The Sprint Cup Series returns to the east coast this weekend, invading Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500. Kyle Busch, who won last weekend in Las Vegas, took the checkered flag a year ago, giving Toyota its first-ever Cup Series victory.
Atlanta is a source of excitement for everyone ... except engine builders. Drivers love the fastest track on the circuit, as do the fans. High speeds and multiple grooves make for exciting racing, and if one were to look at the closest finishes in NASCAR history, several of them came in Atlanta.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. edged Bobby Labonte by a fender in 2000, and Kevin Harvick's emotional win over Jeff Gordon in 2001 immediately springs to mind.
But engine builders have to be sweating. Typically engine-friendly Fontana and Vegas were not kind to motors, with a combined 12 failures at those two tracks. Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing were hit hardest, but given the speeds run at Atlanta, everyone's motor will be fair game on Sunday.
Hendrick's failures at Fontana were blamed on bad parts; I haven't yet seen a reason for Roush's failures in Las Vegas. Toyota also had engine issues in Las Vegas, a by-product of a lubrication problem with all of the Toyota Racing Development (TRD) engines. TRD supplies engines for Team Red Bull and Michael Waltrip Racing; Joe Gibbs Racing builds its own engines.
I think these engine failures are a result of the testing ban. Engine tuning for horsepower and RPM output occur largely during a test session; sure, most teams have simulation rigs in their shops, but it's not necessarily enough. The No. 82 ran such a test on its engine for Las Vegas in its shop; the test came back normal. But once the car unloaded at the race track, the team noticed things weren't right, and they had to change the engine.
All those simulations and programs at the shop are great, but there's no substitute for getting the car out on the track and logging laps.
I expect at least five engine failures this weekend; with cars barrelling into the corners at over 200 MPH, turning all those RPM, the engines are going to endure a lot of wear. Weather is also expected to be cool and dry -- which spells even more horsepower and ever faster speeds.
The story of last year's race, aside from Busch winning, was the Goodyear tire compound. Because the tire didn't wear, grip was an issue and passing was nearly impossible. Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all criticized the tire after the race, but don't look for a similar problem this year.
Goodyear brought a fantastic tire to Las Vegas last weekend, one that held up to the high speeds and wore enough that the drivers could race on it. Though Atlanta and Vegas don't share many commonalities, look for Goodyear to bring a similar tire compound that should hold up to the high speeds and let the drivers go side-by-side in the corners.
Can Busch make it two in a row? One would be foolish to say he can't. Busch is literally a threat to win everywhere NASCAR races, but I think this is Jeff Gordon's weekend. Gordon has started 2009 about as well as one can without visiting Victory Lane (and he even did that, if you count his Gatorade Duel race).
The No. 24 team is back -- last year, the damage to his left front fender would've relegated Gordon to a mid-pack finish. This year, he turned that into a sixth-place effort. I think Gordon will win five races this season, and his first will come Sunday in Atlanta.
Look for these guys to have good runs as well: Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya.
Enjoy this weekend's race; afterward, the Sprint Cup Series will take its first weekend off before heading to Bristol on March 22. I don't know about you, but I'm not a fan of off weekends -- especially since the Nationwide Series won't run again until Bristol, either.
Oh well, at least we're coming up on March Madness ... that'll help.