Atlanta Story Lines
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on August 31, 2014 | 2:03 P.M. EST
Tony Stewart will compete in his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race tonight since Aug. 3 at Pocono. (Photo: Getty Images)
HAMPTON, Ga. - Tony Stewart emerged from seclusion Friday and spoke in hushed and halting tones, describing a “sadness and pain that I hope no one ever has to experience.’’ He admits for what he’s endured it’s nothing compared to what the family of Kevin Ward Jr. has experienced since the 20-year-old driver was struck and killed by Stewart’s sprint car during a race Aug. 9.
While Stewart tries to piece together his life, he begins by climbing back into a stock car - what some competitors say can be a sanctuary - tonight at Atlanta Motor Speedway even as a police investigation into the incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park continues.
Fellow Sprint Cup competitors have welcomed Stewart back with hugs and pats on the back. Fans have shouted encouraging words. NASCAR announced that should Stewart win tonight or next week at Richmond International Raceway he will receive a waiver to make the Chase.
Now, it is Stewart’s time to race a Cup car, something he hasn’t done since placing 36th at Pocono on Aug. 3.
He’s been fast this weekend, starts 12th and could be a factor to win the Oral-B USA 500 if things go right.
Stewart’s race is among the main story lines tonight.
Remember how Darlington Raceway used to be so hard on tires before its repave? That is what Atlanta Motor Speedway has become. Speeds fall dramatically the longer one runs on a set of tires. Only the brave or daring will try to take two tires during a pit stop. Regan Smith’s team tried it in Saturday’s Nationwide race but Smith said it didn’t make an impact.
The key to Atlanta is to have a feathery touch with the right foot.
“The hardest thing to learn here is that when you’re car is feeling like you need to pit and it has four flat tires, everybody else’s car is feeling the same way so you just have to be very patient and give the car what it will take for throttle,’’ said Kevin Harvick, who won Saturday’s Nationwide race and is on the pole for tonight’s race. “It’s very line sensitive. Hitting those marks every lap becomes challenging because the pace becomes so different. There’s a lot of things going on. Lot of bumps. Lot of tire wear, so you just have to be very patient with your right foot.’’
Said Kyle Larson, who starts third: “Harvick is really good here at being able to run the same line every lap and run a good lap time.”
There have been 12 different winners this season, leaving four spots for non-winners for now. Greg Biffle holds the final spot for a non-winner. He leads Kyle Larson by 26 points with Kasey Kahne 33 points back.
Jamie McMurray, among those racing to make the Chase, says teams can’t change too much for these final two races.
“You just race everything single week to win, so even though we're down to two races, it's really not any different than it was at the Daytona 500, the first race of the year,’’ he said. “The goal is the same every week. You can't really do anything different just because we're down to two races.’’
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Qualifying has not been a strongpoint this season and Earnhardt will start 20th - the lowest starting spot among the five drivers tied with a series-high three wins this season.
Once again, Earnhardt will have to cut through the field. Crew chief Steve Letarte’s strategy has been key in previous races Earnhardt has started mid-pack or deeper. With the way tires wear, it takes away an option for Letarte on strategy.
Then again, Letarte said strategy is simple tonight: “Strategy at Atlanta is that you need to pass the 19 cars in front of us. It’s the only strategy I know of here.’’
A week after his radio conversation with crew chief Dave Rogers ended with Rogers telling Busch to take his “whiny ass to the bus,’’ they’re ready to race.
Busch is trying to snap the worst streak of his career. He’s finished 42nd, 40th, 39th and 36th in the last four races. Car owner Joe Gibbs and Rogers tried to diffuse last week’s situation by stating that a frustrating night boiled over.
With the way the car’s handling can change in this race, communication between the driver and crew chief is key. Can Busch bounce back from these poor finishes and start building momentum for the Chase?
Hendrick vs. Penske
The only teams to win on 1.5-mile tracks this season are Hendrick Motorsports (Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson) and Team Penske (Brad Keselowski twice and Joey Logano).
With their domination continue or will another organization score a win on this style of track before the Chase begins?