By Jerry Bonkowski
For much of the 1990s and until 2008 – when the global economic downturn created massive havoc with NASCAR and its teams – there was one concept that didn’t change.
By the time the fifth race rolled around in a season, teams had a good idea of just what they had – or didn’t have. That fifth race was almost a benchmark, as timely as death or paying taxes. If a team didn’t have things figured out by then, or at least was on a path to figuring things out, it could ultimately be a long season.
Oftentimes, a very, very long season. No matter if the fifth race was at Bristol or somewhere else, the fifth race was always some sort of demarcation mark.
Now in 2022, particularly with the Next Generation car, we’ve already seen which teams have got a good handle on arguably the most technologically innovative car the sport has ever seen, most notably Hendrick Motorsports, which has won two of the first four races.
And now we’re kind of right back to where we were in the 1990s and up until 2008, but with a very significant twist: the site of this weekend’s race, Atlanta Motor Speedway, has both been reconfigured and repaved. And if all goes well, we very well may see a long-awaited and well-deserved return to the AMS of old, but in a whole new package.
Let me explain:
Throughout the afore-mentioned 1990s, AMS was THE place in NASCAR. At just a hair over 1.5 miles, it was the fastest track around (not including Daytona or Talladega, which were both relegated to using restrictor plates).
There was no disputing the speed element at Atlanta. Drivers looked forward to putting the pedal to the metal and holding it wide open for much of each event held there, typically a 500-mile event in length.
But as Atlanta started to get older and needed to have more and more patching of spots that developed on the racing surface, Texas Motor Speedway eventually stole the “fastest track” title away from Atlanta, and then Michigan International Speedway.
Unfortunately, Atlanta went into a tailspin when other tracks took the king of speed title. In turn, fans started to stay away in droves, to the point where 2010 was the last season where AMS hosted two races per season – until 2021, when a second race was brought back to the schedule.
There’s a good reason why that happened: with the promise of reconfiguration and resurfacing, NASCAR and AMS officials wanted to bring the venerable old place back to racing supremacy.
Namely, they wanted to get speed back into the mix. And now, in its 62nd year of operation (AMS opened in 1960), the pride and joy of suburban Hampton, Georgia is ready for its coming out party this weekend.
And potentially to reclaim its title of the fastest track on the circuit.
It may not happen exactly in this Sunday’s race, but if I were to place a bet, I’d put all my cash on the line that AMS will once again become the fastest track (other than Daytona and ‘Dega) on the circuit within the next three years.
It’ll take that long for the track to go through at least three different four-season weather cycles and bring in a curing and aging process that makes for the best racing there is.
Sure, AMS could have done the repave and reconfiguration sooner – and from what I understand, plans were on the drawing board to do so after the 2020 season. But then COVID-19 hit, making it impossible to do so then, eventually pushing the job back to starting in late July last season after the track hosted its second race in the same season for the first time in 11 years.
Frankly, I’m quite happy AMS is back to two races per season, because there was a point not too long ago that there were lots of rumors the track may eventually close and potentially even be torn down. And with each passing year of just one race on the aging, and increasingly cumbersome surface, one began to wonder if those rumors may eventually become fact.
But that never happened, thankfully.
Now, it’s time for the racing at the track they used to call Hotlanta to once again live up to that nickname, get things heated up and reclaim its title as the fastest place not just south of the Mason-Dixon line, but anywhere in NASCAR, period.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski