First pit stops will be key Tuesday

September, 5, 2011

ATLANTA -- I'm giving you an honest dateline. I won't try to imply that I went down to Hampton, Ga., where Atlanta Motor Speedway is, today. NASCAR, of course, isn't there, either.

Anyway, we might consider what the drivers and crews will have to deal with when they come back, on Tuesday. NASCAR has scheduled an 11 a.m. ET start on ESPN.

Yeah, right. The way tropical depression Lee is lingering, I'll be thrilled if they're finished by 11 p.m., and content if they even start by then. Forecasts don't promise clear skies over Hampton before about 9 p.m.

So chances are, the setups the teams left in the cars, back when they held a shred of hope of running Sunday night, will be about right -- or as near right as you can guess for this racetrack.

But let's say, optimistically, they start at noon Tuesday. Let's say some fluke of nature clears out the clouds and the sun blisters the track, so that cars that were set up for a cool track with lots of grip will slip and slide on the hot pavement.

That would be little different than just a couple of years ago, when cars had to qualify at night for a scheduled day race at AMS. That was by design, trying to draw a crowd for qualifying in a metropolitan area that is a tough sell for NASCAR.

Historically, regardless of weather or the time of day or night they practice and qualify, few if any teams get their setups right for AMS until at least the first pit stop. You simply have to have a shakedown run, just to begin figuring it out.

That goes back far past the reconfiguration of the track in 1997, all the way to its beginnings in 1960. Until '97, the track was known as the only one in NASCAR whose 1.5-mile circumference was taken up more with turns than with straightaways. It remains pretty close to that.

Obviously it's harder to set up for cornering that for straightaways, and so "It's more aggravatin' than anything else," Richard Petty used to say, back when he, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough were struggling until their first pit stops to get some sort of handle on the handling.

So whatever time they drop the green Tuesday, the real race is unlikely to start until after those first pit stops, as crews begin to sort out what kind of racing conditions they're left with. Tropical storm or not, that's pretty much standard procedure at AMS.



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