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Struggling former Chasers need big day in Atlanta

5 March 2010

Spring is just beginning in the Northern Hemisphere, but for many of those people who race in NASCAR, the time of hope is rapidly giving way to the time of get the heck going.

Although it may be only three races into the season, shallow holes can become deep holes much easier than they can become level ground in auto racing.

When the Sprint Cup cars show up at Atlanta Motor Speedway for this weekend's Kobalt Tools 500, some of the most hopeful of the preseason hopefuls know they had better be packing large, functioning shovels.

Drivers like 2009 Chase qualifiers Kurt Busch and Brian Vickers will be almost 200 points behind leader Kevin Harvick when they fire the engines on Sunday. Hip championship pick Denny Hamlin will be more than 200 points back, as will Kasey Kahne, another driver of whom much was expected this year.

A couple of other Chasers from last year, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman, are in danger of falling out of the top 35 in points and being forced to qualify for races on speed beginning two races after Atlanta.

Yep, there is a large crowd of drivers who would love to pile up some points this weekend.

Newman said this week that doing well at Atlanta is not essential when it comes to saving his season. "I think every racetrack or every day is a new opportunity," he said.

And he happily pointed out he and his team placed 22nd at Atlanta last season and headed out through the tunnel 32nd in points-but still made the Chase.

But he also tacitly acknowledged that at some point, digging upward must replace digging downward, saying, "It's up to our team to go out there and make that happen."

Busch said he would like to go out there and make it happen soon because, among other things, he misses his old neighbours.

"It's just a bummer that you won't be parked up front (in the garages) next to the people that we've been running with the last two years," Busch said of being point poor. "It's always good when you're running with the front guys because you get to park next to them and see what's going on and be in the 'in' crowd so to speak."

And none of the hole-dwellers wants to head into the off-weekend that follows Atlanta thinking about how far they have to go rather than how far they advanced in Georgia.

Atlanta would seem to be a great place for several of the struggling drivers and teams to start reversing field; it has long been a driver favourite. This week, it was virtually impossible to find one who was not looking forward to racing there on Sunday.

"I like old, slick, wore out racetracks," said Vickers, who is 18th in points. "They're what I grew up racing, and I've always enjoyed those racetracks. I really like Atlanta, and I like running against the wall. Atlanta has all of the above."

Montoya, 26th in points, said, "It's the first track I learned to run on the high line. It's a track that gives you options with multiple grooves, and the high line has worked for me. I can run the #42 Target Chevrolet right up against the fence. It's exciting and pushes us as drivers and cars to the limit. It's a driver's track."

Perhaps most important is the fact several of the drivers desperate for success have histories of success at the 1.5-mile oval, which is still the fastest on the schedule.

Busch (19th) and Kahne (23rd) are two-time winners at Atlanta. Busch won last year's spring race; Kahne won the fall race. Busch thinks recent success can help produce current success.

"Confidence is up and on a high going into a race that you've won," Busch said. "You hope that things come together just as smoothly as they did the year before. A top-ten finish would be great, but we're shooting for a win because we won last year."

And, because he is one of that group that can ill-afford to fall further behind the leaders.


by Jim Pedley / Special to the Sporting News


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