Race car drivers are much, much different from normal human beings. The action they engage in order to deal with difficult times in their life at times seem foreign to us. Consider the driver who has been violently ill in the weekend leading up to a race…and racing anyway because the driver “feels his best” behind the wheel. Then you have the driver who jumps in the race car just days removed from losing a loved one, saying that racing “heals the pain.”
When someone is truly passionate about something in life, that activity has the capacity to numb the pain of everything else that is going on around them. Considering all of this, it is thus no surprise that Tony Stewart is racing tonight in Atlanta, only three weeks removed from the tragedy that took Kevin Ward, Jr.’s life. Stewart’s life revolves around racing. It is his ultimate passion, and ultimately, racing is perhaps the only thing that will ever help him move on from the events of three weeks ago.
So if you are confused by Stewart’s desire to get back into a race car just weeks after being an active participant in an event that killed a man during the course of a race, do not be. Race car drivers are a different breed who have different needs from the rest of us, and no one should ever question that fact.
Welcome back, Tony. You have been missed.
1. Could Tony Stewart conceivably win tonight’s race?
Now that Tony Stewart has finally spoken to the media , the question of whether or not he is returning to racing has been answered. Granted, there are still a multitude of questions that still beg to be answered as far as the Stewart-Ward incident is concerned, but those responses will come in time. The focus now, as far as this situation is concerned, is on Stewart’s actual on-track performance.
I think it obviously goes without saying that if Stewart were to win this race tonight, it would be a story of biblical proportions. The notion that a grieve-stricken driver could win a race and vault himself into NASCAR’s playoffs only mere weeks away from a life-changing incident seems inconceivable. But the fact is that it could very well happen.
Stewart just so happens to be very, very good at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Stewart is known for his efficacy on hot, slick, and bumpy race tracks, and AMS is going to embody all three of those characteristics in full tonight. He has an ever-supportive team behind them that from all indications appears to be as unified as ever under these tragic circumstances, and that unity alone will likely be worth something come race time.
Many will think such a notion is crazy, but I think it is truly possible. NASCAR drivers over time have often shown an uncanny knack for being able to persevere under incredibly tragic, pressure-filled or unusual circumstances, with Stewart in particular being known for his ability to come up big when it is least expected.
All told, Tony Stewart could shock the world tonight. His ability to do so will lie in his ability to numb himself of all of what he has gone through these past three weeks and deliver a Hollywood-esque drive of his life. If he can somehow emotionally put himself in a place where he can manage to pull off that feat….it would be one of the most incredible stories in the history of this sport.
2. Will it be Auto Club 2.0 as far as tires go?
Currently, there are really only two tracks on the schedule that truly chew tires up and test the tire management abilities of today’s Sprint Cup drivers. The first of those tracks is Auto Club Speedway out in Fontana, CA. The race at the particular facility earlier this season was marred by a rash of tire issues that sidelined numerous drivers throughout the race, including late race contender Jeff Gordon. Goodyear blamed the teams for the problems, saying the teams pushed the tire pressures too low. The teams blamed Goodyear. All told, the whole situation was kind of a mess.
The second “tire-grinding” track on the circuit just so happens to be the site of tonight’s race, Atlanta Motor Speedway, and unfortunately, tire troubles have been cropping up again this weekend. Clint Bowyer blew a left rear tire early in Friday’s first practice and proceeded to openly question how this weekend’s tires could possibly hold up over a long run. Yeah, not a good sign.
A mini-investigation from Bowyer’s team discovered that they simply pushed the pressures too low, well past Goodyear’s recommendations. Nonetheless, I still expect tire troubles to be a factor in tonight’s race. As to whether or not they will cripple the complexion of the race like they did at Auto Club, that is something that remains to be seen. Just know one thing: fresh tires will be the single most important factor in terms of race strategy tonight.
3. Can Kyle Busch’s team right the ship?
It’s funny how much things can change in just a short period of time. Just one year ago during the 2013 Atlanta race weekend, Kyle Busch was flying high. Busch walked into the race 5th in the points standings on the strength of three victories. That night, Busch picked up his fourth victory of the year, and in doing so established himself as a chief threat for the title come Chase time.
Looking at the #18 team today, one year later, the team seems practically unrecognizable. The personnel is all the same of course, but the performance is not even close to the highs of 2013. Busch is currently sitting a lowly 17th in the series standings, the lowest he’s ever been this far into a season since joining Joe Gibbs Racing back in 2008. He has a win and thus is locked into the Chase, but the win (at Fontana) was somewhat fluke-y.
The #18 team’s issues came to a true head last weekend in Bristol, as an angered Busch went off on a full-blown tirade at the race’s conclusion that led crew chief Dave Rogers to call Busch a “whiny little ass.”
Clearly, something is horribly wrong in the #18 camp, and if they have any intention of making noise in the Chase, whatever is “amiss” will have to be worked out in short order. Tonight’s race in the ATL will be a crucial one for this team, as another night of poor performance could essentially doom the team before the Chase even starts. A good run, or even a win perhaps, could erase the demons of the past few weekends and give the outfit some much needed momentum.
Either way, something’s gotta give.
4. Who will take win tonight in Atlanta?
Atlanta is a facility that rewards drivers who save their equipment and can adapt to the ever changing track conditions that Atlanta is known and loved for. With that in mind, one driver stands out among all the rest as a chief favorite: Jeff Gordon.
Gordon has been dominant on super-abrasive race tracks in recent years, with his victory here at Atlanta back in 2011 serving as one of his signature career victories. Gordon dominated the race earlier this season at Auto Club which has an equally abrasive surface, and there is simply no one in the garage who can manage their equipment quite like Gordon can.
With all of this in mind, I think Gordon will be the man to beat. Other drivers to look out for based on practice speeds include last week’s winner Joey Logano, who looked stout in Saturday’s first practice with a session-best speed of 189.351 mph. Kevin Harvick has also looked strong throughout the weekend as evidenced by his pole run on Friday.
As for underdogs, you have to love Kyle Larson (but is he really an underdog anymore?). Larson has shown a definite affinity for abrasive tracks and will likely be
pushing just a wee bit harder tonight knowing that a Chase berth can be won courtesy of a victory. Larson has shown speed all weekend long and would appear to be a solid pick.
But ultimately, I think Gordon will be the man to beat tonight.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Oral-B USA 500
- 24-Jeff Gordon
- 4-Kevin Harvick
- 22-Joey Logano
- 15-Clint Bowyer
- 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- 42-Kyle Larson
- 2-Brad Keselowski
- 1-Jamie McMurray
- 20-Matt Kenseth
- 18-Kyle Busch