by M Roberts
This week’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race goes under the lights in Atlanta Sunday for the second to last race until the Chase to Championship begins September 20 in New Hampshire.
This will be the second time the series has visited in Atlanta with the first coming in early March where Kurt Busch thoroughly dominated in what still is his only win of the season.
The practice sessions for the March’s Atlanta race were run in the traditional sense with a Friday practice, then qualifying, and two Saturday practices. This time around, there was no practice on Friday with all activity taking place on Saturday prior to Sunday night’s race in what Atlanta Motor Speedway is calling an experiment.
Saturday’s events began with an hour and half practice session with most teams running in race trim. In the Final practice session, teams mixed up the session with both race trim and qualifying trim for another hour and a half. In the unusual format, their qualifying session will be the final time in their car before the actual race.
The qualifying being so late, with no practice afterwards, could make things difficult early on in the race for the teams that had good practice runs because no matter how precise the notes were for a good set-up, it still takes some tinkering to get perfect from race trim to qualifying trim.
With no practice following qualifying, the tinkering will have to come during the race. Needless to say, there definitely is some added pressure on the crews this week.
Another major factor the crews have to deal with is the track’s temperature change from practice to race day conditions which will drastically change because the start time for Sunday’s race is just before 8 pm. The likely result will be more grip, which the drivers will like, but it’s still an unknown which means there will be a lot of guessing in the set-up early on.
At the very end of the final practice session, Juan Pablo Montoya reeled off the fastest lap of 180.105 mph while in qualifying trim driving his favorite car, the one that nearly won at Indy and finished second at Pocono. However, the lap didn't officially count because happy hour time had run out. Nearly every driver used the final moments of final practice to make their qualifying trim runs.
Prior to the late switch for qualifying trim, Ryan Newman had been fastest while in race trim and did so very early. As the heat slicked up the track, all the times for the final practice were much slower than the first session.
During the first session, Jimmie Johnson ran 41 laps with a top speed of 182.807 mph while in race trim using a brand new chassis made special for this race. Just about every team that matters used the first session somewhat in the same fashion like they normally use happy hour for. They ran lots of laps and used the cooler conditions as more of a simulator for what they may see on race day.
Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, and Kurt Busch rounded out the top-5 fastest laps following Johnson in the first session.
Martin had some trouble the last time they visited Atlanta despite sitting on the pole, but was very fast during both sessions Saturday while in both race and qualifying trim. The car he’s using this week is the same one that won at Darlington and Chicagoland.
Kurt Busch had a real good morning session, but struggled in the afternoon practice saying his car had no grip. He’s bringing the same chassis that he won with in March’s Atlanta race and it’s likely the cooler conditions will get Busch’s car right on race day.
Jeff Gordon had a great first practice with the third fastest average speeds among all drivers to run at least 30 laps. The high banked 1.5-mile tracks have been his best all around combined runs this season capturing a second in Atlanta and a win at Texas.
The second fastest average times in the first practice belonged to Montoya, while the best average speed among those running at least 30 laps belonged to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior brought a brand new chassis and his average times finally make him look like he’s driving a Hendrick car. In the final session, he finished with the 11th fastest time.
Based on how good he looks lap after lap in the longer runs, Junior might have his best opportunity to win a race this season. Should he win, it might be the most fireworks Atlanta has seen since General Sherman marched through there 145 years ago.
First Practice - Top 5 Speeds (more relevant practice)
1. Jimmie Johnson 182.807 mph - AVG 41 laps @ 173.00
2. Mark Martin 182.507 mph - AVG 55 laps @ 172.319
3. Denny Hamlin 181.729 mph - AVG 40 laps @ 172.707
4. Tony Stewart 181.699 mph - AVG 50 laps @ 170.780
5. Kurt Busch 181.639 mph - AVG 39 laps @ 171.954
Final Practice - Top 5 Speeds
1. Ryan Newman 179.866 mph - AVG 25 laps @ 173.041
2. Mark Martin 179.802 mph - AVG 7 laps @ 178.513
3. Brian Vickers 179.330 mph - AVG 41 laps @ 171.983
4. Clint Bowyer 179.278 mph - AVG 12 laps @ 175.955
5. Jeff Gordon 179.272 mph - AVG 20 laps @ 173.010
Top 10 Rated drivers for Sunday night’s Atlanta race heavily based on Saturday’s first practice session, mixed in with the final session, chassis selections, current state of team, and 1.5-mile performances in 2009.
1. Jeff Gordon
2. Mark Martin
3. Kurt Busch
4. Jimmie Johnson
5. Juan Pablo Montoya
6. Carl Edwards
7. Denny Hamlin
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr
9. Brian Vickers
10. Ryan Newman