Looks like Mother Nature will finally cut NASCAR a break this weekend. With warm weather and no rain expected from Friday through Sunday, drivers will be racing in picture-perfect conditions on what is usually a cold, wet race date in Atlanta.
Too bad that the second the sun shines at this track, stock cars could be taking the closest highway out of town.
Two weeks after sluggish Fontana attendance put California under the microscope, the discussion about which Speedway Motorsports, Inc. track will lose a date in 2011 has turned to Atlanta. With SMI's Kentucky Speedway finally ready for a Sprint Cup race, the only way CEO Bruton Smith gets his wish is if the 1.5-mile oval replaces one of the other dozen dates he owns on the Sprint Cup schedule.
Infineon Raceway and Las Vegas, each owning one date apiece, are not likely to get the ax, since Smith would not pull the plug on their only chance to make big bucks this season. Bristol and Texas have two dates apiece, and as leaders in NASCAR attendance, they won't be going anywhere. That leaves Smith picking between three ovals with two sanctioned Cup dates: Atlanta, New Hampshire and Charlotte.
Which track appears the most vulnerable? Let's take a look with a little tale of the tape.
History: The 1.5-mile oval has had at least two dates on the schedule since 1960, when Glen "Fireball" Roberts won the first NASCAR-sanctioned race there, a 300-miler. By 1967, both races were lengthened to their current distance of 500 miles.
2009 attendance: 94,400 (spring); 111,300 (fall)
Location: Atlanta is part of NASCAR's Solid South, near its core fan base but also within 500 miles of a half-dozen tracks. That makes it an ultra competitive market for fans who could just as easily spend their money on more prestigious events at Daytona, Darlington, Talladega or the short track in Bristol, Tenn.
What's good: In 1997, the Speedway reconfigured itself into the current quad-oval setup it has today. Ever since, there's been some fantastic finishes among the sport's biggest names: Kevin Harvick won a side-by-side duel in 2001, beating Jeff Gordon by taking the checkers just three races after Dale Earnhardt's death. Carl Edwards won a similar battle with Jimmie Johnson four years later, breaking out the backflip with his first ever Sprint Cup victory. After moving its second date to Labor Day weekend last season, Atlanta saw a surge in attendance and competition, with Kasey Kahne taking the checkers in a 500-miler with 31 lead changes -- the most at an unrestricted track last season.
What's bad: Once known as the circuit's best intermediate, AMS has struggled under the weight of tire problems in recent years -- especially in the spring race. Two years ago, Tony Stewart ripped Goodyear a new one after hard tires left everyone so loose there was little to no passing -- all the cars were simply trying to hang on to the finish. And last spring, Kurt Busch dominated a race that had just 13 lead changes.
What the track is saying: "It's part of the tradition of NASCAR. It's in the South, where the sport started and where the traditional fan base is. Moving an event out of this area wouldn't be in the best interest of NASCAR." -- AMS Speedway President Ed Clark, speaking on the track's future last July
Odds of losing a date:2/1. Unless the speedway sells out this weekend, the spring race is tops on Bruton's junk list. Having just one race weekend a year over Labor Day will keep Atlanta viable as a "new Darlington" among NASCAR fans.
History: The 1-mile oval was added to the NASCAR schedule in 1993 with a 300-lapper. Four years later, track owner Bob Bahre struck a deal with Smith to buy North Wilkesboro Speedway. Out of the agreement, Smith got one date for Texas Motor Speedway while Bahre got his second date for New Hampshire. The September race is also 300 miles, serving as the first of the 10 Chase races since the new format began in 2004.
2009 Attendance: 101,000 (June), 101,000 (September)
Location: New Hampshire is the only U.S. track NASCAR visits in the upper Northeast. Watkins Glen (N.Y.) and Pocono (Penn.) are its closest neighbors, both 350 miles away.
What's good: Since purchasing the track in mid-2008, Smith has invested millions to improve the oval. A new infield, safer track fencing and aesthetic changes have made the track more fan-friendly -- leading to near-capacity crowds for both races in '09. The competition here carries an air of unpredictability, with 10 different winners in the last 10 New Hampshire races.
What's bad: The June race has been shortened by rain two years running, leading to a shocking upset win by rookie Joey Logano last summer. Critics claim there's little, if any passing on the tightly-wound track, which averaged just 15 lead changes over its last five events. The speedway was also the backdrop to one of stock car's biggest tragedies: Kenny Irwin, Jr. and Adam Petty were killed by stuck throttles in 2000.
What they're saying: "When you can sell 90,000 to 100,000 tickets, to take a chance on moving it somewhere where you may sell 60,000 to 70,000 -- to me, that doesn't make any sense." -- Jim Hunter, NASCAR Communications.
Odds of losing a date:5/1. The June race has been plagued by poor weather, but what other Northeast track is available? With New York City not a viable option for years to come, New Hampshire needs to be on the circuit twice a year -- no matter how boring critics think it may be.
History: The 1.5-mile oval opened in 1960 with two Cup races that have been held there ever since. The 600-miler on Memorial Day weekend is NASCAR's longest event, and while the fall race is shorter (500 miles), it marks the halfway point in NASCAR's 10-race Chase. Both are held under the lights.
2009 attendance: 100,000 (spring), 105,000 (fall)
Location: At the epicenter of NASCAR's Southern roots, Charlotte has more tracks within driving distance than any other track -- over one-third of the 36-race schedule- - making it easy for fans to pick and choose to go somewhere else.
What's good: As NASCAR's home base, this oval houses the All-Star Race each year, part of a two-week midseason "break" where crews rest up before the big summer swing. The notoriety of winning the sport's longest race makes the spring date one that drivers circle on their calendars. A handful are expected to attempt the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 double in 2010, mixing open-wheel and NASCAR to drive 1,100 miles for two prestigious trophies.
What's bad: A "levigation" project to repave the track backfired terribly in 2005. A record 22 cautions in the spring race were followed by a demolition derby in the fall. Tires began blowing at such a record pace that NASCAR nearly had to call the race. With so much single-file, follow-the-leader racing, rumors persist that the All-Star race might move elsewhere after 25-plus seasons. Attendance has also fallen sharply following the departure of NASCAR PR genius "Humpy" Wheeler after a falling out with Smith in '08.
What they're saying: Smith threatened to move the speedway in October 2007 when county officials objected to him adding a drag strip. It took $80 million for him to tone down his threats and recommit to two dates.
Odds of losing a date:15/1. NASCAR's having a serious problem gathering support for its hometown track, and the competition has dipped significantly as of late. But with the Hall of Fame opening this May, would NASCAR cut back at a track that's just five miles away?