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(Credit: CIA)

Four Burning Questions in Atlanta: Stewart’s Return and Busch’s Demise

Race car drivers are much, much different from normal human beings. The action they engage in order to deal with difficult times in their life at times seem foreign to us. Consider the driver who has been violently ill in the weekend leading up to a race…and racing anyway because the driver “feels his best” behind the wheel. Then you have the driver who jumps in the race car just days removed from losing a loved one, saying that racing “heals the pain.”

Stewart's ability to heal while facing the pressures of racing will be on full display tonight in Atlanta. (Credit: Chris Owens)
Stewart’s ability to heal while facing the pressures of racing will be on full display tonight in Atlanta. (Credit: Chris Owens)

When someone is truly passionate about something in life, that activity has the capacity to numb the pain of everything else that is going on around them. Considering all of this, it is thus no surprise that Tony Stewart is racing tonight in Atlanta, only three weeks removed from the tragedy that took Kevin Ward, Jr.’s life. Stewart’s life revolves around racing. It is his ultimate passion, and ultimately, racing is perhaps the only thing that will ever help him move on from the events of three weeks ago.

So if you are confused by Stewart’s desire to get back into a race car just weeks after being an active participant in an event that killed a man during the course of a race, do not be. Race car drivers are a different breed who have different needs from the rest of us, and no one should ever question that fact.

Welcome back, Tony. You have been missed.

1. Could Tony Stewart conceivably win tonight’s race?

Now that Tony Stewart has finally spoken to the media , the question of whether or not he is returning to racing has been answered. Granted, there are still a multitude of questions that still beg to be answered as far as the Stewart-Ward incident is concerned, but those responses will come in time. The focus now, as far as this situation is concerned, is on Stewart’s actual on-track performance.

I think it obviously goes without saying that if Stewart were to win this race tonight, it would be a story of biblical proportions. The notion that a grieve-stricken driver could win a race and vault himself into NASCAR’s playoffs only mere weeks away from a life-changing incident seems inconceivable. But the fact is that it could very well happen.

Stewart just so happens to be very, very good at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Stewart is known for his efficacy on hot, slick, and bumpy race tracks, and AMS is going to embody all three of those characteristics in full tonight. He has an ever-supportive team behind them that from all indications appears to be as unified as ever under these tragic circumstances, and that unity alone will likely be worth something come race time.

Many will think such a notion is crazy, but I think it is truly possible. NASCAR drivers over time have often shown an uncanny knack for being able to persevere under incredibly tragic, pressure-filled or unusual circumstances, with Stewart in particular being known for his ability to come up big when it is least expected.

All told, Tony Stewart could shock the world tonight. His ability to do so will lie in his ability to numb himself of all of what he has gone through these past three weeks and deliver a Hollywood-esque drive of his life. If he can somehow emotionally put himself in a place where he can manage to pull off that feat….it would be one of the most incredible stories in the history of this sport.

2. Will it be Auto Club 2.0 as far as tires go?

Currently, there are really only two tracks on the schedule that truly chew tires up and test the tire management abilities of today’s Sprint Cup drivers. The first of those tracks is Auto Club Speedway out in Fontana, CA. The race at the particular facility earlier this season was marred by a rash of tire issues that sidelined numerous drivers throughout the race, including late race contender Jeff Gordon.  Goodyear blamed the teams for the problems, saying the teams pushed the tire pressures too low. The teams blamed Goodyear. All told, the whole situation was kind of a mess.

The second “tire-grinding” track on the circuit just so happens to be the site of tonight’s race, Atlanta Motor Speedway, and unfortunately, tire troubles have been cropping up again this weekend. Clint Bowyer blew a left rear tire early in Friday’s first practice and proceeded to openly question how this weekend’s tires could possibly hold up over a long run. Yeah, not a good sign.

A mini-investigation from Bowyer’s team discovered that they simply pushed the pressures too low, well past Goodyear’s recommendations. Nonetheless, I still expect tire troubles to be a factor in tonight’s race. As to whether or not they will cripple the complexion of the race like they did at Auto Club, that is something that remains to be seen. Just know one thing: fresh tires will be the single most important factor in terms of race strategy tonight.

3. Can Kyle Busch’s team right the ship?

It’s funny how much things can change in just a short period of time. Just one year ago during the 2013 Atlanta race weekend, Kyle Busch was flying high. Busch walked into the race 5th in the points standings on the strength of three victories. That night, Busch picked up his fourth victory of the year, and in doing so established himself as a chief threat for the title come Chase time.

Looking at the #18 team today, one year later, the team seems practically unrecognizable. The personnel is all the same of course, but the performance is not even close to the highs of 2013. Busch is currently sitting a lowly 17th in the series standings, the lowest he’s ever been this far into a season since joining Joe Gibbs Racing back in 2008. He has a win and thus is locked into the Chase, but the win (at Fontana) was somewhat fluke-y.

The #18 team’s issues came to a true head last weekend in Bristol, as an angered Busch went off on a full-blown tirade at the race’s conclusion that led crew chief Dave Rogers to call Busch a “whiny little ass.”

Clearly, something is horribly wrong in the #18 camp, and if they  have any intention of making noise in the Chase, whatever is “amiss” will have to be worked out in short order. Tonight’s race in the ATL will be a crucial one for this team, as another night of poor performance could essentially doom the team before the Chase even starts.  A good run, or even a win perhaps, could erase the demons of the past few weekends and give the outfit some much needed momentum.

Either way, something’s gotta give.

4. Who will take win tonight in Atlanta?

Atlanta is a facility that rewards drivers who save their equipment and can adapt to the ever changing track conditions that Atlanta is known and loved for. With that in mind, one driver stands out among all the rest as a chief favorite: Jeff Gordon.

Gordon has been dominant on super-abrasive race tracks in recent years, with his victory here at Atlanta back in 2011 serving as one of his signature career victories. Gordon dominated the race earlier this season at Auto Club which has an equally abrasive surface, and there is simply no one in the garage who can manage their equipment quite like Gordon can.

With all of this in mind, I think Gordon will be the man to beat. Other drivers to look out for based on practice speeds include last week’s winner Joey Logano, who looked stout in Saturday’s first practice with a session-best speed of 189.351 mph. Kevin Harvick has also looked strong throughout the weekend as evidenced by his pole run on Friday.

As for underdogs, you have to love Kyle Larson (but is he really an underdog anymore?). Larson has shown a definite affinity for abrasive tracks and will likely be

Can Larson pull through and win his first career Sprint Cup Series victory ... tonight? (Credit: CIA)
Can Larson pull through and win his first career Sprint Cup Series victory … tonight? (Credit: CIA)

pushing just a wee bit harder tonight knowing that a Chase berth can be won courtesy of a victory. Larson has shown speed all weekend long and would appear to be a solid pick.

But ultimately, I think Gordon will be the man to beat tonight.

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Oral-B USA 500

  1. 24-Jeff Gordon
  2.   4-Kevin Harvick
  3. 22-Joey Logano
  4. 15-Clint Bowyer
  5. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  6. 42-Kyle Larson
  7. 2-Brad Keselowski
  8. 1-Jamie McMurray
  9. 20-Matt Kenseth
  10. 18-Kyle Busch

About Matt Stallknecht

Matt Stallknecht
Promoted to editor in 2014, Matt fights off rogue commas from our writing staff after rounding himself into a “young gun” racing expert. For the past two seasons, he’s penned the popular Four Burning Questions column (Weekends) highlighting the upcoming NASCAR race weekend. As an author for our open-wheel section, Matt also contributes to Open-Wheel Wednesdays and a substantial amount of race coverage and analysis. Matt, a native of Central New York also balances his duites with a full-time college course load. He’s a Senior at Le Moyne college this Fall.

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  1. Interesting how we give our “heros” almost godly characteristics. You would think by now that we would have realized that they are mere mortals who, either by hard work or winning the gene lottery, are successful and in the limelight. How many people thought it was “Norwood” not O.J. on trial?
    As to the waiver,IMHO each time Nascar bends or revises the rules midstream to fit its money driven agenda it sinks a little more into the background noise of other sports. Wonder if Michael McDowell would have gotten a similar waiver? I dont think so either.

  2. This article is a laughable example of purple prose. A different breed? They are race car drivers not Army Rangers! Imagine, how difficult life can be for one who is a pampered zillionaire. One’s car is not prepared how one wishes, and yet one drives as one must. One suffers a headache the lesser people could never understand. But alas, one goes on. One must. How oh how does our Tony do it? Mere mortals toiling at such mundane tasks as saving lives could never know such torment. A different breed, our noble racer of automobiles.

  3. I have to say that while I have rooted for Tony Stewart, I do NOT agree with NASCAR in saying he is eligible for the Chase/Championship.

    The simple fact is, “He has NOT! competed in all the events”.

    I realize that teams running all races are entitled to bonuses and perks. I believe Tony and Hamlin should still be entitled to these but as far as the Champions goes, There should be “No” exceptions, run all the races.

    I don’t believe Denny Hamlin should be either and for the same reason.

    Before getting angry with me, ask yourself this… “Would NASCAR do the same for Aric Almirola, A. J. Allmendinger or Joe Nemechek?”

    What other major league sport would allow a team a playoff birth if they didn’t play all the required games?

    For years NASCAR has used “Its our ball and our game” mentality to the drivers and teams but now its going too far. They clearly “Want” specific teams in the Chase and for the last two years they have shown this. When it is this deliberate how can one not assume these races are fixed?

  4. Loving the Stewart hate down here. Like he gives a crap about a waiver and the stupid chase right now, or asked for any favors.

    • The comments are directed at Nascar. And I disagree with you about Tony, I am sure the timing of his “return” shows he and Nascar care a great deal about waivers and “the stupid chase”.

      • Dave, if Tony only cared about the Chase, he would have run at Watkins Glen, possibly won, dedicated the victory to Ward and/or the family, had no further comments, and made eligibility a moot point. Love the quotes around “return” as if he’s secretly been competing under an alias all along.

        • Seriously??? And possibly won??? Love the juice you are drinking, is it for sale? This is merely a “acceptable morning” period for Tony. come on Tim..seriously??????? This is how PR game is played. Anything earlier would look like he is callous, anything later than these two races, he has no chance. But seeing Kyle Busch did damage to him and pretty much the whole hard fought front pack, design or not HMS has all his pretty little Super Heros are in “The Chase”. A mixed result for HMS and its farm teams thanks to Kyle, or not.

  5. And NASCAR wonders why the fans aren’t convinced that what they do is correct, well, Tony’s waiver is certainly one of those things that calls it into question. And if he wins tonight, it will be even more suspect IMO.

    Tony wasn’t having that great a season before the incident in NY that killed Ward, so giving him a free pass under these circumstances doesn’t sit well with me.

    NASCAR’s drive for their Game 7 moments has made the sport exactly what Stewart himself describe: the WWE on wheels.

  6. Of course it could happen, especially with Nascar writing the script. If he wins, it would not surprise. Nascar loves scripted drama. Especially anything Chevy related, or HMS. Tony getting a waiver so conveniently with two races to go is just too good to pass up. Disgusting. Imo, BZF and Walrus Mike were in a steakhouse for hours after a lunch of red meat and Manhattan’s scribbling scenarios on a cocktail napkin. Jeff Gordon magic 13 last year, Martin Truex Jr. thrown to the curb, why not a Tony win! Tony Stewart has gotten a pass on poor behavior and has been enabled for years, under the mistaken assumption that all true race fans are endeared to his behavior, not so. Poor Tony, in his stress will need a pick me up and a win at Atlanta or Richmond could be just the ticket, no doubt their thinking..and of course the perceived revenue $$$$$$$ having Tony on the racetrack. The waiver rule is now officially meaningless. A poor business model and practice if ever was one to retain the fan dollar.

    • Whatch out for the black helicopters!! Dipshit……

    • I agree completely, kb. Whatever the level of Stewart’s sincerity, there is no question about NASCAR’s motivation. The NASCAR “brain trust” has decided that treating Stewart as a conquering hero is the best way to get TV ratings and PR. And it is clearly working so far. Tonight’s race will undoubtedly be the most watched and most media-covered of the season. I guess they began to worry that Joonyer’s quest for his first championship or Gordon’s Drive for Five were just not bringing in the bucks they hoped. Enter THE STORY OF TONY. With all the help from phantom cautions and further rules waivers the great TS needs to get into the Chase, we have “business as usual,” only more profitable. Imagine the horror of Kevin Ward’s family being treated to all-Tony all-the-time while their son is treated as road kill.

      • Sadly, no humility or class given the severity of the accident by all involved in Nascar, including many of Tony’s “fans”. The rockstart treatment he is receiving for his “return” after his “grieving period” is a sad thing indeed. I haven’t however given up on the Championship script for Jr. or Gordon..Nascar still has their eyes on that perceived windfall….:)

    • Well put. I don’t know why the “waiver” even needed before these next races are run. Why shoot yourself in the foot and risk your credibility by giving a waiver not yet needed. Sadly, I smell a fix.