03/14/04 — Pit stop by Jerry Howell Ñ Atlanta track is one of the fastest

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Pit stop by Jerry Howell Ñ Atlanta track is one of the fastest

By News-Argus Staff
Published in Sports on March 14, 2004 2:00 AM

Today's Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be fast, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes it can be his race.

This is the first week Earnhardt has ranked outside the top five in points since the Bristol event in March 2003. Dale was leading the point standings before the Las Vegas event.

"We're not pleased with the Vegas race," said Dale Jr., driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet. "No one on the team is panicking; no one was jumping up and down when we led the points after two races. You can't carry it with you too long. It's a long season, and we're not going to let a bad day take our focus off the big picture. If anything, this makes us buckle down and work harder. I'm sure we're going to do a lot of laps in testing this week to figure out what we need to do.

"My goal this year is to get five wins, and of all the places we visit Atlanta is one of the tracks I feel we have our best chances of winning. Atlanta is the fastest track we go to, and it's almost impossible to describe the feeling launching into turns one and three at more than 200 mph. It takes guts to keep your right foot held down. Atlanta's kind of like Martinsville -- we are one of the cars to beat almost every time, but something always seems to happen late in the race to knock us out of a win."

Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of the premiere motorsports facilities in the country, and the fastest mile-and-a-half NASCAR track in the country. In addition to being fast, the track has developed into a three-groove racing surface, which has produced fantastic side-by-side racing and photo finishes in the fast few years.

During the first qualifying event that followed the reconfiguration of the track back in 1997, Geoffrey Bodine blazed a lap around the smooth, wide lanes of Atlanta's new quad-oval raceway in just 28.074 seconds and 197.194 mph. Speeds have slowed down slightly since then, and a 193-195 mph range is possible for today's Cup cars.

Today, Bobby Labonte will start his 23rd race at Atlanta. He has won at Atlanta six times in his career, including last year's spring race.

"It's going to be interesting when we get down there," said Bobby Labonte, driver of the No. 18 Chevrolet. "We didn't test there, but I think I've only tested there like once or twice in my whole life. We will be there with the same aero package and tires -- it'll be a concern for everybody in the first half of the season as we go to these tracks. Once you start figuring things out for the second go-around, you'll have a better feel for it. I'm looking forward to this race. It has always been a good track for us. I don't think we should lose anything, but if we do lose something, maybe everybody else will too. If we lose grip or time or something like that, like I said, maybe everybody else will too."

Last year, Matt Kenseth won the title in 2003 with just one win but so far this season, he won twice in three races.

"I'm excited about going to Atlanta," said Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Rousch Ford. "We're running so good right now with all of the Rousch components that I'm having the most fun I have ever had driving a race car in my life. I think we have a good chance to continue the momentum that we're built over these last three weeks and hopefully continue to put ourselves into the right position for later in the season. It's a long way to go and we're only four weeks into it at this point, but it sure feels good to already have two wins this season."

Today's Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta will be televised live on Fox at 1 p.m.

Behind the wall

It seems that last week at Las Vegas, the Ray Evernham Motorsports Dodges were the fastest. Several teams were suspicious about what advantages the Evernham crew had found. The competitors discovered the noses on the Dodges were designed to offer greater downforce in the front and the rear. Everything was totally legal. Evernham cars were constructed completely within the rules. "It was so simple it makes you mad that we didn't come up with it," said one competitor.

Robby Gordon is looking to buy an IRL team to help with his Indy 500 effort. Gordon will operate his Indy 500 effort out of his shop in Huntersville, and Gordon is considering continuing his new operation past the 500 if he can land more sponsorship.

Rusty Wallace and Penske Racing South keep making changes to the crew. Bill Wilbum was Rusty's crew chief last season, and was moved into the role of shop foreman for the no. 77 team with rookie driver Brendan Gaughan. Wilbum will continue working with the No. 77 team during the week, but he will take over as front tire changer of Wallace's team this weekend. Rusty decided to return to an experienced veteran.

Cheryl Jones, vice president of field operations for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, wants NASCAR to suspend Scott Wimmer for several races if he is convicted of driving while impaired next month. Jones said she realizes racing is driving on private property, but NASCAR should send a message that you can't drink and drive. NASCAR said they will wait to see what the courts do first before deciding if any additional punishment is warranted.

General Motors teams are quietly lobbying NASCAR for a new nose for their one-year old Chevrolet Monte Carlo. They want the same nose that led to a near panic in 2003 when its odd shape seemed to give the car a lot more downforce.

What will Dodge run in 2005 since they will no longer make the Dodge Intrepid after this year? Dodge is ready to submit to NASCAR a new model for 2005. The question -- is it a Dodge Charger?

SEE YOU AT THE RACES///////////////

Pit Stop will not run enxt week. It will return in two weeks.