Atwood Out Earnhardt Honored

News and notes from Friday's NASCAR action at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

HAMPTON, Ga. – After Friday’s qualifying for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Casey Atwood’s crew began to work on his No. 19 Dodge Intrepid.

But they weren’t getting the rookie’s car ready for 500 miles of action Sunday afternoon, the fourth race of the 2001 Winston Cup season.

Instead, they were loading his car and getting ready to take it on a long, bitter 250-mile trek back to Ray Evernham Motorsports in Statesville, N.C.

Naturally, the 20-year-old Atwood was at a loss for words after learning he’d qualified 45th fastest out of the 46 cars trying to make their way into Sunday’s 43-car field. Rick Mast and Carl Long will join Atwood on the sidelines.

Because Atwood’s team is new, the No. 19 team wasn’t eligible for a provisional. During the first four races of the year, provisionals are determined from last year’s owner points.

As his crew was busy loading up his car, Atwood could only look outside from his team’s transporter as team owner Ray Evernham and crew chief Patrick Donahue were offering their assessments to the media.

“This is just a part of racing,” Evernham said. “You don’t like it, but it happens to people all the time. It’s the first time that it’s happened to us, but shame on us because we got behind and didn’t get a chance to come down here and test. This is what happens.”

For Donahue, Jeff Gordon’s former crew chief in the Busch Series, Friday’s disappointment was a tough pill to swallow.

“We definitely knew this could happen,” said a dejected Donahue. “We were 20th in the points, but this is going to kill us. I guess now we’re heading to Bristol next week to test, so we’ll get ready there in a couple of weeks, then go on to Darlington for the race next weekend.

“We need to do some testing because we know the same thing can happen to us at those tracks. We’ve dug ourselves a hole, now we’ve got a lot of work to do to get out of that hole.”

Because of a rainout during a test session at Rockingham, the team elected to stay at North Carolina Speedway to ensure they were better prepared for the second race of the year. Unfortunately for them, it meant not testing at Atlanta.

“Hindsight, foresight – whatever you want to call it,” Evernham said when asked for answers to a question concerning not testing. “When you try to do as many different things as we did working 24 hours a day, we just didn’t have time to do it. It rained one of our tests out at Rockingham, and because of that we weren’t able to get down here.

“This is the beginning of these guys’ careers, not the end of it. There’s a lot of people that have had a lot tougher days than we have and had to leave the race track early, but this is just a part of life. Casey and all the guys on that team have all been working real hard, but the snowball finally caught up with us.”

Painfully, Donahue said he couldn’t help but agree.

“It’s a rough deal,” Donahue said. “Ray has given us a big opportunity and he has a lot of faith in all of us, so we definitely didn’t need this. We didn’t need this at all.”

Hail to Dale: Dale Earnhardt had more victories at Atlanta Motor Speedway than any other driver in NASCAR Winston Cup Series history.

It was only fitting then Friday that officials at the 1.54-mile oval announced the North Turn Grandstand has been renamed for the seven-time Winston Cup champion.

Earnhardt, who was killed in a tragic accident a few weeks ago at Daytona International Speedway, had nine victories at AMS, including a photo finish over Bobby Labonte in last March’s Cracker Barrel 500.

“Dale Earnhardt was, for many years, an integral part of Atlanta Motor Speedway; he was a central figure in many of our historical moments,” said Ed Clark, president and general manager of Atlanta Motor Speedway. “By naming the Earnhardt Grandstand after him, he will always remain a part of Atlanta Motor Speedway.”

Plans were also being made to pay tribute to Earnhardt prior to Sunday’s Cracker Barrel 500, with participation from the fans. At the beginning of Lap 3, fans will be asked to silently stand and raise three fingers. They will be asked to remain standing for the entire lap, as 7,000 black balloons will be released – 1,000 for each championship Earnhardt won.

“We wanted to find a way for the fans to be involving in helping us honor this racing legend and friend,” Clark said. “This will be a fitting way to remember the man who defined NASCAR racing for so many people.”

On Benson’s Shoulders: Pro Football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, the national spokesman for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, announced Friday during a press conference at Atlanta Motor Speedway a hefty proposal surrounding Johnny Benson and his No. 10 Valvoline team.

Should Benson win a pole position and a race on the same weekend in any of the remaining weekends on the Winston Cup schedule, Valvoline will pledge $1 million to the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America. The announcement came as part of Valvoline’s 2001 “Caring Hands” national partnership with BBBSA.

The partnership was formed in 1999 to raise money for school-based mentoring programs and recruit new volunteer mentors for the country’s premier mentoring program.

Valvoline will also make donations to BBBSA throughout the 2001 season based on Benson’s on-track performance: $5,000 for a victory, $2,500 for a pole, $1,000 for a Top-10 finish, $500 for a Top-20 finish, and $20 for each lap led.

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