By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
HAMPTON, Ga. -- Kurt Busch put on a great show Sunday afternoon, muscling his car and holding off runner-up Jeff Gordon and third-place finisher Carl Edwards to win the Kobalt Tools 500.
It's too bad there were so few race fans on hand to see Busch's heroics in the 100th Sprint Cup race in the history of Atlanta Motor Speedway.
With other tracks like Kentucky Motor Speedway hungrily seeking its first Sprint Cup race, or places like Kansas Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway actively lobbying to earn a second race per season, the legendary AMS was practically a ghost town Sunday compared to last week's sellout in Sin City. And that doesn't bode well for AMS keeping two races going forward from here.
While some media members estimated attendance at up to 75,000, others pegged the number closer to 45,000, which seemed far more realistic. The track seats 125,000.
Sure, the third-turn grandstands were pretty packed, but the frontstretch was half-full, if that. And just before the green flag dropped to start the race, the main parking lot behind the frontstretch was at least two-thirds empty.
I've seen shopping center parking lots with more cars in them. And unless AMS bused or helicoptered in thousands of fans who chose not to drive, the numbers simply weren't there.
"What I find so discouraging (at all the empty seats) is I think this is one of the best race tracks," said Gordon, whose first career Cup start was at Atlanta in the 1992 season finale. "To me, this is some of the best racing we're putting on in the series anywhere we go.
"I know there's a lot of race fans around here. I'm a little baffled by it. I've been hearing that they were going to have some empty seats. It's really hard to say. That's not my job, to figure that out. If I just base it off of the excitement that I see in the fans that I hear, the ones I hear from, my fans, the racing we're putting out there, this place should be packed."
So does that mean the spring race won't be there next year, either? There has been a lot of discussion that Pocono and AMS are the most likely places to lose a race to another track -- if a race date is to be taken away by NASCAR.
Sunday's turnout certainly didn't help AMS's chances, by any stretch.
"This is one of the best, if not the best, race tracks we go to as far as competition, on-track performance and passing and action and things like that," said Edwards, who got his first career Cup victory at AMS in 2005. "It's too bad there aren't more fans in the grandstands."
AMS has suffered through a continual downward trend in ticket sales over the last several years, so Sunday's slim turnout is just a continuation of that slide.
But the global economic crisis might have a lot to do with Sunday's slim turnout as well. Bristol, which typically sells out, still has tickets available for its March 22 race. In better economic times, the track would have been sold out months in advance.
"We are far from immune to what's going on with the economy," Edwards said. "But I feel like my responsibility -- and I'm sure Jeff feels the same way -- is to go out there and race as hard as we can, deliver for our marketing partners and for our fans and do the best we can, and hope that as the economy comes back up, those stands get more full. But there's nothing we can do about it. I'm just glad for the fans that are here."
Those fans who did show up indeed saw a great finish as Busch dominated, leading 234 of the 330 laps (five more than scheduled because of a late caution) and holding off the surge in the last few laps by Gordon, Edwards and Brian Vickers. It was the 19th victory of Busch's career and came on the heels of brother Kyle's win last week at Las Vegas.
"Things were going our way today," said Busch, who has won twice at AMS, having also triumphed there in 2002. "We had everything we needed."
And he might not be done yet. Next up on the schedule, after a one-week break, is Bristol Motor Speedway, where Kurt has had the most success of his career -- five wins in 16 starts, including his first career Cup victory.
The biggest key to the win Sunday was his final pit stop, under caution, which set up a green-white-checker finish. Crew chief Pat Tryson elected to go with four tires and a splash of gas, as did most other contenders except for only a two-tire stop for Carl Edwards.
While Edwards got out of the pits first, Busch's Dodge was simply too strong. The fresh rubber all around stuck perfectly, and he was able to hold off Gordon and get past Edwards and then hold on to the lead.
"We had our hands full, but we had a great race car," Busch said. "Our Dodge Charger was unbelievable. Just from the get-go of the race, I knew that we had something special; it was up to me to protect it.
"We started sliding around midway through the race and had to get back to the old-school 'race the track and don't race the competition.'"
Busch capped off the exciting finish with one of the most unusual victory celebrations that the sport has seen in a long time: He did his victory lap in reverse.
"It was something me and my buddies brewed up after a few too many Miller Lites one night," Busch said. "Can I say that? Is it all right? It just feels like, to me, when you put a car in reverse like that, it lets the car relax and lets it feel like it did a good job. It's kind of like cooling down a horse after a good Kentucky Derby run, so I'm looking forward to many more of those."
Given the paltry crowd, too few saw the unique victory celebration, let alone the race. But perhaps the most unfortunate thing of all: Those who did show up to watch Sunday's race in person might not see another spring race at Atlanta Motor Speedway ever again.