Back to reality

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LAS VEGAS -- As NASCAR leaves Las Vegas following an extended two-weekend Western swing, it's back to basics for the Sprint Cup teams as they return to the Southeast and what Dale Earnhardt Jr. calls two "real race tracks."

Next Sunday's 500-mile race at Atlanta Motor Speedway provides the "Car of Tomorrow" its first test on the circuit's fastest speedway, while the following week's short-track showdown at Bristol Motor Speedway marks the one-year anniversary of the new car's debut.

While some continue to use the "Car of Tomorrow" tag, the handle is a misnomer since tomorrow actually came last year. And with the new car featured in every Cup race this season, even the top teams have struggled trying to find the right setup.

"It's just the third race, man," Earnhardt said after finishing second to Carl Edwards in Sunday's UAW-Dodge 400. "We ran it some last year, but all at short tracks. We need more time. I think you'll keep getting it better and better the more time you have with it. They need to explore softening the left-side tire. Just a tiny bit of left-side grip would help out a bunch and keep people from complaining so much.

"But the car's coming around. I mean, it is what you make of it, really: take it and build it, do the best you can. We've got to go to Bristol and Atlanta, a couple real race tracks, and have some finishes there."

While Hendrick Motorsports was expected to be the team to beat at the start of the season, Roush Fenway Racing has won two of the first three races including Edwards' back-to-back wins at California and Las Vegas.

But Earnhardt says the next two tracks could see Hendrick drivers return to form and his confidence in the new car remains high.

"We tested a lot at Atlanta and it feels as good as it can for the fact that it's a CoT," Earnhardt said. "The tire is pretty good for that track. They've done a great job. We have pretty good grip there.

"Bristol, they redid the track, and everybody is still trying to pull some tricks there. We'll have to see how we end up when we get there, but I'm enjoying it."

Edwards has won two straight races, but he's also a two-time winner at Atlanta. Many expect the Roush Fenway driver to be a real threat at the 1.54-mile oval.

In addition to being a tremendous athlete, Edwards is also a student of racing and has done his homework on Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"I think Atlanta is going to be a little bit different than California and Vegas," Edwards said. "Obviously it's a different race track, but the pavement is a little different. The bumps there, the things that make it so much fun making Atlanta are going to be difficult for all of us to get a hold of. I know when we were there at the test, we were not very fast last time we were there, so I'm hoping we're a little bit faster.

"And I'm really looking forward to Bristol. We had a great race there last time. That place is really neat now that you can run three-wide there, so that's going to be a lot of fun. I'm a little bit nervous about how fast we're going to be at Atlanta. Everyone is aware right now in this sport that anyone could go there and be dominant. There's just no telling. I think we'll be all right, but it's just an unknown right now."

Even two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson feels the pressure entering the next two races. A bad start to the season can have a lasting impact, and so much can still change over the next two races.

"I'm trying to be smart on track and make sure we get off to a good start with the points," Johnson said. "It's something we have always been able to do and it's helpful. It lets us focus on the right things and really start pushing hard after you get past that five-race mark.

"It may sound crazy, but we set goals and the first goal is to make sure we are in the top 35. That sounds remedial, but it's a tough business out there. It has a potential, in race six of this season, to have some guys get caught out."

This is an important time for several drivers because, following the fifth race of the season, the top 35 rule switches to the current points standings instead of last year's.

Drivers among the top 35 are guaranteed starting positions in the next Cup race. Those drivers outside the top 35 fall into the go-or-go-home category, meaning they have to make the field based on qualifying speed for the final positions in the 43-car starting lineup.

Three races into the season, the top three drivers on the wrong side of the top 35 cusp are former IndyCar products, including the past two IndyCar Series champions and Indianapolis 500 winners.

Dario Franchitti is currently 36th in the standings, just seven points ahead of Robby Gordon, who is just one-point ahead of Sam Hornish Jr.

Gordon has the most NASCAR experience of the three. The only reason he's in this group is the 100-point penalty incurred when the nose of his Dodge did not pass technical inspection before Daytona 500 practice. (Gordon is fighting that penalty.)

Franchitti and Hornish are NASCAR rookies after reaching the pinnacle of IndyCar racing. Both are discovering firsthand the difficult transition to the stock car circuit.

Hornish appeared to be in great shape at the beginning of the season after team owner Roger Penske convinced NASCAR officials to allow him to swap last year's points with teammate Kurt Busch. That meant Hornish inherited the seventh-place points from Busch's finish last year and he was safely in the field for the first five races.

After an impressive 15th-place finish in the Daytona 500, Hornish has been involved in two crashes the past two weeks dropping him to last place at California and 41st place at Las Vegas.

"Just lost the right front tire going through the tri-oval," Hornish lamented after his Vegas crash. "It's kind of bad for us, obviously, but even worse the fact that we were just getting ready to pit. That next lap we were coming in. I guess we should have stopped a lap sooner.

"The car was pretty good right off the bat then we got a little bit too free so I was just trying to ride around a little bit, get some more laps in until we made the stop and then just lost the tires. I don't know if we cut it down or if it was just wore out and blew out."

The good news for Franchitti: He was the highest finishing rookie in the race.

The bad news: Franchitti finished 33rd.

The Scotsman continues to discover that NASCAR isn't easy. And if he drops out of the top 35 after Bristol, the task will prove even more daunting.

Bruton Smith, the chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc. -- which owns Las Vegas Motor Speedway among a number of other tracks -- has offered to switch race dates from Atlanta Motor Speedway to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. in the fall.

California would swap its Labor Day weekend date with Atlanta's current late-October race date. That would give Atlanta a chance to have a Labor Day weekend race in the South and would give California a better time of the year for its second date.

Last year's Labor Day weekend race at California was marred by temperatures as high as 114 degrees.

"The proposal has been made that we give California the Atlanta date in October and Atlanta gets the Labor Day date," Smith said Friday before NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifications. "It's the thing to do. The people I've talked with within the sport and within NASCAR all agree it's the thing to do. I hope we can announce that in the very near future.

"We've had conversation but not in a written fashion yet."

Smith also was direct in his criticism of holding NASCAR's Sprint Cup Banquet in New York City. Instead, he wants to have the season-ending awards banquet held in Las Vegas where it would be an even bigger production that would be warmly received by teams, sponsors and fans.

"It should have been done some time ago and hasn't been done yet," Smith said. "One person within the room who can make the decision thinks the sponsors want to be in New York. That is not true. The sponsors want to be in Las Vegas. I looked at my hotel room bill and I thought it was my home phone number. It's absolutely ridiculous.

"We should have the awards banquet right here. We could sell 16,000 tickets to fans and make them part of it."

Smith said the format of NASCAR's New York banquet is "long and boring." That would not be the case if it were moved to Las Vegas, in his opinion.

"You have a lot of people that put shows together [in Las Vegas]," Smith said. "I could picture a production. You don't have it in New York. There has been an attempt but a lousy attempt in my opinion."

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage wants to see NASCAR drivers be more expressive. He's come up with a financial incentive to the Cup drivers to lash out at another competitor.

"I'm offering $15,000 for any helmet thrown by a Cup series driver during a race between now and the Samsung 500 [on April 6]," Gossage said. "I have a huge helmet collection from drivers through the years and it would be great to add to the collection. And as NASCAR allows the drivers to open up and show their personalities -- even their frustrations -- I imagine the likelihood of true emotions are more likely to bubble to the top. I've seen some helmets thrown during a race and never have they injured anyone or damaged another driver's car."

Gossage said the $15,000 is available to the driver or will be paid to the charity of the driver's choice.

"One stipulation is the helmet must be thrown on the race track during competition," Gossage noted.

Hendrick Motorsports has a list on the wall at its museum, displaying the legendary names that have won for the team owned by Rick Hendrick.

After Mark Martin won Saturday's Nationwide Series race, Hendrick can add another name to the wall.

"I wanted to be involved in a race where Mark got a trophy for us," Hendrick said.

"He's an unbelievable talent. He's won more races in the Nationwide Series than anybody. I can't really put it into words because I've watched him and now I've seen him in our cars and watched how much talent he has. I think his fitness schedule, the type of person he is, the way he runs a car on hot tires, there is no doubt in my mind he could win a championship in either series. And the other thing is he's always praising the crew and tells them it's an honor.

"The honor is all ours. I get to add him to the wall and to win a race with him is really special to me. The other thing is how good he's been. He's a little bitty guy but he's pretty spunky."

Although it's Hendrick's car, it is actually in alliance with Dale Jr.'s JR Motorsports. So the win also counts as JR's first victory in the Nationwide Series.

"I got my first win as an owner with Mark Martin driving the car, which is ironic and exciting," Earnhardt said. "I met Mark at my dad's house when I was a 6-year-old kid and he taught me how to drive a car and the ethics out on the race track."

"I was only 6 when Mark Martin came over to my dad's house with a tape from one of his races at Nashville in the orange-and-white No. 2 car. We watched it on Beta to tell you how long ago that was. That's what a real race car driver looks like. I was learning and hadn't been around a lot of Cup guys. On top of that, he's a real great guy."

After failing to make the first three races of the season, A.J. Allmendinger may be temporarily removed from his Toyota as Red Bull Racing tries simply to get the car into some races.

While former Champ Car star Allmendinger has struggled in his two seasons of Cup racing, teammate Brian Vickers has made all three races this season and ranks 13th in the standings.

"We can't keep missing races," said Red Bull Racing general manager Jay Frye. "We're looking at several different ideas, all aimed at figuring out what's wrong with that program, how we can fix it and how we can get that car into races. But it can't continue the way it is. It just can't."

One option includes replacing Allmendinger with a veteran driver that can help the team qualify and shake down the car in the races.

But Frye emphasized the team isn't giving up on Allmendinger.

"We love A.J. and we're 100 percent committed to him and want to develop him," Frye said. "This is not at all giving up on A.J. But we just can't do nothing and risk having a season like that team had last year."

The 25-year-old Allmendinger qualified for 17 of 36 races last season with his best finish being a 15th-place showing at Charlotte in October. The team is attempting to find him rides in the Nationwide Series with Joe Gibbs Racing or Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates so he can get more stock car experience.

"He needs seat time, there's no question about that," Frye said. "But it takes time to put it all together and we're working on it. We want A.J. in as many races as we can get him into, and we want him to gain as much experience as he can."