|ESPN.com: Sprint Cup||[Print without images]|
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
This is just the fourth race in a grueling 36-race season, but the annual March stop at Atlanta all of a sudden has plenty of importance in the garage.
Start by looking directly in the garage, where crews will be under hoods and hoping there won't be a third consecutive week of engine snafus.
Kyle Busch needed a new motor before even qualifying at Las Vegas. He still won in the No. 18 Toyota, despite starting from the back due to the change, a far better outcome than what the Roush Fenway Racing camp endured. Matt Kenseth's three-peat attempt didn't last seven laps, David Ragan finished second to last with a fried Ford and Carl Edwards was fortunate to finish 17th with a white-flag blown motor.
At California, another high-profile team took its lumps as Hendrick Motorsports' Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin bowed out early with failures.
There have been plenty of outlets for blame, from the lack of offseason testing to a new softer, faster tire to bad parts, but the unanimous hope is that it ends this weekend. At least history is on the teams' side -- five of the past six Atlanta races have had one engine failure or none at all.
"I think everybody will probably be backing their stuff down a little bit. Atlanta is hard on engines. We run 500 miles instead of 400 [427 at Vegas]," said Pat Tryson, crew chief of Kurt Busch's No. 2 Dodge. "It may be the same trend again this weekend. We didn't have testing, so guys might be pushing the limits a little harder than they normally would. So we'll just have to wait and see what happens."
One year ago the story was all Goodyear's, and that wasn't so good. Atlanta's high-banked, abrasive 1.5-mile oval is a tire-eater anyway, and the compound the tire-maker brought last year (on a car teams were still figuring out on intermediate tracks) created a race of survival rather than aggressive driving.
"The car didn't really handle well, but everyone had the same tires," Edwards said. "Tire wear is always a factor. I thought that the tire we ran in the fall seemed a little better; I can't remember exactly what they changed."
But if the racy tire of recent weeks takes to this quad-oval, look for a better show.
"Atlanta definitely doesn't have much grip, but I still seem to like it. There are so many lines," said Kyle Busch, who won last year's spring race and is a three-time Atlanta Truck winner. "You can run anywhere on the track, and I love that. Coming off Turn 2, if you're running the low line and start to slide up, you have a tendency to get sideways. But, otherwise, it's a really fun track. It's really a drivers' track because, when you get about 40 laps on your tires, you really start to slide around and that can be a handful."
Joey Logano (32nd in owner points), Ryan Newman (33rd), Martin (34th) and Scott Speed (37th) can't afford a handful of trouble at Atlanta. The other intriguing story line, outside engines and tires, focuses on the owners' points race and the drive for the top 35 after five races, which guarantees a spot in the field.
The series takes a week's break after Atlanta, returning March 22 to the famed bullring at Bristol. It will be a long two weeks off for anyone on the bubble, and going out early Sunday with engine trouble or anything else will only make the wait worse.
Kyle Busch: Who knew there was so much heartfelt emotion inside 23-year-old Rowdy Busch? The best Victory Lane moment of the year so far (sorry, Matt Kenseth) was seeing Busch so genuinely excited to win at his hometown track. Kurt and Kyle don't appear to be the huggy kind of brothers, but the sight of them together after the Shelby 427 was memorable.
For Busch it was truly a full weekend of work in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Toyota; lost in the story of the win was how he recovered from a blown engine in practice to still earn the pole.
"Friday, I could have thrown my helmet down and stomped away," Busch said. "I just went in the hauler and let [the No. 18 crew] go to work and do what they do best. I just kind of sat there and cooled off a little bit, watched the rest of practice to see if I could learn anything from watching guys on TV, watching some different lines of what guys were doing in qualifying trim. I went out there and ran a Mark Martin-type line and ended up getting the pole. That was pretty awesome to be able to do that."
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Michael Waltrip Racing: The only real Cinderella stories in March are found in college basketball, so don't give a moment's thought to MWR putting two cars in the Chase come September. But David Reutimann (fifth in points) and Waltrip (12th) are off to a very respectable start for a team that only two years ago left Daytona with its reputation in shambles following illegal fuel-gate.
Most of the love should go to Reutimann, a perpetually nice guy and a loyal soldier who rode out that 2007 season as a nonexempt car and is now getting a chance to show his talent in stronger Toyotas.
"About the three-quarter-way mark through last season, I was thinking this deal is showing some promise," said Reutimann, whose fourth-place finish at Vegas was a career-best. "I started noticing it in the cars and in people's attitudes. We finished out the year with that mentality. MWR will keep working at it and get better."
Mark Martin: No, he can't be blamed for back-to-back engine failures. But you look at Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, the points leader who has led laps in all three races, and wonder how the No. 5 could get not one but two junk motors from the shop.
"This stuff is usually bulletproof," Martin said at Las Vegas after a second consecutive 40th-place finish. "I feel bad for [crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] and the whole race team. They're getting it done. They're doing a great job. We're getting better and we'll get better. But it's a pretty devastating result for us today."