Two Premier Organizations Have Won 15-of-21 since AMS Track Redesign
It's hardly the same as Yankees vs. Red Sox. Nor does it exactly parallel the old contention between Petty Enterprises and Wood Brothers Racing. But to suggest there is no rivalry between Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports at Atlanta Motor Speedway is akin to burying one's head in the sand. Deep in the sand.
Both teams are better than good at Atlanta Motor Speedway and, more often than not, someone from JGR or Hendrick is going to win in Atlanta.
Look at the facts. Since a track redesign in 1997 that made Atlanta Motor Speedway a 1.54-mile quad-oval track, Hendrick and JGR have won 15-of-21 races (71.4 percent). In fact, the teams are so evenly matched that just one win separates them in that span, with JGR taking eight wins to Hendrick's seven.
"I've never gone into Atlanta Motor Speedway thinking we've got a rivalry, but you go into Atlanta knowing who you have to beat," said Jimmy Makar, vice president of racing operations for JGR. "Certainly, the Hendrick cars are the guys you look at when you go there because you're going to have to compare yourself to them."
While team members and drivers are reluctant to admit there is a rivalry reminiscent of those in team sports, they all understand these teams are almost always favorites in Atlanta. But, in their eyes, they just have to beat the cars running up front, regardless of team affiliation.
"I think there is always a rivalry with whomever you have to beat to win a race, every weekend," said Jeff Gordon, a four-time winner for Hendrick in Atlanta, with three since the redesign. "I would never say there is a rivalry between our teams, but maybe I haven't been in those battles as much as Jimmie [Johnson] has. I think that we go there and we see who is fast and that's our rival."
Johnson sees it much the same way.
"I don't feel like it's just a rivalry with the Gibbs guys," said the two-time defending Chase for the Sprint Cup Champion and three-time winner at Atlanta. "I always expect to see the No. 20 [Tony Stewart] good there. Bobby Labonte had such a good run there for so many years and Kyle [Busch] is obviously quick there."
But what exactly makes certain teams and drivers good at Atlanta?
"I think it's the style of the drivers and the use of throttle control that makes our teams good at Atlanta. I would put a lot of weight in that," Johnson continued. "You look at Jeff's background, Stewart's background, I've been known for that with my background and Kyle [Busch] has been known to charge hard, but can really work the throttle well."
With the nature of Atlanta - the cheese grater surface that Johnson described as, "... the most challenging track we have on the circuit" - Gordon puts an emphasis on controlled power and handling.
"From our side of it, power is important at Atlanta to qualify good and its important in the race, but once it starts at Atlanta it is all about handling," said Gordon. "The driver that can slip and slide around in the car that can get the most possible grip is in a good position."
"There are a lot of things you look at that make certain teams good at a track," explained Makar, who served as crew chief for Labonte when he recorded most of his six wins at Atlanta. "First, look at the driver. Certain drivers have certain tracks they excel at and others they struggle with; we've been fortunate to have drivers over the years that excel at places like Atlanta. We've got that part of the picture.
"Second, you look at the cars," Makar continued. "Typically, the cars I have worked on, and some of the cars other people in our organization have worked on, tend to be good at places like Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas."
But, despite any combination of driver traits and vehicle performance, each team's history at Atlanta might also provide a mental edge.
"There are just certain race tracks you go to and teams are good there, where the team has been handing down information and setup which is a good baseline to start," said Steve Addington, crew chief for Kyle Busch who won his first Sprint Cup race at Atlanta in March. "I think some of it is mentality at a certain track - the history there. When the Gibbs cars go there they expect to be fast and the drivers know that too. That's probably part of it."
Be it for the history and accompanying mental advantage, certain driver traits or years of vehicle prep mastered by Hendrick and JGR, it is to be expected that these teams will compete for the win in the upcoming Pep Boys Auto 500.
"Atlanta is a place we enjoy going to and the drivers enjoy going. We excel at those places more than others do and its kind of a hard thing to explain," said Makar. "But, there are certain places you go to and expect to win or challenge for the win and Atlanta is one of them."
Great seats are available for all Pep Boys Auto 500 race weekend events, October 24-26th. Call the Atlanta Motor Speedway ticket office at 1-877-AMS-TIX or 770-946-4211 and reserve your seat today.