NASCAR falls flat in follow-up to Daytona 500
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- NASCAR did not have its finest weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where the follow-up to the Daytona 500 began with the theft of a race car and a parked SUV rolling into Denny Hamlin's motorhome.
Qualifying was a debacle for the second week in a row, rain delayed the start of Sunday's race and Jeff Gordon once again managed to crash into a concrete wall that lacked an energy-absorbing barrier.
By the time Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag to close a cold and wet weekend, everyone was ready to get out of Atlanta.
It was a momentum-killing weekend for NASCAR, which had staged a strong season-opener one week earlier only to fall flat at one of the more historic tracks on the circuit.
Things went awry early when a trailer carrying the Team XTREME race car for Travis Kvapil was stolen from a motel parking lot early Friday morning.
While the team scrambled to figure out what it would do - with no car, Kvapil was forced to withdrawal from the race - Hamlin received a jolt when his motorhome was struck by a rolling SUV that had mistakenly been left in gear.
After those two off-track distractions were dealt with, attention turned toward the debut of the 2015 rules package. Only that was marred by the second embarrassing qualifying session in as many weeks.
Four series champions were among the 13 drivers who didn't even get to make a qualifying attempt because their cars didn't pass inspection before the session began Friday afternoon.
Among those stuck in the inspection bay were Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.
Gordon, who needed two attempts to get his car through inspection, took the series to task after he failed to make a qualifying attempt in the debut race for new sponsor 3M.
"When you have this many teams having issues going through, there's something wrong with this system or something wrong with the amount of time they're allotted to get through," he said. "There's no way with this many good cars and talented people that they can't figure out how to get these cars through inspection.
"I'm embarrassed for our series."
It remains to be seen if the problem was that NASCAR, which a year ago dramatically reduced its team of officials as it streamlined its processes and began to use more technology and less human capital, didn't have enough inspectors on site and didn't allot enough time to clear 47 cars.
Sprint Cup director Richard Buck indicated the issue was with the way teams set up the cars in their first race with a new rules package.
"They're pushing the limits," Buck said. "That's their job to get every bit they can get through (inspection). It's our job that everyone gets a fair opportunity to get through there."
Whatever the reasoning is for all those cars failing to make it on the track, it has to be fixed before this weekend's race at Las Vegas. NASCAR can't afford a third straight week of a champion being publicly "embarrassed" of the series.
But that didn't even end up being Gordon's biggest concern.
A week after Kyle Busch broke his right leg and left foot when he crashed into a concrete wall at Daytona, Gordon also managed to hit a wall that lacked a SAFER barrier.
Busch's accident has spurred NASCAR and most of the racetracks to re-evaluate their safety standards, and Atlanta took steps to protect a large stretch that lacked soft walls.
If anyone is going to find an unprotected spot, though, it's Gordon - he hit a concrete section at Las Vegas several years ago that forced the track to install a SAFER barrier there before NASCAR returned.
Gordon was visibly angry about his hit Sunday, as were many fans, who are as frustrated as the drivers are over a seemingly slow pace to get the barriers in enough spots at every track. NASCAR and its racetracks deserve credit for a sense of urgency toward addressing the issue, but it's unsettling to see drivers continuing to find concrete walls.
Toss in the cold weather, it was 43 degrees when the green flag waved under low, thick clouds, and the decision to move Atlanta's race date to the second weekend of the year seemed quizzical.
The realignment helped Atlanta sister property Bristol Motor Speedway secure a better spring date, but came at the expense of a once-proud track that seems lost on the NASCAR calendar.
The crowds were small all weekend, and any chance of a decent race-day walk-up was ruined by rain that delayed Sunday's race an hour.
NASCAR now heads west for a three-race swing that begins in Las Vegas and ends in Fontana, Calif.,
One can only hope that each event goes a lot smoother than last weekend.