NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Despite the Hype, NASCAR Is Going to Atlanta This Weekend, Not Bristol

Did you know that NASCAR is having a dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway?

If you’ve paid attention to any form of NASCAR media this whole week (and really longer than that), you’ve been beaten over the head by that news.

Every day, there’s new news about that race weekend, whether it’s about the conditions of the track, which NASCAR Cup Series drivers are entered in the Camping World Truck Series race there or which dirt ringers are taking part in the weekend. There have even been Cup drivers entering various dirt races this week to get reps ahead of their race.

There’s a lot of hype going into the Bristol dirt weekend, and justifiably so. After all, it’s the first time the Cup cars will race on dirt in 50-plus years.

Although skeptical at first, I’m excited for this race as well after trying it out on iRacing. The racing will be anywhere between a beautiful symphony and a beautiful disaster, and that’s what makes it worth watching. No one knows what to expect.

But what if I told you that those races aren’t actually until March 27-28 and that there’s a whole other race weekend before that?

This weekend, March 20-21, all three NASCAR national touring series will head to Atlanta Motor Speedway.

That’s right, Atlanta got the short end of the stick when it comes to scheduling.

Don’t get me wrong, Atlanta was fortunate to get back its second race weekend, something it had annually from its inception in 1960 until 2010. Having any dates at all on the NASCAR schedule is huge, and tracks kind of have to take what NASCAR gives them, because they’re lucky to have a race date.

But what doesn’t sit well with me is that one of NASCAR’s oldest and most exciting tracks doesn’t get the hype and treatment that it used to. When it was first created, Atlanta was a huge deal because it was one of the four major superspeedways on the circuit, in addition to Charlotte Motor Speedway, Darlington Raceway and Daytona International Speedway.

Calling all of those a superspeedway right there is not a typo. From the early years of NASCAR until the 1990s, tracks like Atlanta, Charlotte and Darlington were considered superspeedways. That’s because those tracks were colossal compared to the short tracks and dirt tracks that used to make up the schedule.

But as more mile-and-a-half tracks were built and became the norm, they quit being known as superspeedways and simply became speedways.

The addition of all those cookie-cutter intermediates caused the original superspeedways to lose some of their luster. But throughout the 1990s, each of those four tracks had something that they could cling to, something that made them special. Daytona had the Daytona 500, Charlotte had the Coca-Cola 600, Darlington had the Southern 500 and Atlanta had the championship race.

Even after its final championship race, Atlanta stayed relevant thanks to the exciting photo finishes and exciting first-time wins by Kevin Harvick in 2001 and Carl Edwards in 2005. But the crowds for Atlanta’s second race date went from 120,000 in fall 2005 down to 80,000 in fall 2008, and that date was ultimately lost. Atlanta’s lone date then bounced around to several unceremonious spots on the schedule before it finally got its second date back this year.

And what is supposed to be the biggest year for Atlanta in quite awhile is going to start out in the shadow of a much more anticipated event in the Bristol dirt race. NASCAR really should’ve scheduled an off week the weekend before Bristol dirt, because any race happening before that was going to be overshadowed. Atlanta’s first date could’ve had a spot where it could’ve shined brighter.

Maybe there will be more hype for that Hampton, Ga., track when the tour returns to it in July, as folks are used to there being an Atlanta race in the spring but not one in the middle of summer. But even then, the talk will likely be more about the race that happens one week prior to Atlanta’s second date: the Cup Series’ first race at Road America since 1956, which takes place on July 4, of all dates. Who cares what happens the week after a memorable event like that?

That means some pretty epic racing is going to have to happen in order for the two Atlanta weekends to shine. If this were the early 2000s when Atlanta’s fairly fresh pavement and the Cup package married perfectly to provide some of the best racing known to man, I’d feel confident in that happening.

Atlanta’s old asphalt now gives the chance for interesting tire strategy and for the best drivers to shine, but you’re not going to see three-wide battles for the win. I had to look up who won last year’s Cup race at Atlanta because I could not remember what happened. That’s how unmemorable it was.

But there is hope for Atlanta’s future. The track is set to receive a $1 billion expansion that includes a casino and entertaining complex being build next to the track. And if you look closely at the renderings of this project, it looks like the track will be going back to the oval shape it had from its inception until it was remodeled in 1997.

Hopefully all of this brings buzz back to AMS and the new layout will provide thrilling racing. Maybe the track gets a playoff date out of this, and I pray that it gets into a championship race rotation. Even though more champions have now been crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway, there’s just something that feels right about a championship race in Atlanta. It needs some type of race that gives it its own prestige on par with the Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600.

I’ve been told that at one point there was a falling out between NASCAR and the city of Atlanta. With that being one of the biggest cities in the country, NASCAR needs to mend that bridge in its quest for new fans. What better time than now when the most popular driver and reigning champion is from nearby Dawsonville, Ga.?

One of NASCAR’s most historic tracks has really been down in the dumps, but the opportunity is there to make it iconic again. I hope NASCAR jumps on this opportunity.

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