Atwood Ready For Winston Cup
May 12, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Just for convenience, let’s just call him the "youngest" -- the youngest driver ever to win a pole (17 years, six months, 18 days) in his second career start in front of the hometown fans at Nashville Speedway, the youngest driver to win a race (18 years, 10 months, 10 days) in his 30th start at the Milwaukee Mile, and soon he will be the youngest millionaire in NASCAR, as his eighth-place finish at Richmond took his winnings to close to $920,000.
Not bad for 55 starts.
What’s even more impressive is that Atwood could soon become the youngest driver in the Winston Cup garage if Ray Evernham has his way.
In January, Evernham announced he would be overseeing Dodge’s re-entry into the Winston Cup series in 2001 and his own team -- Evernham Motorsports -- would feature a veteran racer and a younger driver he could mold for the future.
At Atlanta in March, Evernham named Bill Elliott as his veteran driver. It is expected that later this month that Atwood will get the nod to run for rookie of the year behind the wheel of an Evernham Motorsports Dodge. Sources close to Atwood say the deal is signed, and Evernham certainly is not denying that Casey is his boy.
"One of my first considerations for hiring my second driver was how we would get along
with Bill, and I think they’re (Bill and Casey) a good fit," Evernham said. "What impressed me about Casey was his record. In some ways he reminds me of Jeff (Gordon) a little bit. I think the talent is there -- though he's like a diamond in the rough and we have to work on that -- and he will be an excellent teammate for Bill."
Evernham worked wonders with Jeff Gordon throughout their Winston Cup career together. As the top crew chief and driver tandem at Hendrick Motorsports, the dynamic duo won three championships in four years. Still, Evernham is adamant that the success he shared with Gordon during his days at Hendrick Motorsports was a group effort. But he’s hoping that the same promise he saw in Gordon comes to fruition with Atwood.
"I want to go on record and say that I didn't bring Jeff Gordon along," Evernham said. "We came up through the ranks together. He helped me, certainly as much as I helped him. But with Casey, it's his talent at a young age. I wish I could put my finger on what exactly that it is."
For now, Atwood says he’s happy in the Busch Series. But, when the time comes to make the announcement, Atwood will be ready.
"If I have a chance to drive for Ray, then I'd be a fool not to take the opportunity," Atwood said. "I'm content to stay in the Busch Series, but if the right opportunity comes and I feel like I'm ready to move up, then I'll move up.
"The way he worked with Jeff shows the patience he has with younger drivers. No one in the Busch garage would pass up this chance. This is definitely the opportunity of a lifetime, and it is the only deal I would consider moving up for because I really need the experience of working in the Busch series. That will make me a better driver in the long run."
Through the first 10 races of the season, Atwood seemed to be suffering from a sophomore slump, barely hanging on to 14th in points just seven ahead of Mark Martin, who has only competed in six events. But after coming off of an eighth-place last week at Richmond, Atwood and the No. 27 Castrol GTX team have found a new level of confidence as the tour travels to New Hampshire International Speedway this weekend for the Busch 200.
"Last week's eighth-place finish really pumped everyone on the team up," Atwood said. "In the past few races, everything is clicking, a lot like it did last year. We knew our season was going to come around despite the slow start we had. This is a very strong team. Everyone goes through periods like this. Look at the No. 3 team. They are a championship team, but they aren't having as good of a season as they did last year. It's just a part of racing."
Atwood admits that his rookie season in 1999 was inconsistent. Although he ran 31 races and won two poles and two races, he failed to qualify for the event at Las Vegas, wrecked six times and blew two engines.
"We had a lot of bad races and a lot of good races," Atwood said. "It was basically due to a new driver and a new team. Now that we've had a year with our cars and I'm used to the tracks and the crew has had a chance to work together, things are going to be better this year. When we have good cars, it makes me look good."
Knowing what Evernham accomplished with Gordon during the infancy of his career, Atwood is well aware that Evernham could offer him the same opportunity.
"Obviously, Ray was a great crew chief, and I'm sure he will be a great car owner," Atwood said. "He organizes his people really well and he organizes his team, and everyone works real hard. I don't think second is good enough for him. He wants to win, and everything he touches is a winner. It would be great to work for him."