Winston Cup finale gets a quick twist New, faster surface raises concerns

November 15, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Until now, everyone knew what to expect at Atlanta Motor Speedway. But this weekend is different. Three men are vying for the Winston Cup Championship on a brand new racing surface at a totally remodeled track at incredibly high speeds in unusually cold temperatures.

Yesterday, with temperatures dipping into the 40s, scattered showers forced the postponement of qualifying until this morning. But a short practice session late in the day did nothing to calm the fears about increased racing speeds here.

Defending Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte ran the fastest, 195.163 mph. Last month, a 193 mph average during team testing sessions had set off worries about the fast track.

"There's no doubt it's dangerous," said Jeff Gordon, who leads Dale Jarrett by 77 points and Mark Martin by 87 in the points race going into tomorrow's NAPA 500, the season finale. "If we had a choice, 188-190 would be safer.But I like the new surface. My only concern is the tires. The new track grips them pretty good, and we don't know how long they'll last."

Gordon, who was the fastest of the championship competitors, ran a 193.623 yesterday. Afterward, he was smiling.

"We ran fast," Gordon said. "[Today] we'll run faster."

And tomorrow? Well, that's another story.

These Winston Cup cars have never been under this much stress. Rusty Wallace, who ran 192.607 mph, put it this way:

"I know I'm going fast when I go around a curve and my tongue falls to one side of my mouth and I can't straighten it back up.

"It's not frightening, but there is a lot of opportunity out there for something to happen," Wallace said. "The cars are running fast, they're hooked up hard and we don't know what the tire wear will be on long runs. We're going 205 into the corners and averaging 194-195. We are bending pieces and parts on the cars that have never been bent before."

While qualifying speeds were faster at places like Daytona and Talladega before restrictor plates became mandatory there in the early '90s, it is the tires' grip on the racetrack combined with the high speeds that make the stress on car and driver greater.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but a driver is going to have to drive the car not to its potential," Wallace said. "If a driver drives to the car's potential, pieces and parts could bend and fly all over the place."

It's not a pretty picture any day, let alone when three drivers are contending for a title and at least two of them are going to have to go all out.

"I would be very comfortable if I was Jeff Gordon and only had to finish 18th to win the title," said three-time champion Darrell Waltrip. "That doesn't keep you from being nervous, but he's cool under fire, and it's an awful nice cushion to know you don't have to go all out on a track like this and the other two do."

Thursday, Jarrett, a low-key sort, smiled laconically and said, "We're in the speed business." But yesterday, after zooming around the track at 192.808 mph and finding himself only 11th fastest, he couldn't help but note: "I can't imagine racing anybody going that fast. It's everything you can do to run that by yourself."

Martin, however, could find no undue pressure because of the new track or the speeds.

"The track is OK," he said. "It's all right. It's not treacherous. It's just really fast. It's not a problem -- unless there is a problem."

Then Martin added: "We're taking every chance we can every race to win. Look at us three guys. We don't wreck every race we don't win. We give everything we have until our guts run out without taking that extreme risk and failing."

But Gordon, Jarrett and Martin are not running this race by themselves. There will be 40 other cars.

"One mistake is all it takes," said Bobby Labonte, who sweated out last year's title in the NAPA 500. "One mistake on pit road or on the track. Somebody could pinch you in the wall. Anything can happen."

NAPA 500

What: Winston Cup season finale

Where: Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, Ga.

When: 12: 40 p.m. tomorrow

TV: ESPN

Pole sitter: To be determined today

Defending champion: Bobby Labonte

Pub Date: 11/15/97

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