NASCAR Tries to Get Back on Track

From Associated Press

The NASCAR family paused for a few days to mourn.

Now it’s back to business.

The seventh stop in NASCAR’s championship chase is Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Kurt Busch will try to extend his lead over Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at today’s Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500.

Not that it’s business as usual.

The sport was rocked last Sunday by the plane crash that killed the son, brother and twin nieces of prominent car owner Rick Hendrick. They were traveling to the race in Martinsville, Va., when the team plane slammed into the side of a mountain.

All 10 people aboard were killed, including the general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, the team’s chief engine builder, and a pilot for NASCAR driver Tony Stewart.


“There will be a somber feeling to things,” said Busch, who holds a 96-point lead over Gordon with just four races remaining. “It’s a tight-knit community, and we’re all going to be here to support the Hendrick family.”

NASCAR and at least one major sponsor cut back on their promotional events during the week out of respect for the victims. Candlelight vigils were held in North Carolina. But this is a sport that’s accustomed to dealing with death, so calling off the next race was never an option.

All of Hendrick’s drivers -- Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Terry Labonte and Brian Vickers -- will be racing on the high-banked, 1.54-mile oval that usually produces the fastest speeds on the Nextel Cup circuit.

Gordon, already a four-time champion, is the team’s best hope for a title in 2004, though Johnson has jumped up to fourth by winning the last two races.

The 26-year-old Busch is clearly in the driver’s seat, poised to become the second-youngest champion in NASCAR’s modern era. The only driver he can’t surpass is Gordon, who was 24 when he won the first of his titles in 1995.

Earnhardt trails by 125 points, while Johnson is a whopping 207 points behind. Everyone behind Busch in the 10-man championship chase needs the leader to have a major meltdown.


For instance, if Gordon wins the last four races and picked up the maximum number of points, Busch could still claim the title by one point if he averaged a fourth-place finish and led only one lap the rest of the way.

Earnhardt’s title hopes took a major blow last week when he got caught up in a wreck and finished 33rd in the Subway 500. But he’s always done well in Atlanta.

“Martinsville was disappointing, but it’s behind us now,” he said. “We’re moving on and staying focused on what we have to do, because we can’t afford any more slip-ups. We’re a resilient team. Nothing keeps us down for too long. Usually after a bad week, we have a good week.”

Earnhardt won the March race in Atlanta after a 35th-place finish at Las Vegas the week before -- his worst showing of the season. He also bounced back from 19th at California to win at Richmond, and his Bristol victory came just six days after he placed 21st at Michigan.

“It didn’t used to be like that, but as we’ve matured, we’ve realized we can bounce back from anything,” Earnhardt said. “Atlanta is a track we’ve always been really good at. Every time I go there I feel like I have a chance to win. We did it last time. We can do it again.”

Busch will be driving the same Rousch Racing Ford that gave him fits at Lowe’s Motor Speedway two weeks ago. Despite a fender-bender in practice, a wreck on the first lap of the race and two other close calls, he managed to finish fourth.


“We don’t need any off-track excursions and we need to make sure that we make as many laps as we possibly can on the good asphalt and not on the apron like lap one last time,” Busch said.

Consistency is the key. Busch has yet to finish lower than sixth in the first six events of NASCAR’s 10-race playoff. His background in Atlanta bodes well, too -- he won the fall race two years ago during his breakthrough season.

“Atlanta is the fastest race track we go to, but its one of those tracks where Kurt has won before, so we feel good about our driver this week,” crew chief Jimmy Fennig said.

Despite their generation gap -- Fennig’s career goes all the way back to Bobby Allison -- there seems to be good chemistry between the temperamental young driver and the old-timer in his ear.

“He’s the veteran crew chief that I have to listen to, but any idea that I bring up, he’s willing to listen to me as well,” Busch said. “It takes that good team communication to know what it’s going to take to build these cars, what it’s going to take to race them, and the mind-set going into each race.”

Of course, it’s still a little early to celebrate.

“We can’t get ahead of ourselves,” Busch said, “because we still have four to go.”


At a Glance

* Site: Hampton, Ga.

* TV: Channel 4, 9:30 a.m.

* Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway (quad-oval, 1.54 miles, 24 degrees banking in turns).

* Race distance: 500 miles, 325 laps.

* Last race: Jimmie Johnson’s win at the Subway 500 in Martinsville, Va., was marred by the news that a plane owned by his team, Hendrick Motorsports, crashed in thick fog en route to the race, killing all 10 people aboard, including the son, brother and two nieces of owner Rick Hendrick. The Hendrick team also includes Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Brian Vickers.