NOTE: Atwood, a 20-year-old Raybestos Rookie of the Year contender from Nashville, Tenn., led the way for Dodge yesterday in the New England 300 NASCAR Winston Cup race at New Hampshire International Speedway. Atwood led the race for 13 laps,...
NOTE: Atwood, a 20-year-old Raybestos Rookie of the Year contender from Nashville, Tenn., led the way for Dodge yesterday in the New England 300 NASCAR Winston Cup race at New Hampshire International Speedway. Atwood led the race for 13 laps, pitted and lost a lap, then worked his way back on the lead lap and finished 12th, matching his best performance of the season. He's third in the six-driver rookie race and 34th in the NASCAR Winston Cup Standings after 19 starts. In his first full season behind the wheel for car owner Ray Evernham, Atwood discusses the New Hampshire race, his outlook for Pocono and his overall impressions of his rookie season.
"I wish I could have been up there passing for the lead instead of having it on a pit stop sequence, but it still was good. We got our five bonus points and it felt good to lead. We would have been in a lot better shape if we hadn't pitted, but we came back from it and got a good finish anyway. I knew we had a good car, and I could hang with the leaders. I knew it was going to take some luck in catching a caution just right to get the lap back, but I knew I could go up there and run with 'em. I stayed close enough and got a caution and we got it back.
"On the restarts, everybody is bunched up. I was riding his (Jeff Gordon's) rear pretty good. I guess he didn't like it. I was just up there trying to get my lap back like anyone else would do. It wasn't a big deal. I saw his hand up in the window, and I guess he was just waving to tell me that he wasn't really up to speed yet and to give him a little time to get going.
"I've had fun a lot this year. You have fun when you have good runs. We were able to keep going and get a good finish. We've had some good runs this year, but we haven't been able to close out the deal. We were able to take a good car and come back from some bad luck and get a good finish, so that was really a lot of fun.
"I like the track. I've always liked it. I've had some of my best runs at that track. The first time I was there in a Busch car, I qualified second. I've always run good there, and when you run good at places you automatically like 'em. There was a lot of rubber buildup on the track, and I've never noticed that there before in a Busch car. There were just piles of rubber building up where you run, and that was making it real slick. You had to find a way to get around that rubber buildup so you could get a good lap, but I don't know if the new sealer on the track was making that rubber buildup more or what, but I've never seen that before.
"I don't think the track had anything to do with how the Dodges ran. It's pretty much all handling there. They must have just missed the setup and didn't get their cars handling the way they needed to. The Dodges were strong there at times. When I got up there with the leaders, I could run with 'em.
"I'm really looking forward to the second half of the season. We're going to have some strong runs and good finishes. I feel real confident about that. We started it off pretty good. We had a good car at Chicago. We had a flat tire and had some bad luck or we probably would have had a top 15 finish there, too. It just didn't work out.
"I thought we'd have a few top 10s by now. It's just tough. We should have had a top 10 at Pocono last time. We were running in the top five there and we just had a lot of bad luck. The race team is very capable of getting top 10s. We've just got to keep working at it and go on. We're taking the same car back to Pocono, and we've got a good starting spot with the setup we had there last time. We'll put exactly what we ended up with last time in the car and try to make it better from there. We felt like we could have made the car a little better last time in the race, so we'll go from there and see what happens. "Sammy Johns (team manager) has brought some experience to the team. He's been around awhile. We worked with Ken Schrader for a long time, and he brings the experience to our team that we were lacking. He's got some good setups and good notes. Using Pocono for example, he and Schrader always ran good there. They've got some poles there, so we've got a good setup coming in, and it really paid off last time.
"We've had some good runs since Sammy has been with us. We've just got to keep clicking along and get some top 15 and top 10 finishes and get back up in the points and keep working toward next year. We feel like we'll be even stronger next year.
"Kevin Harvick is doing a great job. It looks like he's going to win the Busch title, and he's got a great Winston Cup car. He's obviously a really good driver. I'm out there racing 42 other cars. I'm not just racing him because he's a rookie. If it comes down between us one day, it comes down between us and we'll race. Until then, I've got to race everyone out there.
"The rookie race has been a little tougher than I expected. We can run with those guys, but it just hasn't worked out. We've had good runs, but we've just had bad luck. We haven't had the finishes we've needed at all, and it's just got us behind -- in the rookie points and Winston Cup points. I'm not worried about it. We'll keep trying to get good finishes, and if we don't get rookie of the year, it's not going to hurt us. We'll just keep on working and trying to win races.
"I feel like I'm going to be better at some of these tracks. Going to 'em the first time, you really don't know what to expect with the car or track. Now that I've been to most of the tracks, we'll go back with more experience and probably run a little better.
"I've adjusted to the longer races pretty well. It's just a lot different from what I've ever been used to. It's my first year doing it, and it probably affects everybody a little bit (length of Winston Cup races) when they first start. I don't feel like I have any problem with it now.
"You've got to put yourself in the right position before you can win. You have to have a great car that can run with the best in racing. You put yourself in that position. Yesterday we showed we could run with 'em, but we never put ourselves in position to run up there and go for it. You've just got to have everything go your way. You've got to run a perfect race to win because if you don't, somebody else will. We've got to try to get some fast cars and qualify up front and just be there.
"My confidence needed boosting. I knew we could do it, but we've just got to put everything together. Yesterday definitely helped. What we went through at New Hampshire, coming from a lap down and finishing 12th, we knew we had a great car. When you get a lap down, it kind of puts the whole team down. Getting it back and coming back and finishing good, I know everybody is going to be pumped up this week. Everybody is really excited about Pocono because that was really our best run this year (despite finishing 38th with engine problems). You've just got to keep the team pumped up and keep doing good.
"Pocono is one of the tracks I know I can run well on. I'm really looking forward to Pocono. I'm looking forward to going back to Richmond and Homestead. I run well on a lot of these tracks we've got coming up.
"I don't feel like I've had to adjust my driving style a whole lot this year. You've got to adjust your driving style every week to every car. It just depends on what's going on in the race how much you have to adjust. The tracks change during the race. The tires change. You get different sets of tires and they don't handle the same. You've always got to adjust a little bit.
"I didn't notice Pocono changing a whole lot during the race. You get different tires and they all seem to handle a little different. Some tracks seem to change a lot during the race, but I didn't see Pocono being that way.
"I've been a pretty smart driver all year, and that's the only way you can gain respect. You run up there and show 'em you're not going to do anything stupid and just make 'em where they're not scared to race with you. I feel like I've been doing that for awhile. I want to be one of those drivers that people like to race with and don't mind being around and you can have a good race with 'em.
"Nothing ever gets easy I don't think. If your car isn't perfect, you're not going to run in the top 10. So many other cars out there can beat you and the guys can get their cars right. It's always hard. We seem to be getting our cars a little bit better, and I think I'm getting a little bit better on some of the tracks. We're going to start getting better runs, but if you're not winning every race you go to, it's not easy.
"One lap qualifying will not really be a big deal at Pocono. Nobody ran their second lap anyway. It's so big and your engine overheats and your first lap is usually faster. It's no big deal. They just need to keep the two lap qualifying on the short tracks. Places where it's slick and you need two laps, they should keep it two laps. I feel like one lap is fine on the big tracks. As long as everybody has to do it, it's fair.
"We're testing at Indy on Tuesday and Wednesday, and I feel good about that one, too. I've never raced there, but it's a flat track and that's what I like. We'll test for two days and try to get our car good. We've got a brand new car that we're going to test there. All the guys are pumped up about that car. They feel like it's going to be our best Intrepid. It'll be important. It'd be great to go there and run good the first time. I've watched the Indy 500 a bunch of times, and I've watched it since the Winston Cup cars have been going there. It's a big deal to win. It'd be great to win there, but we'll just go and try to get a decent finish and get back up in the points.
"If you've never been to a track before testing is very important. I'm looking forward to testing. I wouldn't want to go there and unload on a race weekend and not know the track. Testing doesn't bother me. It's nice to have an off weekend, but this stretch of 20 straight races won't bother me. That's just how the schedule goes. Everybody is going to have to go through the same thing. I really feel sorry for the crew members. The drivers get to come home during the week. The crew comes home on Sunday and works all week, too. It's going to be rough on them.
"I got out of the track pretty fast yesterday, and I didn't really get a chance to sit down and talk to Ray (car owner Evernham), but everybody seemed pretty pumped up about it. It didn't look like we were going to have a good day, but we came back and stayed strong and didn't give up. We got a good finish, and everybody seemed to be real happy about it. I know I was real happy about it. Maybe we can kick it up a notch and be even happier after Pocono."
DODGE GARAGE NOTES -- Casey Atwood became the seventh different Dodge driver to score manufacturers points (highest race finisher for manufacturer) this season. Atwood joins Buckshot Jones and Dave Blaney with three points each. Bill Elliott has contributed four points, and John Andretti has six points to his credit. Ward Burton has scored four times for a total of 13 points, and Sterling Marlin leads the way for Dodge. Marlin has had the highest finishing Dodge in 10 of 19 events for a total of 37 points. Dodge last won the NASCAR manufacturers championship in 1975. Chevrolet leads the way this season with nine wins and 137 points. Ford has eight wins and 132 points, followed by Pontiac with two wins and 80 points. Dodge has 69 points....Marlin also leads the way for Dodge in the laps led category. He's been out front in 14 of 19 events for 298 laps. Ranked fifth in the NASCAR Winston Cup Standings, 281 points behind the co-leaders, Marlin will take the same Intrepid back to Pocono that qualified second and finished fourth there on June 17.... Marlin, Elliott and Stacy Compton have won poles for Dodge this season.... Marlin is the only driver who has been ranked in the top 10 in point standings all season.