looking for a different way to look at Tuesday’s postponed race? Amy Henderson breaks down what you should remember from 500 miles in Atlanta by asking the six basic questions learned in journalism school: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Here’s the list from her notebook after a weekend–and a few additional days–down south:

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

He may have fallen short of the win, but Jimmie Johnson showed what it looks like to give everything you have on the racetrack. Johnson drove the No. 48 so hard on the last lap that the car was sideways for much of the lap. If Johnson had backed out a notch to keep from nearly wrecking, it would be hard to blame him, but the heart and determination Johnson showed should give little doubt just why this driver is a five-time champion. Two weeks ago at Michigan, Johnson settled for second. This time, he settled for nothing.

What… was THAT?

There are a lot of adjectives that would fit, but simply put, that was one heck of a finish. It’s not often that you get to see the three best drivers in the sport today finish 1-2-3, but that’s exactly what happened in Atlanta on Tuesday. With lots of talk in both the garage and in the stands about the racecars being more important than the drivers, today’s race illustrated that the drivers still have something to say about that. It’s been a while since the sport’s two best put on a show like the final laps at Atlanta. To me, it brought to mind images of Richard Petty and David Pearson fighting for the win, neither giving an inch to the other, even if it meant driving on the edge of a wreck. Not only did Jeff Gordon and Johnson put on one heck of a great show over the final 10 laps, but Tony Stewart showed that counting him out is never a good idea. One last thing to ponder on this stellar race: the top-three finishers have a total of 11 Cup championships between them (the other 40 have three). The cream rose to the top on Tuesday in a way that was thrilling to see. This was one for the ages.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

It was Kasey Kahne who led the field to green on Tuesday when the rains finally lifted. Early on, both Kahne and teammate Brian Vickers looked as though they’d contend for the win for the soon-to-be-defunct Team Red Bull, but while Vickers was able to deliver an 11th-place result, Kahne had to settle for 34th place and an early exit due to engine woes.

When… will I be loved?

Hands down, the weekend’s villain was Tropical Storm Lee, which brought persistent drizzle on Sunday that forced the race to be postponed until Tuesday. The threat of heavy rain, high winds and possible tornadoes kept the cars off the track on Monday, and once it did finally go green on Tuesday, the race was not completely a dry one, with a red flag and many caution laps due to the heavy drizzle. Sometimes Mother Nature sends us a reminder that she’s still in charge.

Why… can’t NASCAR simply move the start time of a race if bad weather is imminent?

There are a lot of things at work here, but the main reasons boil down to TVs and ticket holders. While it seems simple enough to say, “Let’s move this 7:30 p.m. race to 1 p.m. to avoid this rain,” television networks already have broadcasts scheduled for the earlier slot, often other live sporting events. Who should go without seeing their event live: the NASCAR fans, or fans of the other sport, whatever it may be? Add to that that there are contracts between the network and the event organizers, both NASCAR and the other sport’s. The network can’t suddenly change their mind hours before both events.

Ticket holders are also a big part of the decision. While many fans might camp at the track or live locally, many also drive several hours on race day. That may be feasible for a night race, but for a day race it gets more difficult. Informing fans is also a problem. Imagine having a ticket for an event that cost over $100, then having the time of that event changed and you didn’t hear about it. While NASCAR and the racetracks would make every attempt to inform the public, there’s no guarantee the news would reach everyone, and that’s no more fair than fans having to miss a postponed race due to work. So while moving races at a moment’s notice might seem like a simple solution, it’s far from that. NASCAR made the right call on this one, plain and simple.

How… great is Jeff Gordon?

With his 85th career victory, there is little doubt that Gordon is one of the finest drivers ever to grace the seat of a stock car. Purists will argue that he should be tied with Bobby Allison, but the record books say he stands alone behind only two drivers on the all-time Sprint Cup wins list. The numbers don’t tell the whole story about Gordon, though. He’s a four-time champion with 85 victories in an era where many say it’s harder to win. Not only was the smooth Californian the perfect foil for the brash, outspoken Dale Earnhardt, it was Gordon whose career was just beginning to peak as Earnhardt’s was winding down. That many refer to the late 1990s as the Gordon era is telling. For much of his career, he was both the sport’s best driver and its most reviled. The better he got, the more fans wished he’d give someone else a chance.

And at one point in his career, Gordon did just that. Looking to his future beyond a driving career, Gordon took an offer from Rick Hendrick to become co-owner of a team. Given his choice of driver, Gordon’s chose a young driver with just a single NASCAR touring win and a couple of decent, but not brilliant, points finishes. A lot of people question’s Gordon as a judge of talent, but as it turned out, he’s as good at that as he is at driving. As the owner of record of Johnson’s team, Gordon is a five-time champion owner as well.

Gordon was named one of the 50 best drivers of NASCAR’s first 50 years in 1998, and that was before he’d won two of his titles. In a nutshell, Gordon is probably among the five best ever in the sport. And at 40 years old, he’s not done yet. I’ll leave you with this: Pearson had 21 wins at the age of 40 or older. If Gordon can match that from here on out? 106 isn’t out of the picture. Yes, he’s that kind of good.

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