Atwood At His Best In Loudon

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Casey Atwood wasn’t expecting to set the world on fire during his rookie season in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. His team owner, Ray Evernham, wasn’t expecting that, either.

But then neither Atwood nor Evernham anticipated the highly-touted first-year driver of Evernham’s No. 19 Dodge Intrepid to struggle adapting to Winston Cup competition as much as he has in 2001. Mired in 34th place in the standings isn’t quite what either of the two had in mind just after the halfway point of the season.

So when Atwood is able to perform and finish as well as he did Sunday in the New England 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway, it’s cause for a small celebration in the Evernham Motorsports camp.

“We had a good car, and that showed when we started moving up spots at the beginning of the race,” Atwood said. “It was great to have the Dodge up front. This track (NHIS) is so hard to pass on, it’s so hard to get track position. We came from a lap down and ended up finishing 12th. We had a top-10 car, but it was a good day for us anyway.”

Evernham, whose other car, with veteran driver Bill Elliott, has also struggled to find any consistency this season, echoed Atwood’s sentiments.

“It was good to see our rookie up front of the pack,” said Evernham, in his first full season as a Winston Cup team owner. “I was happy. Casey had a Top 15 and that was good for him. That car could have easily been in the Top 10, but we got caught on that caution right after our pit stop and we got a lap down, and that killed any shot we had of finishing in the Top 5.”

Atwood proved his moxie Sunday at NHIS, improving 15 spots from his starting position and finishing on the lead lap, which is something he hasn’t done very often this season. He’s accomplished that feat just three times, the last one coming at Richmond, when he also finished 12th.

His finish Sunday was also his best finish since Richmond in early May and his first top-20 effort since Richmond.

Many thought that Atwood could break the Top 20 or even the Top 15 in the points standings during his rookie campaign, and certainly be a challenger for rookie-of-the-year honors in the Winston Cup Series. Finishing in the Top 30 in the points could now prove to be a challenge for him, and the entrance of Kevin Harvick into Winston Cup competition this season pretty much took care of any aspirations Atwood had of being the top rookie.

Elliott, who limped to a 24th-place finish Sunday at New Hampshire, is 19th in the Winston Cup points standings and has one top-five and four top-10 finishes in the first 19 races of the season.

Evernham’s first foray into the Winston Cup Series as a team owner has become more of a long-term project than many had anticipated.

Still, results like Atwood had Sunday – in his first Winston Cup race at New Hampshire – are encouraging for Evernham Motorsports.

“It was pretty good to be up front,” Atwood said. “I wish I could have passed somebody to do it (earn his first career top-10 finish), instead of cautions coming out. It might have been a little better if the caution hadn’t come out right after our pit stop. The ‘Dew Crew’ did a good job all day, helping me pick up spots. It was a good day overall for us.”

“The thing is, I’d like to see both our cars up front,” Evernham said. “It’s hard weekly to be happy for one and the other one have a little tough luck. We had two Dodges (Sunday) that were capable of running in the Top 10.

“I feel like our cars were really competitive. I just wish the guys got better finishes. But that’s the way the guys learn. We had a couple of good race cars, we’re just not able to get them finishing where they need to finish.”

It’s been the story for Evernham Motorsports – and the majority of the Dodge program in general – all season long.

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