Drivers welcome schedule change

Although it’s not official, Speed Channel flashed on its screen

during coverage of Friday’s Sprint Cup practice that the 2011 Chase

for the Sprint Cup title would begin at Chicagoland instead of New

Hampshire.

NASCAR already has begun to tweak its schedule with the

announcement this week that Atlanta, which is owned by Speedway

Motorsports Inc., would lose one of its races in 2011. It marks the

first time since the track opened in 1960 that it will not host two

Cup events in a season.

SMI owner Bruton Smith said recently he would like to have at

least one Cup date at each of his NASCAR-sanctioned tracks, and a

person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press that

SMI’s Kentucky track will host a Cup race next July. Kansas also is

in line to get a second date.

That’s good news in the garage area.

”The sponsors, just like NASCAR and the rest of us, want to see

a packed grandstand. They want to see a lot of excitement around

the event,” said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. ”As long as

we’re going there (to Atlanta) once a year, I think it’s good

because we’re still hitting that market. Wherever we end up going,

if it draws a bigger crowd or at least draws a lot of attention and

excitement and puts on a good race, it’s a good change.”

”I think all tracks need to be held to a standard,” said Kevin

Harvick, who leads the Cup standings. ”Whether it be safety,

whether it be crowd attendance, whatever it is. The biggest boom we

have ever seen in this sport came in 2001 when we went to new

venues in Chicago, Kansas, and you had all this movement with the

schedule and you created all these new fans. Sometimes things

become stale.”

Atlanta, which has been plagued by poor attendance, had its

defenders.

”Some of the races make sense, some of them don’t, in my

opinion,” said Clint Bowyer, driver of the No. 33 for Richard

Childress Racing. ”Losing Atlanta is a disappointment to me. I

think there are a couple of other tracks that have two races that I

would, if it was my pick, go once to.”

”I hate to see Atlanta losing a race,” added Denny Hamlin of

Joe Gibbs Racing. ”It’s a great race for us to race. I don’t know

if it’s a great race to watch, the fans will have to decide that.

They gotta go where the fans go.”

THE GLEN GETS GOOD MARKS: While Pocono Raceway has received its

share of criticism for its failure to institute needed safety

measures, Watkins Glen International received glowing reviews for

the improvements it made in the offseason following horrific wrecks

the past two years on the 11-turn, 2.45-mile track.

”Unbelievable,” said Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing. ”It

is amazing to see what they have done around this race track. It is

so nice to see a race track respond so quickly to what appeared to

be a pretty bad accident last race.”

SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers have been

installed in the area of the chicane, or inner loop, and final

turn, guard rails have been moved back in turn 9, gravel areas have

been paved in an effort to reduce cautions, and sand barrels have

replaced the tire barriers that contributed to last year’s violent

crash involving Kasey Kahne, Sam Hornish Jr. and Gordon, among

others.

In 2008, a stunning multicar crash in turn 11 with eight laps

remaining brought out a red flag stoppage that lasted 43 minutes.

The pileup started when Michael McDowell spun David Gilliland, who

caromed off the wall and was slammed hard again by Bobby Labonte,

with both cars spinning violently around. Max Papis, Dave Blaney,

and Sam Hornish Jr. also were unable to avoid the carnage, with

Hornish slamming hard into the sand barrier at the entrance to pit

road.

JIMMIE’S DRIVE: Four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s casual

demeanor belies a fiery competitive spirit.

Just ask Bob Stallings. He’s seen it firsthand.

Stallings recruited Johnson to drive for the No. 99 GAINSCO team

at Watkins Glen International in the Rolex Series in June the same

weekend the Cup series was competing at Pocono, a short helicopter

ride away. Johnson also raced this year for Stallings in the Rolex

24 at Daytona.

”He has a pretty high standard for himself, not in comparison

to anybody else, but he’s very, very aware of who he is, very

comfortable in his own skin,” Stalling said. ”He challenges

himself in everything. Last year at the (Rolex) 24, we were doing

driver changes and I said, ‘I think we’re OK.’ He said, ‘Nah, nah

Bob, if you don’t mind, we’ll do a couple more.’

”I didn’t get it, but I finally figured out he wanted to be a

little quicker than (regular driver) Alex (Gurney) getting in and

out of the car,” Stallings said. ”As soon as he got there, he

says, ‘OK, I’m fine.’ That’s another indication that he’s measuring

himself against his own standards. He just wants to be good.”

SPARK PLUGS: Pocono winner Greg Biffle topped both Cup practices

on Friday. … Jimmie Johnson spun out early in the first practice,

doing damage to the splitter on the front end. He was 29th on the

speed charts in the first session, one ahead of four-time Watkins

Glen winner Jeff Gordon as the Hendrick Motorsports cars struggled

all day. Johnson was 13th in the final session while Gordon faded

to 39th. … Mohawk Valley Community College Aviation Training

Center is an associate sponsor on the No. 28 Jay Robinson Racing

Chevrolet Kenny Wallace will drive in Saturday’s Zippo 200

Nationwide race at The Glen. Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim

is grand marshal. … Former Formula One champ Jacques Villeneuve

will make his first start on Saturday at Watkins Glen International

in the Zippo 200. It will mark his fourth career Nationwide Series

start, all on road courses. His best finish is a fourth last August

in Montreal on the track named for his father.