NASCAR

Atlanta Viewers Guide

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Steve Byrnes

Steve Byrnes is a host and reporter for NASCAR on FOX. A broadcast veteran, he has covered racing for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter.

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The Atlanta Motor Speedway is a very fast racetrack, but it's also a handling racetrack.

Like last week at Las Vegas, teams have to get the car to turn well. We're all impressed with horsepower and speed, but NASCAR is almost like golf. You drive for show and putt for dough. Handling isn't as apparent to the average viewer as horsepower is, but the drivers that get their cars to turn the best will contend for the win at the end of the race.

Who to Watch

  • Casey Mears: For the third time in six years, a first-time winner has good shot at going to Atlanta's Victory Lane. Mears led 37 laps there two years ago before losing an engine. He ran really well and nearly won the 2005 season finale at Homestead, and he's finished in the top 10 in all three races this season. For whatever reason — and Mears may not even be able to tell you what it is — he's figured out the Dodge Charger while other guys are struggling. Now, we go to Atlanta, a track where he feels confident so it could be a Carl Edwards type of weekend for Mears.
  • Tony Stewart: With four top-five finishes and a win, Stewart has led 473 laps at Atlanta. He's had the car to beat in all three races this year, and he's going to continue to be strong.
  • Bobby Labonte: His six wins and nearly 1,000 laps led are pretty stout. I'm not sure if Petty Enterprises has had enough time to get into Victory Lane. But based on the fact that Labonte likes that place so much, it makes him one to watch.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.: The No. 8 team continues to show improvement. He's got a win and five top fives at this track. Their program is headed in the right direction.
  • Greg Biffle: Although he wasn't completely happy with his racecar at Las Vegas, he had a top-10 finish. This is an important race for him, and he has a Busch Series win there. And he's got four top 10's in six Cup starts.
  • Carl Edwards: As big a weekend as Edwards had last year — winning the Busch and Cup races — put it aside, and he's still one to watch on Sunday.
  • Jimmie Johnson: What impresses me most about Johnson isn't his win at the track but the fact that he's finished in the top five in over half of his races at Atlanta. What sort of adjective do you put with what that race team has accomplished, winning two races and finishing 2nd without their crew chief? It's spectacular. In Victory Lane at Las Vegas, we talked about how he lost a close one to Edwards last year at Atlanta. If that happens again this week, we've already seen that he won't lose that way again. Since learning that lesson, he's won two races exactly like it.
  • Historic moment

    When Willy T. Ribbs made three starts in 1986, I was in my second year of covering NASCAR. Twenty years later, Bill Lester made the field in his adopted hometown this weekend. There's nothing gimmicky about this entry for Bill Davis Racing, his Craftsman Truck Series team. Lester has paid his dues, and he's got an impressive drive to do well. It's a big step. I see more women in the stands and at SPEED's mobile stage truck for Trackside, but NASCAR really wants to see more minorities. The Drive for Diversity is crucial for the continued growth of the sport. But NASCAR really wants to see more minorities. NASCAR's not giving that lip service, and I'm not either. I hope Bill does well. He's such an articulate guy and impressive guy.

    What to Watch

  • Finding your line: At Las Vegas, Kyle Busch's spotter told him where other guys were running at specific corners on the racetrack, and figuring out where to run will be a factor again this week. Sometimes the spotter tells the driver, and sometimes the driver asks the spotter.
  • Blown engines: As Mears demonstrated two years ago, engine attrition is a problem because of hanging rpm's. Teams can't tune their engines to the point that they lose them. It's a fine line because you have to have horsepower, but you have to be reliable.
  • Track position: Last year with five laps to go, Bob Osborne told Carl Edwards, "Well, we've had a good top-five run here." There was no way Carl Edwards was going to catch Jimmie Johnson. The team was all but packing up their pit box. But every corner that went by, Edwards gained more ground and beat Edwards to the start/finish line. From a strategy standpoint, Atlanta has become more like Daytona. Track position is more important than tires and fuel, to me, the strategy at Atlanta is keep yourself in position to win.
  • Fantastic finishes: Atlanta isn't like a lot of tracks where you can be near the leader, but you can't get to them. At Atlanta, you can get to them. When Kevin Harvick won this race in 2001, cars were going three and sometimes four-wide in the last 20 laps of that race.
  • Pit Perspective

    Evernham Motorsports doesn't have crew chiefs anymore. Each team has a team director, a car director and an engineer. Some observers think Ray Evernham is being different just to be different, but his point is the job of crew chief has become too big for one guy.
    Speed Mail Steve
    When Evernham left Hendrick Motorsports, Brian Whitesell stepped in and won his first race with Jeff Gordon. Whitesell wasn't interested in being a crew chief. He's more of a behind-the-scenes guy. Darian Grubb may be a full-time crew chief some day, but his success is an example of Evernham's philosophy. A team has to have a lot of key people. Taking nothing away from Grubb or Chad Knaus because Grubb has done a terrific job at the races while Knaus obviously has been working at the shop and pointing his team in the right direction. The No. 48 team's ability to excel without its regular crew chief shows how the sport has changed, and when Knaus comes back next week at Bristol, the team won't miss a beat.

    Finish Line

    At Atlanta, it's absolutely critical to make changes and keep up with the track. When Kurt Busch first broke into Cup, he had a great run going, but an adjustment cost them a top-five finish. I was impressed because he told crew chief Jimmy Fennig to make a note not to make that change next time. Last week, his brother Kyle's team made the right adjustment late in the race. After raising the track bar one round at a time for three consecutive pit stops, they had to undo the change and lower the track bar. The team that makes the right adjustments should win Sunday's race.


    NASCAR on FOX and SPEED Channel host and reporter Steve Byrnes has covered racing for more than 20 years, and he gives kids a close look at a real stock car and its driver with Ryan's Racecar, a 30-minute video/DVD. For more information, go to RyansRacecar.com

    Tagged: Kurt Busch, Bill Lester, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick

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