Take a racetrack with ancient asphalt. Add a tyre that wears quickly and incrementally, but uniformly and predictably. And factor in double-file restarts that put drivers on different agendas.
The serendipitous convergence of those elements earned Sunday night's Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway a clear distinction. With frequent lead changes under green and numerous passes for position within the top ten, the event produced the best racing on an intermediate speedway since the full-time introduction of NASCAR's new racecar last year.
The racing surface at Atlanta is worn in spots to the rocky underbedding. The track is so abrasive that drivers liken it to the old Darlington, before a repaving project that began there in 2007 smoothed the asphalt.
Goodyear provided a tyre that was ideal for the track conditions - if excellent racing is the objective. The combination to the tyre and the surface prevented drivers from being 'in the track', as they like to put it, and instead kept them on top of it - sliding and fighting for control.
“Yeah, it was basically like driving on ice,” said Kevin Harvick, who finished second to Kasey Kahne, “The cars were hard to drive. But the good thing about this place is you can move from the top to bottom to the middle and find yourself somewhere to run. It's a fun racetrack. It's a full night's work, to say the least - but still a fun racetrack to race on.”
Tread wear caused a rapid fall off in lap times, which, in turn, allowed drivers with long-run set-ups to catch and pass drivers with short-run cars during extended green-flag runs, which occurred frequently enough Sunday night to keep crew chiefs guessing.
Double-file restarts, which NASCAR introduced at Pocono in June, have added a strategic element that goes beyond merely having the lead-lap cars starting side-by-side at the front of the field. If a crew chief anticipates a late caution, he may set up his car for short runs, as Kenny Francis, Kahne's crew chief, did Sunday.
Harvick's car, on the other hand, came to life in the middle of a run and got better, relative to other cars, as the run progressed. In fact, Harvick had a substantial lead and control of the race until a caution on lap 309 of 325 swung the pendulum in Kahne's favor.
Kurt Busch, for one, says he has had to rethink strategy because of the new restart format.
“I've always prided myself in trying to get the car to handle the best on long runs, [the] last ten laps of a long run,” Busch said. “You would rather be good on the first five laps of a short run now. That's definitely changed the game.”