Friday, March 7, 2008
Burton targets third straight Nationwide victory at Atlanta
By Mark Ashenfelter ESPN.com
HAMPTON, Ga. -- The Nationwide Series has left Las Vegas, but it doesn't take a savvy oddsmaker to establish Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch as the drivers to beat Saturday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Jeff Burton reigned supreme at Atlanta in 2007.
Busch has won the pole here the past two years, while Burton has ended the Nicorette 300 in Victory Lane each time. Busch dominated this race a year ago, only to get hit with a penalty during a late pit stop that ruined his day. If, that is, a third-place finish can be considered a ruined afternoon.
Both drivers are searching for their first win of the season after a frustrating race in Las Vegas last week. A blown tire ended Busch's day, while engine woes sidelined Burton.
Now, though, the focus is on a track that's neck and neck with Texas Motor Speedway in the running to see which is the circuit's fastest venue. Burton's not worried about that as much as he is becoming the first driver to win three straight Nationwide events at AMS.
"We will go there and aggressively try to win the Nationwide race. The more I can race early in the season then the more I can get into the sync of things," Burton said. "I love running [Richard Childress Racing's] Nationwide car. It has been fast pretty much everywhere we have gone with it and, hopefully, we will have a chance to win."
Burton knows it all comes down to being fast, and after last week, he's confident his No. 29 Chevrolet will be up to the task.
"RCR's race cars have been really fast. I've been able to run them anywhere I've wanted to run them and be in the throttle a lot," Burton said. "I thought we had the fastest car last week at Vegas, but we're gonna have to find a way to step it up if we are going to do three in a row.
"I think the [Joe Gibbs Racing] cars have shown a lot of speed this season. They go through the corners exceptionally well and they go down the straightaway exceptionally well, too. I think they have a little bit of a horsepower advantage over there. When you add that with how well they go through the corners then they're going to be hard to guard."
Fortunately for Burton and the rest of the field, Joe Gibbs Racing will be fielding just one Toyota this weekend, with the No. 18 skipping the event due to a lack of sponsorship. Unfortunately for the remaining 42 teams, Busch will be in JGR's No. 20 entry.
Tony Stewart won the year's first two events in the No. 20, with Busch finishing second both times. A wreck ended Stewart's bid for three in a row at Vegas, but it will hardly be shocking if Busch barely misses a beat in his debut with the No. 20 and crew chief Dave Rogers.
"I think if you have a good car and you're successful, it makes it easier no matter what crew chief I'm working with. Every team that I've been with this season, the guys have believed in me and I believe in what they can do," Busch said. "It sure makes it easier to have that understanding even before you jump behind the wheel.
"I'm really excited to get into the meat of the schedule now. I'm finally getting used to how everything works here at JGR and I feel like I'm back to a normal routine. The biggest thing is that I know every time I jump behind the wheel of any car here at JGR, I know I have a chance to win."
Busch said his driving style is comparable to Stewart's in that both prefer chassis setups on the loose side. He knows there's not a lot of grip on Atlanta's weathered surface, but that's hardly been a concern in the past.
The track is among the driver's favorites due to the multiple racing grooves that have developed as the track has aged. That's one reason Busch is looking forward to racing at a track where he's earned two wins in the Craftsman Truck Series and two top-5s in the Nationwide Series.
"You can run anywhere on the track, and I love that," Busch said. "Coming off Turn 2, if you're running the low line and start to slide up, you have a tendency to get sideways. But otherwise, it's a really fun track. It's really a driver's track because when you get about 40 laps on your tires, you really start to slide around, and that can be a handful."
Rogers expects the setups he used with Stewart to be comparable to what Busch will be seeking in terms of the feel after comparing notes with Jason Ratcliff, who worked with Busch last week.
Busch's runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., came in a Braun Racing car, but he still congratulated Stewart and Rogers in Victory Lane.
"In Victory Lane at California, I told Kyle that I expected Victory Lane at Atlanta and that there were no excuses not to bring home the hardware," Rogers said. "As far as on-track performance, I expect the same. Our driver lineup this season is great. The intangible, in my opinion, is that we have three of the best drivers in the business, and now they are all in the same car. They are all trying to outdo each other."
Denny Hamlin also will see time in the No. 20 this season, and some might consider adapting to three drivers to become a headache for a crew. If that could be the case in some instances, Rogers isn't worrying about it this time around.
"I think this is the most fun a person could have, legally," Rogers said. "It's been the time of our lives. We work so hard during the offseason at the JGR Nationwide Series shop. The guys have worked day in and day out, Saturday and Sunday.
"You work so hard and you're not sure if you're making progress, but you think you are. Then you unload at the racetrack and get back-to-back wins and run strong at Las Vegas before running into trouble. Then we go back to the shop during the week and see how excited the guys are there and they're chomping at the bit even more to work harder and be even better. It's been a lot of fun."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.