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Hindsight haunts Casey Atwood

5/15/2014 - NASCAR

Hindsight is an old, cold steam train, memories and regret its burning coal. It chugs along in the smoky haze of time passed, providing constant clarity. If we are true it is true. If we look in the mirror with boundless honesty and no excuses, what we did made us who we are. It can offer hurtful revelations. And it can haunt you.

We are afforded each minute just once. It ticks by and it is gone. What we do with each moment's opportunity is our choice. What we wish we'd done is futile. That is often difficult to accept.

Casey Atwood wants time back. He wants years. He wants to harness the unfulfilled promise and reconcile what is chiseled in his hindsight's granite. Because the clarity of hindsight has dulled the desire to deflect blame. He believes he has Sprint Cup-level talent. And he knows, admittedly, that he failed at everything else a Sprint Cup driver must be outside a race car.

He wishes he could do it over again. And he'd die for the opportunity to show his daughters who he really is.

"I regret that my kids have never seen me race," Atwood told me this week over the phone after dropping his daughters at school. "They've seen me race some Late Models around [Nashville], but they don't really know what I used to do, who I used to be."

Every year around this time, the NFL draft extravaganza includes the "busts" section -- the can't-miss No. 1 pick prospects who miss and leave us wondering what happened, and why. Words such as "upside" and "ceiling" and "potential" are thrown around to describe the possibility for greatness.

While watching the 2014 draft -- and pondering the 14th anniversary of Adam Petty's death at New Hampshire Motor Speedway over a beer -- I began thinking about that time in my career. All I covered back then was Nationwide -- then Busch Series -- racing. And that made me think of Casey Atwood.

In 1999 Atwood was among the hottest prospects NASCAR had seen in a very long time. In the previous few years, he'd made a lot of noise at Nashville Speedway USA, and he nearly won a NASCAR Busch Series race as a 17-year-old. At 18, he was driving the Kentucky-based Brewco Motorsports' No. 27 Busch car.

His competitors at the time included Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Elliott Sadler. When he outran them all at The Milwaukee Mile on July 4, he became the youngest winner in NASCAR history.

He was a phenom.

"There's a whole lot of pressure that comes with that," said Atwood, now 33. "I'd won in everything coming up into Busch [Series racing]. And I won twice my first year in Busch, at Milwaukee and Dover. Everything came easy. Looking back on it, I wish I had stayed in Busch and prepared myself a little bit better for everything it took to be a Cup driver."

His youth was as detrimental as it was beneficial. Atwood's talent and desire inside the race car were overwhelming. Winston Cup team owners drooled. As hype and expectation go, he was Kyle Larson before Kyle Larson was born. His dedication outside the car, however, was underwhelming at best. And that, he said, is where it all went wrong.

If he could do it again, he said, he'd have moved to Charlotte. He grew up in Nashville and stayed there. That's where he is today. He'd have visited the shop more, engaged socially with the men and women building his race cars. He'd have worked out harder in the gym and spoken more with the media.

"There's a lot more responsibility on a driver than just showing up and getting in the car," he said. "Looking back on it, that's what I'd change. I'd take the outside-the-car stuff more seriously."

NASCAR had boomed at the time. Drivers were Fortune 500 corporate pitchmen. Jeff Gordon's influence was everywhere -- especially in the boardroom. He was a transcendent star, and NASCAR had become a platform for bigger business outside the garage and the automotive industry. The responsibility on drivers was immense and diverse. It remains so today.

Atwood left Brewco in 2001 for Evernham Motorsports, where he joined veteran Bill Elliott as the faces of Dodge's re-entry into NASCAR. Team owner Ray Evernham, one of the greatest strategic minds to ever grace the garage as Gordon's crew chief, and a man who rewrote the definition of preparation, considered Atwood the future.

"Everybody expected him to be the next Jeff Gordon," Evernham told me. "At that time we were all looking for the next Jeff Gordon. Casey never really was the next Jeff Gordon.

"He was a really good kid and a good driver who is still a friend. But he didn't have the worldliness of Jeff Gordon, with the media and his work ethic. When we started that team, the expectations on him were very high -- his, mine and Dodge's."

Atwood ran one full season for Evernham in the No. 19 Dodge. By all accounts it was a struggle. But by season's end, he'd gotten comfortable enough inside the car to earn the pole at Phoenix and contend for victory before a blown tire thwarted the effort. He also vied for a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway, only to be passed in the late stages by Elliott. Atwood wound up third. It was the only top-5 finish of his Cup career.

In his mind he was close. And in his mind, even today, had Evernham cut ties with him just then, there would have been interest from other teams. He'd shown progress to go with promise. But Evernham didn't release him. Instead, believing in that promise, he sent the young driver to the satellite No. 7 Dodge team, owned by Jim Smith.

It was an abject disaster.

"After that, I don't know if was just bad timing and not many rides open or what, but there wasn't any interest after that year. None," Atwood said. "We ran horrible in that 7 car. Horrible. A year went by and I wasn't doing anything."

He would never recover.

"He was naïve, himself," Evernham said. "There were several factors involved -- the situation, timing in the sport and his lack of experience. He had raw talent. We tried to get him more experience on Jim Smith's team, but it wasn't the best thing for him. In fairness, I think Casey needs to take some of that responsibility, too. He didn't work as hard as he should have."

It took Atwood years to accept that. He seems to accept it now, though it's still difficult to admit. I mentioned to him that his tone was stocked with remorse. During our conversation he was somber, which made the personal acceptance of responsibility palpable.

"It was a couple years after all that happened that I realized that some of this was my fault," he said. "I was just too young, man. Some people take to it quicker than others. Some people are Michael Waltrip with the media and some aren't. I had to learn. I realize that now."

Said Evernham: "He's just not been able to find whatever it is inside to develop that talent into something bigger. That's a shame. I really enjoyed being around him. But in this sport, only the strong survive."

These days Atwood is helping his wife launch a photography business in Greater Nashville, and he shuttles his daughters to and from school. He appreciates the opportunity to attend ballgames and school functions.

"That's kind of keeping me going," he said. "But it's been tough."

I asked him his current occupation, how he pays the bills. He said he's still trying to figure that out. Fortunately he was smart with his money. He said everything he owns is paid for. He wants terribly to race again. He hasn't given up the dream.

That's hindsight. With age we all appreciate opportunity more. Life offers context that youth either defies or shuns.

"It stings, man," he said. "I got one year. I wish I'd have gotten another chance. I was young. I was just a kid. All I'd ever done was drive. I wasn't good at anything else. But I think I could have learned how to deal with everything else in another opportunity."

Atwood still keeps up with the sport. In fact, he attended the Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in March, as a guest of David Ragan's crew chief, Jay Guy. Guy was Atwood's crew chief at one time. So was Kenseth's crew chief, Jason Ratcliff. Atwood gushed over Ratcliff. He tested Joe Gibbs Racing Nationwide cars for Ratcliff several years back and said they were the best race cars he'd ever driven.

"I love it," Atwood said of NASCAR racing. "I wish I was out there so bad. I think about that a lot when I'm watching them. I regret it. Racing is all I've ever done since I was 10 years old. I would have loved to have made it work."

The ongoing discussion with Atwood brought up Joey Logano. The difference in perception between Joey Logano today and Joey Logano two years ago is massive. When he failed at Gibbs, he was doubted. Then Roger Penske gave him one more chance. And now he is a weekly threat to win. At the top.

"I think I should still be out there," Atwood said. "I think I have the talent. I've proven that several times. I just needed to learn everything else, man. That's all there is to it. It was a maturity thing. I just wanted to get in the car and race and didn't care about anything else."