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Tuesday, March 12
Gordon happy with Atlanta finish
By Robby Gordon
Special to ESPN.com
We got somewhat of a slow start at Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend. We were a little loose in Friday afternoon's practice prior to qualifying, so (crew chief) Gil Martin and the guys started making some changes to tighten up the Cingular Wireless Chevrolet. It was still a little too loose for me so they changed the gear and made a few other adjustments.
By the luck (or bad luck) of the draw, the Cingular Wireless team was scheduled to be the third team to qualify Friday afternoon, which put us at a disadvantage to the guys who went later in the session. Qualifying started at 3 p.m. under sunny skies, but it cooled off and clouded up as the afternoon went on, which usually lends itself to faster lap times. But nevertheless, we posted the 23rd-fastest lap and were pretty pleased with that effort. It was the best lap of the day for the Cingular Wireless team and that's the way it's been lately -- we improve as the day goes on. At least we're consistent.
In Saturday morning's first practice, it was pretty much the same story. The Cingular Wireless Chevrolet was loose getting into and out of the corners, but a little tight in the middle of the corners. The guys made several chassis adjustments to the car and really made it better during Happy Hour later in the morning. We thought we'd be pretty decent Sunday morning.
When we got up Sunday, it was much cooler than it had been the rest of the weekend at Atlanta. We got together and decided to gamble a bit, electing to change the gear and some other things. I'll have to admit Gil and everyone were a little nervous about what was going to happen. Either we were going to be a lot better or a lot worse. Sometimes you've got to take that chance in those situations when the weather changes overnight.
We are really seeing lately how important track position is in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and it was pretty evident in Sunday's MBNA America 500. Team Cingular was competitive, but we just couldn't get the track position we needed after we went a lap down in the middle of the long, green-flag runs. When you go a lap down and can't make it back up, it doesn't matter how good your car is, you just can progress only so far up in the running order because you're a lap down.
The Cingular Wireless Chevy was pretty tight early in the race and kept trying to push up the track. We pitted under green-flag conditions on lap 58 for four tires, fuel and chassis adjustments to loosen up the car. But the tightness lingered, although we were able to remain in the top 25. We pitted again under green on lap 141 for more fresh rubber, fuel and more chassis adjustments. Soon after this, we went one lap down to the leader because there were no caution flags and restarts to bunch up the field.
We got pretty close to making up our lap a few times because our car was strong enough to run laps up there with the leaders, but we couldn't ever quite close the deal. We moved into the 19th spot on lap 209 and were the first car one lap down. We fought like crazy to get our lap back but circumstances didn't play into our hand. We passed some of the lead lap cars on the track, so if we had been on the lead lap, we would have had a good chance of finishing in the top 10. But we brought the Cingular Wireless Chevrolet home in one piece and finished 18th. More importantly, we picked up a couple of spots in the standings and are now 24th.
We're pretty disappointed with that points position because we've had much better races than that shows. If I had been a little more patient and we'd had a little better luck at the first three races, we'd probably be near the top 10. But you live and learn and we're hoping to apply what we've learned this weekend at Darlington.
I got some laps in at Darlington last week with a Busch team and that time really helped refresh me on how to run Darlington. The preferred line at Darlington is so different than at any other track we race on. We run against the wall the whole time at Darlington and the bottom groove isn't used much. The sweet spot on the track is right against the wall, especially in Turns 1 and 2. Even during qualifying, we'll keep right up against the wall -- about two or three feet from it. It is a very narrow track so it's hard to stay that close to the wall without brushing it. Hey, who has actually come out of there without a 'Darlington stripe?' The guys on the Cingular Wireless team and I were joking about putting some wood between the rollbars and the sheet metal so I can lean on the wall at Darlington and not cave in the right side.
When I tested that Busch car for those guys, four or five cars got into the wall and that was just in a test -- it wasn't even a race. They didn't wreck, but they sure leaned on the wall and scuffed up the right side of their cars. Just take a look at the wall at the end of practice one day and you'll see how difficult it is to stay off the wall at Darlington.
Running well at Darlington takes a lot of patience. I've really worked hard this season on learning patience for places like Darlington. If you're not patient, you'll end up with the right side of your car smashed in or your tires bald in a couple of laps. Darlington is murder on those Goodyear tires. Rockingham is the only track close to Darlington in this department and both tracks can kill a new set of tires in a couple of laps. We'll try to conserve the tires all day because they get gobbled up fast. A lot of drivers talk about wanting to win Darlington because it's such a storied, historical track. I'd like to win at Darlington just to prove to everyone that I do have the patience to survive there. They don't call it the 'Lady in Black' for nothing. Darlington is a narrow, rough and old track. Only the tough survive in this sport and Darlington is a tough track. It's pretty nerve-wracking to run 400 miles at Darlington. One lap takes enough concentration, let alone 294 of them.
I'm not expecting Darlington to be one of my stronger tracks this year, but the team has to perform well there to help us in the points. But I do feel more confident heading into Darlington than I ever have before. The guys at Richard Childress Racing are doing a great job building competitive cars and putting me in the position to run up front each week. I just need to do my part and we'll be something to talk about.
Robby Gordon drives the No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing. He will be providing a diary to ESPN.com throughout the Winston Cup season.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
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