McGEE: Atlanta's speed, bumps make for wild ride

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Ryan McGee

It¿s that time again, folks. Strap on those belts, batten down the hatches and hang onto your butt. We¿re going racing in Atlanta and that means one thing and one thing only — 500 miles of unbridled, 100 percent, ¿dear Lord help me this is too fast¿ speed. ¿The first time you run down there, it¿s like ¿whoa!¿¿, says Jeff Burton. ¿It just feels faster than everywhere else.¿ It does, Mr. Burton, because it is. Daytona and Talladega? Please. Last month, Jimmie Johnson won the pole for the Daytona 500 with a speed of 185.831 mph. Last October at Talladega, Stacy Compton started up front after clocking in at 185.240 mph. One month later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the pole at Atlanta with a speed of 192.047mph. When it comes to hauling the mail, the Postmaster resides in the Peach City. ¿You really feel the speed when you hit the track for the first couple of laps,¿ says Jeff Gordon, three-time Atlanta winner. ¿Eventually, you become used to it.¿ ¿You do get used to it,¿ agrees Burton. ¿But that can be a bad thing. You get into your routine, and you forget that you¿re going nearly 200 miles per hour. When you get lulled to sleep a little bit, that¿s usually when things go bad. And believe me, when they go bad, you suddenly remember how fast you were going.¿ The biggest reminders of that speed are a couple of ¿whomp-whomp¿ bumps in turns one and two. Like their cousins in Charlotte — the infamous Humpy Bumps — these moguls are placed just perfectly enough to make the driver have to work a little harder coming up off of the corner. ¿You need to make sure your car gets over the bumps but still turns well,¿ advises Tony Stewart, who has struggled at Atlanta with three DNF¿s in six starts. ¿Normally, if you turn after you hit the bumps, your car is tight. If you turn before you hit the bumps, you¿re loose. Finding that common balance — getting the car over the bumps but having to it turn at the same time — that¿s what you¿re shooting for.¿ And if you don¿t find that balance? Ouch. ¿Every time you go over those bumps, you¿re thinking, ¿Wow, this fast,¿¿ says Gordon. ¿If anything goes wrong, you know it¿s going to hurt.¿


This weekend, the one thing that goes wrong the most may be under the hood. NASCAR¿s new one engine rule — teams must use the same motor for practice, qualifying, and the race — has gotten off pretty easy so far this season. Weekend numbers one and two for the new regulation came at Rockingham and Las Vegas, both 400-mile events. Sunday¿s race in Atlanta is a 500-miler at the highest revving track on the circuit. Expect a lot of blue faces in the pits around the 400-mile mark at lap 260. Those would be the engine builders holding their collective breath, hoping they see the checkered flag before they see their car billowing smoke down the frontstretch. ¿This will be the ultimate test for the one-engine rule,¿ speculates Jeremy Mayfield. ¿I guess we¿ll see who is going to put it on the line for Atlanta. It¿ll be a pretty touchy situation for a lot of people. I feel like going into the weekend, we¿ll probably run the minimum amount of laps that we can and still feel like we¿re competitive.¿ ¿Yeah, I agree with that,¿ laughs Sterling Marlin. ¿I think it would be smart to sit out a few laps during practice sessions to be on the safe side. Laps in practice don¿t pay, laps in the race do. You don¿t want to use up those paying laps.¿


This weekend¿s best bets in Georgia? Bobby Labonte and Jerry Nadeau. Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 1995, Labonte¿s record at Atlanta has been second to no one. How do you like this line score? 14 starts, 5 wins, 2 poles, 10 top 10¿s, 702 laps led. In 18 career starts, the 2000 Winston Cup champ has posted an average finish of 12th with just two DNF¿s. Nadeau¿s success has all come in his last three Atlanta starts with one win (Nov. 20, 2000), three top five finishes and 264 laps led. The win is his lone career victory while the top fives and laps led account for nearly half of his career totals (8 and 549). Truthfully, it should be two wins. The Connecticut native had the field beat last November before running out of gas in sight of the checkered flag. ¿I had a four-second lead when we ran out of fuel,¿ he remembers with a grimace. ¿But the fans knew we won the race and the drivers knew we were the ones to beat so we took that away from the track. It was, and is, hard to swallow, but it made us stronger as a team.¿


This week¿s celebrity sighting? U.S. skiing legend Picabo Street will be in the Atlanta pits as a guest of tireless Kyle Petty. Street and Petty will be paying a visit to the Children¿s Healthcare Center of Atlanta at Scottish Right on behalf of the Starbright Foundation and Sprint. Starbright World is a privately funded computer network that connects kids with serious illnesses throughout the world. It was a project that began under the watchful eye of the late Adam Petty and has grown to include 20,000 children and 97 hospitals. Street is becoming a regular at the track. She first strolled into the pits as a guest of Dale Earnhardt¿s after her gold medal run in 1998. After the death of Earnhardt one year ago, Street pay tribute to him by naming her skis ¿Earnies¿. ¿I love NASCAR. I do. I¿m hooked,¿ says the two-time Olympic medalist. ¿Anybody that goes and sees it in person immediately loves it. It blew me away the first time and it still does.¿ Ryan McGee is the producer of which airs weeknights at 6 p.m. local on FOX Sports Net and 6:30 p.m. ET on SPEED Channel.
Tagged: Kyle Petty

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