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Want to really scare yourself silly? Take a Friday qualifying run around Atlanta


Make that two thumbs up for Michael Waltrip this season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   How fast is Atlanta?
   Pick Friday. That's when this place is scary fast.
   Now on Sunday, in race trim, things seem a bit more under control.
   But Fridays: Wow!
  "The sensation of speed when you qualify is probably greater than anywhere we race on the whole circuit," Michael Waltrip says.
   "You really have to be committed to go out there and get on that pole, because it takes a lot of foot on the floorboard to make it around the track.
   "You really feel the speed...but it's not scary, unless something goes wrong.
   "When you think of it, drivers are kind of dumb. They don't think about anything going wrong. When it does, it's like 'Oh, crap! This is going to be big!'
   "This isn't the best place to have an accident. But we are just focused on winning the pole. It's a real accomplishment if you can do it."
   Of course there is more to this place than just speed….and tires.
   It's an engine killer.
   And after what happened at Las Vegas, with Ford and Toyota teams both having major motor issues, what to expect here?
   Obviously those computer simulation programs aren't all they're cracked up to be.
   Maybe NASCAR's testing ban is backfiring.
   Michael Waltrip, whose operation is off to a very good start this season, after rough sailing the last two years, says things may get crazy here. For a lot of reasons.
   "You'll see more sides scrubbed off cars at Atlanta than you'll see all year long, because drivers are searching for grip," Waltrip says.
   "If there's no grip on the bottom, or not a lot in the middle, drivers will go up towards the top.
    "That's why things can get crazy in Atlanta…and probably why you see so many different winners: because drivers have a bunch of options."
   Waltrip himself likes the high groove. Makes things easier.
   But the track itself, and the tires, and the engine-killing characteristics here, aren't the only worries.
   Pit road.
   This is a bad pit road, and NASCAR officials haven't done much to make it safer, or to push track owner Bruton Smith to make it safer.
   One of the most dangerous parts of the track is coming off the fourth turn, right near pit road. And yet pit road has no wall to protect crewmen.
   If a crewman gets hurt on pit road here, it won't be because NASCAR executives weren't aware of the issue.
   But then pit road at Las Vegas is suddenly dangerous too, as Jeff Gordon showed.
   If drivers don't stand up for the safety of their pit crews, who will?
   Waltrip agrees that pit road here "can get tricky.
   "That's because the track is so racy that drivers continue that aggressiveness on pit road. You are side-by-side, even three-wide, at times out on the track. So when you get on pit road you've got that same mentality too."
    And if Goodyear's tires have more grip here than usual, that will have drivers pitting more frequently for fresh rubber. Even near the end of the race.
    "If you are running first or second with 10 laps to go, you'll never pit," Waltrip says. "But if you are running seventh or eighth, and you can get four fresh tires (when a late caution comes out), you'll take the gamble – giving up track position and going for the tires.
    "It sure worked for Jimmie Johnson last year. And I think you'll see more of the same this weekend."

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