Atlanta Motor Speedway: The Epitome of Racing

When the stars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hit the high banks of the Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night, it will mark the start of the 25th race of the 2014 season. Yet despite its late summer start, this race will likely turn out to be the most exciting and enjoyable event of the season.

Known for its breath-taking speeds throughout the years, the 1.54 mile racetrack has been given the nickname ‘Hotlanta’ in the NASCAR community.

But it’s not the drivers reaching speeds well over 200 mph that makes this race exciting, it’s the track surface. Since its last repave in 1997, the surface of the speedway has had a chance to age for almost two full decades. And when a track’s surface ages, it develops bumps, dips and slick spots – the track develops character.

In addition to these characteristics, the track’s abrasive surface chews up the competitors’ tires in quick succession, which puts driver input and skill at a premium. That and coupled with the racetrack’s progressive, 24-degree banking makes this track a racer’s paradise.

But how can a 17-year-old surface become paradise for drivers?

The answer is simple: Racecar drivers are wheelmen.

Current legends like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart all grew up racing with racecars that were no-where-near perfect. They succeeded in the lower ranks of racing by getting the most out of their ill-handling racecars to outperform their competitors.

It is this feeling of imperfection that make drivers love racing at Atlanta.

As the worn surface of Atlanta chews up the tires, the rapid drop in tire wear makes even the best-handling racecars slip and slide throughout the four corners. This slipping and sliding will make drivers explore the track’s progressive banking all night as there will always be a constant search for comfort and grip.

It is for this reason that fans will see drivers venturing all throughout the track’s steep corners. Some drivers like Kyle Larson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be rim-riding at the top groove. Others like Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick will be bottom feeders. And some like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will be riding in the middle lane, in a constant search for grip.

To the average fan, this constant search for consistent speed may seem baffling as one would think that drivers would want their cars to be as close to perfect as possible. This is not the case.

Tracks like Michigan and Pocono produce incredible speeds with their recent repaves, but they also bring aerodynamics into play much more than any driver would ever want. And while repaved racetracks help shatter track records and defy the laws of physics, they greatly affect a driver’s ability to take full control of a race.

The reality is that most, if not all, drivers want their skills to be the ultimate factor in whether they fail or succeed in a race. And a worn-out surface like Atlanta’s helps achieve that by removing some aero dependence and applying more driver skill.

This constant need for fine tuning and driver comfort also makes this track produce fantastic finishes.

Who doesn’t remember the 2000 spring race when the late Dale Earnhardt edged out Bobby Labonte by less than a foot to win one of the last races of his career?

How about a year later when then-rookie Kevin Harvick beat out Jeff Gordon by less than six inches to capture his first career win just three races after Earnhardt’s death?

Remember the 2005 spring race when Carl Edwards bounced off Jimmie Johnson out off turn 4 to edge Johnson by half a car length to capture his first career victory?

And who doesn’t remember the 10-lap duel in 2011 between Gordon and Johnson where both used every inch of the racetrack while racing for the victory, which ultimately became Gordon’s 85th in the series?

Atlanta may be an intermediate speedway like Charlotte and Texas, but it has always produced closed-quarters racing.

And after seeing the list of recent winners at this race track, it is no coincidence that most, if not all, of them have been past champions or Chase contenders. Atlanta’s unique racing surface always brings out the best in drivers.

And it’s for that very reason that tonight’s race will be a must watch.

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