Speeds all relative at NASCAR's fastest track

Friday, March 7th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) _ Bobby Labonte comes to one of his favorite tracks with a new car and a new crew chief. He's hoping some of his old ideas still work.

Labonte has won five races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, including the first on the reconfigured track in 1997. He also lost by inches to the late Dale Earnhardt in 2000, so Labonte knows how to get around the 1.54-mile speedway.

But he's driving a Chevrolet this year instead of the Pontiac he rode to all of those victories, and Michael ``Fatback'' McSwain has replaced Jimmy Makar as crew chief.

Makar was promoted to team manager for Joe Gibbs Racing.

``We've got a brand new race car and a lot of good notes from the past,'' Labonte said. ``We've got things that Fatback has done there in the past.

``This is one of the tracks that I like to go fast at and like to go good at. When you get the car handling right, it just makes it a lot more fun.''

Qualifying was scheduled to begin Friday for the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, and whoever wins the pole likely will do so with the fastest speed on the Winston Cup circuit.

During a renovation in 1997, the backstretch was transformed into the frontstretch, complete with a double dogleg near the finish line, similar to Lowe's Motor Speedway. The byproduct was a wider apex in all four turns, allowing the cars to maintain a much higher speed through the corners.

``Every time you blink, you've gone a football field,'' driver Kyle Petty said. ``Sneeze, and you've missed the backstretch. Everything just happens so fast there.''

The first time the drivers ran the ``new'' Atlanta, Geoffrey Bodine sat on the pole with a qualifying lap of 197.478 mph. Robby Gordon had a fast lap of 186.987 in qualifying for the last race on the old configuration.

Last year, Bill Elliott won the pole at a shade over 191, and he figures to be one of the favorites Friday.

With the pavement becoming more worn and providing less grip, speeds have steadily decreased since Bodine's fast lap. But the 1.54-mile track still produces faster speeds than Daytona and Talladega, where restrictor plates are used to cut horsepower and to keep the cars under 200 mph.

Most drivers hardly notice the speed at Atlanta.

``Generally, that's not a big deal as long as everything is going OK,'' Petty said. ``If you have the car pointed in the right direction, speed _ even at Atlanta _ is not that big of a deal.

``It gets relative after a while, kind of like when you're on the interstate and you are going 55, but the next time you look at the speedometer you've crept up to 70.''

If there is a problem on the track, speed becomes an issue.

``Not so fast turns into really fast in a heartbeat,'' Petty said. ``Somebody cuts a tire and turns sideways or blows an engine and you have a lot of guys grabbing steering wheel and hoping for the best.

``Just somebody slowing to pit and forgetting to give a hand signal can lead to a pileup at Atlanta, because you catch them so quick.''

Ricky Rudd will make is 45th straight start at the track, a streak that dates to 1981. He won a race on the old layout, but has just two top-10 finishes in 11 races on the new one.

After three years with Robert Yates Racing, Rudd is driving for the Wood Brothers, the winningest team in Atlanta history with 12 victories. But the team hasn't had much success at the track lately, and hasn't gone to Victory Lane here since 1993.

``It's a very nonforgiving race track. It's a track where there is a fine line on missing the setup,'' Rudd said. ``You end up with a sort of love-hate thing. If you miss it big time, it can be pretty embarrassing.''