By Clay Wilson
It's less than a week until tens of thousands of fans flocking to the area get their first taste of live Nextel Cup racing this year at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The Golden Corral 500 roars into town next weekend at AMS. will be the track's first race in the Nextel Cup Series, which replaced the Winston Cup as NASCAR's championship series with the beginning of the season last month.
"This is a huge change for the NASCAR series and for us, said AMS Communications Manager Angela Revell.
The Nextel Cup points system pits the top 10 drivers with 10 races to go in the series against one another for the championship. In addition to these, any driver who is within 400 points of the leader can compete in the "Chase for the Championship."
According to AMS General Manager Ed Clark, the new system will make for more exciting competition in the series' last races, which include fall's Bass Pro Shops 500 at the speedway.
"It will take NASCAR to a new level," Clark said. "The drama and intensity in the garage and on the track will be higher than we've ever seen before in the final races."
After the Feb. 24 Subway 400 in Rockingham, N.C., Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a 7-point margin over his closest competitor in the series standings, Matt Kenseth. Kevin Harvick, Scott Wimmer, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kurt Bush, Elliott Sadler, Ward Burton and Joe Nemechek (in that order) round out the top 10.
As usual, around 100,000 fans are expected to converge on AMS for the Sunday, Mar. 14 race. Revell said she anticipates that as many as a quarter of a million people will visit the track over the course of the weekend.
To get ready for the crowds with AMS' new logos and look, Revell said, NEXTEL personnel have been working feverishly changing signs, billboards and other displays of the former Winston symbol.
"Everything is new and fresh and repainted," said Revell. "It's definitely an exciting era."
Besides the cosmetic changes, Revell said AMS officials are looking forward to the new promotions and activities that NEXTEL will be able to conduct, free of the tobacco regulations that Winston faced.
"As much fun as we had with Winston, we're definitely looking forward to this next era with NEXTEL," she said.
Those who go to the raceway on Saturday will get to see another first at AMS, NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Racing Series, which will run at 1 p.m. that afternoon.
"The reason we're having the trucks this year is popular demand," Revell said. "That's been our number one request from (fans)."
Among the drivers competing in the truck race will be Jonesboro native Joey Clanton. Clanton placed 32nd in last month's race at Daytona after a wreck forced him out of the race, but had run as high as 10th.
Outside the speedway, traffic will be moving considerably slower as the tens of thousands of cars make their way into and out of the track's parking lots. But according to Lt. Eddie Grier of the Georgia State Patrol's Thomaston Post, a continuation of the traffic pattern used in the last couple of races should help smooth the way.
As it normally does, the Georgia State Patrol will be handling traffic enforcement on U.S. Highway 19/41 in the speedway area.
"The last couple of races, the traffic plan seemed to work well," Grier said. "We've had fewer complaints than ever, actually."
On Sunday, traffic coming to the speedway from the north side will be directed, if possible, to parking lots on the north side of the speedway. These vehicles will be sent back northward after the race. Traffic coming from the south will be parked in lots on the south side of AMS as long as possible. These autos will be directed back southward after the race.
If traffic is heavy enough, and if it is not raining, state troopers will enforce a "counterflow" lane between Ga. Highway 81 (McDonough Road) and the AMS entrance. The left lane of Highway 19/41 North will be used for southbound traffic on this strip.
Also, Highway 19/41 between Ga. 20 and Hampton's Oak Street will be closed during the heaviest traffic periods. Through traffic will be diverted around the speedway on Old Ga. Highway 3, which joins with Highway 19/41 at Highway 81.
However, Grier advised that on Sunday, those needing to pass through Henry County on their way to or from Atlanta and points north simply find a way to bypass the area around AMS altogether.
"If I had to come that way Sunday, I'd bypass the raceway somehow," he said.
But one person who plans to try and fight the traffic is McDonough's Marvin Harry.
"If everything works out like I want it to, I'm going to try to go over there," he said.
Harry, who said he's been watching NASCAR races for more than 20 years, also gave his opinion of the new points system.
"In a way I like it, but in a way I don't like it," he said. He said he's concerned that, with the championship coming down to the final 10 races, a season-long leader could end up losing.
"I think that's kind of crummy if my driver does pretty bad in the last few races and then doesn't win," he said.
But Harry, who said he roots for Mark Martin (first), Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rusty Wallace, added, "I look forward at the end of the season for it to be a big upset. I look for either an old-timer or a rookie to win."