Wow! What a year it’s been at Atlanta Motor Speedway! Without question, there has been no shortage of memorable moments during 2011. We’ve had the honor of having thousands of fans come through our gates during the past year. In 2011, we’ve seen thrilling drag racing on grassroots level at Friday Night Drags & MCR Safety Show-N-Shine and some of the best up-and-coming short-track racers at Thursday Thunder.
Then, on Labor Day Weekend, the best drivers in NASCAR converged on Atlanta for some night racing, where a time filled with fun, tailgating, friends, racing and more was capped off by the AdvoCare 500.
What an exciting year it has been!
But of all the moments here at Atlanta Motor Speedway, perhaps the most memorable came on when Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag in the AdvoCare 500.
It was Gordon’s 85th career victory, placing him by himself in third place on NASCAR’s all-time victories list. In fact, NASCAR surprised Gordon in Victory Lane following the race, presenting him with a framed photomontage in recognition of his 85th win. NASCAR President Mike Helton presented Gordon with the frame.
“Yeah, everybody knows when Mike Helton speaks he has a way with words,” Gordon said after the race. “So to be up there, get presented that beautiful plaque that they put together with all the victories, just looking back on all the people that have contributed to it from Hendrick Motorsports, different crew chiefs and crew members and guys in the engine shop. I mean, it's a team effort.”
As for the win itself, it was anything but easy.
Gordon’s car was strong throughout the race, but he had to contend with his teammate and five-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. During the final laps, both drivers battled for the lead against not only one another, but the track as well. Atlanta Motor Speedway’s racing surface can be a challenge for drivers and crew chiefs alike, as it quickly wears down tires. As a result, drivers have to work harder to avoid wrecking than at other similar tracks. It’s because of this that in the minds of many drivers, a victory at Atlanta is highly treasured.
As the race neared its conclusion, Johnson and Gordon manhandled their loose-handling racecars, slinging them into the turns as the laps wound down until Gordon pulled away to claim a hard-fought victory that ended up being one of the most memorable moments of the 2011 NASCAR season for fans, media and others within motorsports.
“To win 85, you know, is unbelievable,” Gordon said. “And to do it here at Atlanta. I'm not sure really where to kind of rank everything, because the significance of this win today, the timing of it, doing it here in Atlanta on such a tough racetrack, battling with Jimmie, the bonus points, the 85th win, the momentum that this team has got right now and the race cars we're taking to the racetrack. Man, this is cool.”
Down to the final lap, the race for the win was anyone’s to claim, according to Gordon.
“I mean, it was a nail biter all the way to the end. (Jimmie) got real loose off of turn four coming to take the white. And I think that was the turning point. I really do. I think had he gotten underneath me off of turn two, I was getting so loose over there, and if he could have got to the bottom into turn 3, I don't know if I could have held him off, off of turn four. It would have been a great battle either way. But he got real loose off of turn two.
When that happened, it gave me a little bit breathing room where I could go down to the turn three and drive the car straight and not push the issue and not get the car real sideways. Every time I stood in the gas off of 2 the car would step out and lose momentum. That's where he was gaining on me. I was able to drive it straight when he got loose off of turn four.”
As for Johnson’s perspective?
“I got inside of him a couple times. Got to the outside once. And just didn't have enough regroup to kind of get there and stay there,” Johnson said. “And the time I got to be outside of him, I felt I was going to be in good shape. But I think we had a lap car get in the way there and use me as a pick a little bit, couldn't complete the pass.”
Overshadowed by two NASCAR legends racing tooth and nail for the win was Tony Stewart, who finished third for his second top five finish of the season. The showing appeared to jump-start Stewart and his No. 14 team as it won five times in the Chase for the Championship on the way to the 2011 title.
“I will say this: If Ed Clark decides to repave this racetrack, I'll personally shoot him myself,” Stewart said. “This place is so racy, so much fun. Like Jimmie said, you could -- here more so than anywhere we go to, you actually have to take care of your tires and budget them for your run. And that's what makes it fun here because guys overdrive run their cars, run too hard on the front and then they fall off the last half.”