Thursday, March 6, 2003

Atlanta one of NASCAR's fastest stops

Track makes for qualifying speeds over 190 mph

The Associated Press

Some of the fastest laps of the Winston Cup season are expected Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway during qualifying for Sunday's MBNA 500.

The 1.54-mile quad oval is the only track other than Texas Motor Speedway in which qualifying speeds have been over 190 mph in recent years. AMS has been among the fastest on the NASCAR circuit since it was reconfigured in 1997 from a 1.522 mile oval.

Geoffrey Bodine set a track qualifying record of 197.478 mph in November 1997, the first race weekend on the configuration. As the pavement at Atlanta has worn down, speeds also have been reduced. Qualifying for the race last fall was rained out, but Bill Elliott won the pole for the spring event at 191.542. Only Elliott's 194.224 later in the spring at the Texas track topped that performance.

"Those two qualifying laps at Atlanta are the most intense a driver is going to be during the year," said Johnny Benson. "It's a wild ride. But it only lasts for a short time.

"I'd say it would be about a 9 on the 10 scale. When you race there, assuming your car is handling well, it is about a 6 on that scale."

Even the straightaways are demanding on the AMS track, and Benson said there is no time to relax during the qualifying run.

"I think Atlanta is about as on the edge as you can get when it comes to qualifying," Benson added. "It is so fast. ... Sometimes you will see drivers out of breath when they get out of the car from just one or two qualifying laps. You put everything out there."

FORMULA ONE: The season gets under way this weekend in Melbourne, Australia, where Michael Schumacher and Ferrari are again overwhelming favorites for the title. Schumacher is coming off the greatest season in F1 history, winning a record 11 times en route to a record-tying fifth series title.

"I've had 12 years in F1 and I've only had one season which was like last year, so why not have a little bit more of that?" said the German, who won the title with six races to spare.

In the offseason, International Automobile Federation (FIA) president Max Mosley, supported by F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, moved to install rule changes aimed at returning competition by banning high-tech drivers' aids, changing qualifying and testing rules, and revising the scoring system.

"I promise, there won't be another season like this," Ecclestone said.

The driver lineups at the top remain unchanged - with Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello at Ferrari, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher at BMW-Williams, and David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen at McLaren.

Four rookies will make their debut in Australia, all with tail-end teams: Englishman Justin Wilson (Minardi), Englishman Ralph Firman (Jordan), Brazilian Cristiano de Matta (Toyota) and Antonio Pizzonia (Jaguar).

INDY 500: Ganassi Racing is the first team to enter the Indianapolis 500, filing the paperwork for two cars each for Tomas Scheckter and rookie Scott Dixon. Invitations for the May 25 race were sent to all eligible teams Wednesday.

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