Article by Rea White, FOXSports.com
Time is running out. NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup is almost here. What will that lead to Sunday night?
After a wild race last weekend on the short Bristol Motor Speedway, drivers face the fast, tough Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Anxiety and frustration are already melding into an edgy blend in the series. And now the battle moves to one of the fastest intermediate tracks on the circuit for the penultimate pre-Chase race, meaning plenty is at stake for a host of drivers.
Pit crews, drivers and crew chiefs are operating under near-maximum pressure. So while drivers embrace this track with its well-worn asphalt and a race where change is a constant, they also keep an eye on the competition. And many will be watching the standings, as well.
No doubt, emotions will be running high.
Will the pressure be too much? The run to the Chase will weigh heavily on any driver who might meet with misfortune in his bid for a top run in the NASCAR Sprint Cup AdvoCare 500.
For the herd of drivers vying for a wild-card berth in the Chase, Sunday night is huge.
The anticipation and intensity has been evident in practices as drivers logged laps trying to figure out this tough track. While on Friday drivers tried out a qualifying setup, most logged a significant number of laps during Saturday’s sessions. The first was held in the afternoon, the second came late in the day and more closely mirrored conditions drivers will face when the racing begins Sunday night.
What that race holds remains to be seen. Certainly there will be drivers angered by setbacks, be they mechanical or perceived to be at the hands of a competitor. No doubt there will be a surprising move in the field of Chase contenders, someone who is virtually eliminated and someone who manages to hang on by a thread.
But Atlanta is a different kind of track with a different kind of racing. Still, will there be more snide comments tossed about after the checkered flag waves, more drivers simmering over a solid run that slipped away?
With so much at stake, the possibility is clearly there.
For drivers trying to break into the Chase, a title is truly on the line right now. For those already locked in, a win offers bonus points and an edge once the segment begins. For them, this is a chance to assess the competition as they prepare for the biggest race of all — the one to the championship.
“We have been working and putting ourselves through so much trying to get to this place we are in that I think we are just going to enjoy these next two weeks and just run hard,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who already has clinched a spot in the Chase. “They are almost like non-points races for us. We really get to kind of immerse our self in the competition of the race itself and just have some fun with no true repercussions.”
Many of those drivers in bubble spots have spent the prerace dealing with questions about the track, the Chase and the mere 900 miles between them and a Chase berth.
But through all the talk about titles and emotion, drivers also remarked on their anticipation of the actual racing at Atlanta.
One thing is clear: Drivers are embracing the lone race of the year at this track.
Jimmie Johnson, who has three wins at Atlanta and an average finish of 9.95 at the track, said this is the kind of track where a driver needs to be ready for every lap, where he needs to adjust for tire fall-off and accommodate other changes at the same time.
It takes focus and fortitude for a driver to manage this 500-mile race. And it only comes along once a year, so it takes solid notes and the ability to adjust as well.
“Maybe your first lap on track or your first lap on stickers there is grip and you can drive the car, (but) the rest of it is all about compromising and trying to manage the balance of the car and the tire life,” Johnson said. “Things are deteriorating rapidly. Every lap you make the track gets more slick, your tires are going away and the environment is changing. I just have to remind myself of that and remember kind of like the old Darlington phrase, you race the track. You don’t worry about other people around you and get into that mindset really.”
Carl Edwards, who is winless and in need of a strong performance to be in position to make the Chase, took that a step further.
“If the Lord were to take me from this Earth right now, there would be a place in heaven that would look a lot like this racetrack,” Edwards said. “I mean, it is awesome. It’s as good as it gets. . . . You drive down in the corner and it’s awesome. We’re going to wear out steering boxes. We’re slinging the cars sideways. It’s just fun and then the tires fall off and the times slow down, and there are going to be guys coming and going.
“There is going to be somebody on the last pit stop who takes tires and passes 20 cars in five laps. That stuff is fun, so I just hope whatever they do they can maintain this pavement and not have to repave it, and, if they do, please pave it just like it is.”