HAMPTON, Ga. — Carl Edwards desperately needs a win. So do Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose.
None of them, however, could have picked a tougher track to get it than Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Tonight’s AdvoCare 500 (7:30 p.m., ESPN) will be 325 of the most-difficult laps of the racing season. The pavement is worn out and slick. There are deep cracks and big bumps. Tires wear out in a few laps. And by the end of the race, most cars will be rim-riding against the outside wall trying to find some traction.
But for all 43 drivers, especially the ones who need a victory to qualify for the Chase for the Championship, there isn’t a more-perfect race track.
“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 race track,” Edwards said. “I mean, it is awesome. It’s as good as it gets.”
The six drivers are in a battle to get one of two wild card spots into the playoffs. The two drivers with the most wins outside the top 10 also advance into the Chase in two weeks, and right now Kasey Kahne and Busch, who 12th in the standings, would make the cut. Kahne is the only driver outside the top 10 with two victories, so his spot in the playoffs seems to be a formality. Everyone else in wild card contention has one win.
Tony Stewart is 10th in the standings, just 16 points ahead of 11th-place Kahne. He also can help his cause Ð and stay out of the wild card drama – with a win tonight.
Stewart won the pole position with a fast lap of 186.121 mph Friday night. Points leader Greg Biffle is second, followed by Busch, Matt Kenseth, Gordon and Mark Martin.
“The slicker it gets the more fun it gets,” Stewart said.
Logano qualified ninth; Ambrose was 10th; Kahne was 11th; Edwards was 12th; and Newman was 17th.
Atlanta’s 1.5-mile, D-shaped layout – along with its 15-year-old pavement – is a venue that seems to suit everyone in the playoff picture.
“It’s a cool race. I’m a big fan of this race track. I think it’s great,” Logano said. “I think it’s what NASCAR needs Ð tires that drop off. Here at Atlanta, you never know. There’s always a few in the race who have a chance to win.”
“It’s worn out,” Ambrose said. “It makes you manhandle the car. It’s good. It’s hard to know where your car is handling because the tires drop off so fast, but that’s what it’s all about.”
There is as much as a 10 mph difference between a car with new tires and a car with 10-lap-old tires. It also creates a lot of different strategies that has led to some of the closest finishes in NASCAR history with three photo finishes in the past 11 years.
Tracks at Kansas City, Bristol, Tenn., Daytona Beach, Fla., Brooklyn, Mich. and Long Pond, Pa., have been re-paved in the past two years. New pavement brings added grip, and that eliminates a lot of side-by-side racing, drivers said, since everyone stays glued to the bottom groove.
Atlanta’s not scheduled to be re-paved for another three or four years, track president Ed Clark said.
While worn out pavement is harder on the tires and cars, drivers believe it makes for better racing.
“I think we’re hurting the sport by doing all these re-paves,” Gordon said. “I really try to always see all the different sides of the business side of the sport, whether it be from the team standpoint, the driving standpoint, sponsorship, tracks, NASCAR, you know, and give the benefit of the doubt.
“We come here. This place is old, worn out, cracks everywhere, and yet every driver loves it. We’re slipping and sliding around. The racing is pretty spectacular. So from a surface and pure driving on the track standpoint, I’d like to come here five times a year.”
Edwards, who won his first Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta in 2005 in a photo finish with Jimmie Johnson, needs to add one more lasting memory since he has to win one of the next two races to advance to the playoffs.
“I love this place for a number of reasons, but, right now, this is the type of track we need,” he said. “We need a place where you can hang the car out.”
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