"The Cup cars raced approximately a 22.5-gallon fuel cell last year at Atlanta," said David Hoots, NASCAR managing event director. "The 2007 fuel cell holds approximately 18 gallons, plus the filler neck and vent tube."
FOX and TNT television analyst and former NASCAR NEXTEL Cup crew chief Larry McReynolds foresees a possible change in the outcome of Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 because of the new cell.
"NEXTEL Cup cars average 4.5 miles-per-gallon," McReynolds said. "With the 22-gallon cell the teams ran in 2006, they were getting between 64 and 66 laps before having to come to pit road. Now, with the smaller cell, these guys will be running 52-54 laps, about 10 or 12 laps less than last year."
McReynolds thinks that formula will place an extra emphasis on the crews' performance during pit stops.
"Atlanta is such a fast track that if the pit crew makes a mistake on pit road forcing the driver to come back and pit again, you are going a lap or two down. That essentially ends your day," McReynolds said. "Not long ago, Jerry Nadeau ran out of fuel on the last turn of the last lap and handed the win to Bobby Labonte. With the smaller cell, we could see something crazy like that happen this year."
According to Donnie Wingo, who's first win as a crew chief came at Atlanta Motor Speedway with driver Morgan Shepherd in 1990, the smaller fuel cell will make things more exciting for fans, teams and drivers.
"The smaller cell is definitely going to play a part in the outcome of the race," said Wingo, the current crew chief for NEXTEL Cup rookie Juan Pablo Montoya. "When you get 10 or 15 laps into a run, you are about 25 percent out of fuel and tires, so it will affect pit strategy. Some teams might go for two tires or fuel only. The problem with that is it is easy to get off schedule with other guys and before you know it, you are a lap down."
FOX television race analyst and former championship winning crew chief Jeff Hammond agrees the smaller cell will have an impact as well.
"The smaller fuel cell will change the dynamics of the race for a couple reasons," Hammond explained. "First of all it means more stops and that means added pressure on the driver, to get on and off of pit road and Atlanta has a tough pit road to get on. It will place added pressure on the pit crews and it will also create more opportunities for crew chiefs to make errors in calculating their fuel mileage.
"The other thing it might do is provide fresher tires at the end of the race. That means guys like Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, who run really well on worn out tires, aren't going to have that little advantage they have in the past when the race finished under a long green run."
Atlanta Motor Speedway boasts three of the eleven closest finishes in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup history since the advent of electronic timing, more than any other track. The new fuel cell could add to the history of close finishes.
"We know Atlanta has a history of door-to-door racing and incredible finishes," McReynolds said. "Atlanta is a great track and is always a great race."