Drivers Coveting Historic Win Before Repaving of Atlanta Motor Speedway
The last time Atlanta Motor Speedway was repaved, iPhones were still a decade away, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was well under 8,000 points, and the average loaf of bread hovered around $1.
It was the same year that Mike Tyson infamously bit Evander Holyfield during a boxing match, the comet Hale-Bopp was visible, the movie "Men in Black" hit theaters and the band "Hanson" was still a thing.
The year was 1997 - two full decades ago. If the AMS track surface were a human, it could vote today and legally purchase alcohol next year.
In all those years since the current track surface was born, it has seen 31 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, 19 XFINITY Series races and 15 Camping World Truck Series races.
In case you were counting, that's 603,600 laps and 929,544 mile driven on the 1.54-mile asphalt oval - and that's just for NASCAR.
That, of course, doesn't include the eight ARCA Racing Series races, the four IndyCar Series races, the pace laps, the caution laps, the monster trucks, the speedway cruises and the countless U.S. Legends and Bandolero car races on the quarter-mile "Thunder Ring" that this 20-year-old surface has endured.
Some of the most notable NASCAR races have taken place on the current AMS racing surface, including Dale Earnhardt's 0.010-second margin of victory over Bobby Labonte in 2000, Kevin Harvick's emotional and record-setting 0.006-second margin of victory over Jeff Gordon in Earnhardt's Richard Childress Racing car the following year, Carl Edwards' first Cup Series victory and subsequent season sweep of both Atlanta races in 2005 and the first-ever Atlanta night race in 2009.
Geoff Bodine's amazing AMS qualifying record was set at the very first race on the current surface in 1997, when he blazed around the track in 28.074 seconds at an average speed of 197.478 mph. And currently, Bobby Labonte and seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson are tied at five for the most Cup Series victories on the surface.
Age-wise, AMS has the second-oldest asphalt on the entire Cup Series circuit. Thanks to a combination of the mild Georgia winters and a meticulous maintenance program over the years, it's been able to enjoy a life of longevity.
But like anything that gets old, the wear and tear of all those tires in all those races and the constant battery of temperature swings and downpours of southern summertime thunderstorms (and even a tornado or two), has taken its toll. No longer is it a grippy, perfectly-smooth loop of asphalt like the one you enjoy on your daily commute after a brand new construction project around town.
Instead, it's a slower, slick, abrasive track prone to tire spins, sideways race cars and challenging driving conditions not for the faint of heart. Fortunately for the drivers, they love that kind of stuff, and fortunately for fans, they love watching it.
So for NASCAR stars, the thought of one more go-around on the 20-year-old surface and last chance to add his or her name to a prestigious list of drivers who have earned a trip to Victory Lane on this very same asphalt before it undergoes a repave later this spring, is the opportunity of a lifetime.
Georgia native Chase Elliott, who cut his teeth in the Legends program at AMS and who was about 1 ½ years old when the current surface was lain, identifies the 2017 Atlanta race as one he particularly looks forward to.
"I'm going to enjoy this race weekend, because of the (coming) surface change," he said. "I think we all enjoy the surface that's there and just the options it gives you as a driver to move around."
Joey Logano, who won the pole at Atlanta in 2015 and has finished as high as second at the track, takes the 2016 race to a whole new personal level.
"Atlanta, to me - I lived down there for six years," he said. "So it's special. I want to be able to win at that race track, especially before the repave. I want to be able to say I won on that surface. We've come very close to winning there before. We've had very fast cars, but we haven't done it yet, so it's kind of the last shot at that, at least on that surface."
And for the sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who won at Atlanta in 2010 and has 14 top-10 finishes on the rough and aged track, it will be a bittersweet farewell to the memorable, old surface.
"I expect it to drive good. I love the race track. I know they're going to repave it after this year, so, we'll try to enjoy the last race on that old asphalt, because it's hard to beat the surfaces that get aged like that."
So for Earnhardt and 39 others, it all comes down to one final weekend, as drivers mark the end of one era of racing in Atlanta before beginning another in 2018. The only thing left to determine now is who will cement his or her name as the final driver to win on one of the sport's most influential surfaces in history.
NASCAR racing returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway March 3-5, 2017, featuring the Rinnai 250 XFINITY Series and Active Pest Control 200 Camping World Truck Series doubleheader on Saturday, March 4 and the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday, March 5.
For more information or to purchase tickets today, contact the Atlanta Motor Speedway ticket office at (770) 946-4211, (877) 9-AMS-TIX or visit www.atlantamotorspeedway.com.