Commentary

Surprise snow flurries in Atlanta put Cup activities on ice

Winter jackets and ski gloves came out Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway as snow flurries put Cup activities on ice, writes David Newton.

Updated: March 8, 2008, 3:58 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Mike Helton emerged from a team hauler early Saturday morning looking more like Dennis Weaver on steroids than the president of NASCAR.

He donned a black cowboy hat, a brown leather jacket with a white wool collar and black gloves that seemed as out of place, as Weaver did as a New York City cop in the 1970s television series "McCloud."

But at least he was warm.

Brrrrrrrrr!!!

That replaced the sound of roarrrrrr early at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Snow flurries invaded the countryside around this 1.54-mile track, stirring memories of the "Great Blizzard of 1993" that also was known as the "White Hurricane, No-Name Hurricane" and " '93 Superstorm."

Atlanta received between 4 to 6 inches of white stuff that weekend, forcing the then-Winston Cup race to be postponed from Sunday until the following Saturday. It was such a mess that thousands of motorists were stranded for several days on Interstate 75 north of Atlanta.

"This ain't nothing," said Dale Inman, the longtime crew chief for seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty.

The only people stranded on Saturday were crew members who couldn't open the garage doors to work on their cars. They entertained themselves by drinking coffee -- lots of coffee -- and telling war stories.

"Nothing else to do except stay warm and wait for the track to dry," said Chad Knaus, the crew chief for two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Steve Letarte, the crew chief for Jeff Gordon, appeared to be the ring leader of war stories. He had a large group around him that included Tony Eury Jr. (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), Tony Gibson (Mark Martin) and Jeff Menderring (Bobby Labonte).

Many, like Doug Reichert (Regan Smith), couldn't wait for the precipitation to stop so he could make adjustments to his car that slipped into the race on owner's points.

"We were horrible," he said.

The winter storm forced the cancellation of Nationwide Series qualifying and delayed the final Sprint Cup practice for about an hour and 15 minutes. It also forced crew members to dress like they were preparing for a race in Anchorage, Alaska, instead of the city known as Hotlanta.

They were tightening toboggans around their heads faster than Jack Roush could tighten the bolt that holds down the oil reservoir lid in Carl Edwards' car.

"The good thing about this is it makes people forget about oil lid covers for a while," joked one crew member, referring to the infraction that knocked Edwards from first to seventh in the standings when NASCAR penalized him 100 points for having the lid off following last week's win at Las Vegas.

Perhaps the frigid weather cooled the feud between Roush and Toyota's Lee White, who exchanged more barbs the past few days than a pair of boxers preparing for a heavyweight fight.

But it didn't stop teams from making adjustments, particularly those in danger of not being in the top 35 when NASCAR reverts to this year's points after next week's race at Bristol.

Michael Waltrip, Casey Mears and Dave Blaney are on the bubble at 33rd through 35th. Sam Hornish Jr., who was given Kurt Busch's points to guarantee him a spot in the first five races, is 38th after three events.

Kyle Petty is 40th, which is sure to bring up the issue of swapping points with Bobby Labonte (15th) after Bristol, to ensure both Petty Enterprises cars make the field. Labonte, assuming Kurt Busch (12th) doesn't fall out of the top 35, would be first on the list for the past champion's provisional.

Knaus was making adjustments to Johnson's car to guarantee they don't suffer through another race like Las Vegas. Johnson finished 29th and didn't lead a lap for the first time in 12 races to fall to 14th in points.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't want to do much with their cars that qualified first and second for Sunday's race.

Neither did Edwards, who will be aiming for a third straight win. He qualified fourth and was second fastest in the final Cup practice behind Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle.

By early Saturday afternoon the "Great Flurry of '08" was long forgotten and teams were looking ahead to Sunday.

But Helton still looked like Dennis Weaver on steroids.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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