It’s March 11, 2001 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Kevin Harvick is making just his third Winston Cup Series start in the newly-renumbered Richard Childress Racing Goodwrench 29. He’s leading on the final lap of the race, but Jeff Gordon in the DuPont 24 makes a last-ditch effort to pass heading into turns three and four. Side-by-side at the line, the finish holds up today as the second closest in NASCAR history at .006 seconds with rookie Harvick taking the checkered flag.
The finish bears striking resemblance to the race here just a year prior on March 12, 2000, with Dale Earnhardt beating Bobby Labonte to the line by .06 seconds.
In 2001, the surface of the Hampton, Georgia track is just four years old.
In 1997, the year AMS was last repaved…
Kurt Busch was graduating high school.
His younger brother, Kyle, was twelve.
Joey Logano had just had his seventh birthday.
Alex Bowman was turning four.
The son of Bill Elliott reached eighteen months old.
And the first driver who would win in the 24 car after Jeff Gordon’s retirement hadn’t even been born yet.
Let’s fast forward to 2021. Over the past two decades, fans have come to expect “one of those great Atlanta finishes” whenever we head to the track in March, and now, again in July. However, since the mid-2010s, the track has begun to show its age and subsequent flaws. As early as 2017, Speedway Motorsports (SMI), the group who owns AMS, had been in talks of repaving the track surface. Drivers immediately showed reluctance, citing the track’s rough surface as a feature that made racing at Atlanta more of a fun, rewarding challenge.
However, the aging surface coupled with the 550-horsepower, low downforce package cited by fans as producing a subpar racing product that makes passing the leader near impossible, has led to some less-than-compelling “great Atlanta finishes” in recent years. Most drivers and fans have finally come to accept the fact that the track is in dire need of a repave, so, what did SMI announce last Tuesday?
On July 6, Speedway Motorsports announced that Atlanta Motor Speedway will not only be repaved before its presumed March race weekend in 2022, but it will also undergo a drastic reconfiguration. The 1.5-mile long track will have its 24-degree banked corners elevated to 28 degrees, making Atlanta into the steepest intermediate track on the Cup Series schedule. Along with this, the corners will be narrowed from 52 feet wide to 40 feet wide. SMI claims the reconfiguration will make the racing at AMS “closer than ever!”, but as racing fans will tell you, closer racing doesn’t necessarily mean better racing.
This news of SMI reconfiguring this storied track’s dimensions came as a surprise not just to fans but to the drivers themselves. It seemed as if no driver from any of NASCAR’s series had been asked about, let alone notified of, these changes. One would think SMI would benefit greatly from driver input about making possible changes to a track. Especially a track that these drivers already hold in such high regard, no?
The testing of this new reconfiguration thus far has only taken place in iRacing simulations, which have proven helpful in the past but are, according to some, in no way a substitute for getting drivers into real Next Gen cars (the cars in which drivers will run their first race at “New” AMS) on the track.
Veteran drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series were quick to voice their concerns with SMI’s decisions in the days leading up to the Quaker State 400 at AMS.
“This isn’t the first time that we’ve had the repave talk and the uproar over the pavement,” Kevin Harvick said, “I think it’s the first time that everybody has had the plan pitched on them three days before the race and said, ‘Oh, iRacing designed this.’”
Denny Hamlin also had words on the topic of SMI making decisions without driver input.
“Tell us the agenda,” he said, regarding the kind of racing SMI hopes to get from this reconfiguration, “Do you want (super)speedway racing here? Okay, we don’t like it, but here’s what you need to do to get there. We’ll help you accomplish that. Just tell us the goal… I think we (the drivers) can help. We’re an asset.”
Hamlin also tweeted on the subject, referencing SMI’s past reconfiguration endeavors.
“With all due respect. This same group has reconfigured Texas, Kentucky, Bristol with 0 driver input. One of those lost a race, other one we don’t race anymore and last one we put dirt over it. But hey, what do the drivers know(sic)”.
Kyle Busch didn’t mince words.
“Just think about it. Everybody needs to just think. There ain’t nobody thinking. Brains for sale. Never used. Operating racetracks.” Busch said Saturday.
But younger drivers have been more hesitant to speak out. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson briefly commented on how jarring it was to receive news of the revamp without any prior warning, but some racers, such as reigning Cup Series Champion Chase Elliott, don’t feel the need to influence SMI’s vision.
“In my opinion, it’s not my job… whatever it is, it is,” Elliott said over the weekend, elaborating, “I don’t have much of a preference on it… I’m gonna come back here as long as I have the opportunity… regardless of whether we race on the big track or in the parking lot out back.”
While this is Elliott’s own opinion, some fans feel that younger drivers should take more of a stand against track owners and the sanctioning body making decisions without driver input. Veterans such as Harvick and Hamlin will be retiring from their driver roles within the next half decade. The younger stars, whether they like it or not, will be the loudest voices that fans, track promoters, and the sanctioning body will be listening to and basing their decisions around.
The makeover of Atlanta Motor Speedway has already begun, with the repave having commenced July 12, the day after the Quaker State 400. The track itself cried out in desperation during the Cup race when a new hole in the asphalt brought out a red flag. Whether the driver and fan responses have swayed SMI at all against adding banking to and narrowing the track is uncertain at the moment, but it is safe to assume that the reconfiguration plans are moving forward as planned.
It is unlikely that the Next Gen cars will be tested at “New” AMS before the assumed race weekend in March, as the timeline for the reconfiguration and the cars’ testing schedule ahead of the 2022 season have yet to be disclosed. As developments on this story and Next Gen testing arise, they will be reported on pitboxpress.com.
Featured image from motorsportstribune.com archives.