HAMPTON, Ga. Ryan Newman headed to the lake Saturday to get in some fishing.
''Can you imagine that we're actually talking about having a day off at a race track?'' Newman said, feigning disbelief at the impact of NASCAR's new pre-race schedule.
Maybe while he was out on the water, Newman also had time to figure out the answer to a more vexing question: How does he turn another dazzling qualifying run into a victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway?
Newman will start from the pole in Sunday's Golden Corral 500, just as he has for the last four Nextel Cup races at the 1.54-mile trioval. His five straight poles are an Atlanta record, but all that success in qualifying has yet to yield a win on race day.
''We're knocking on the door,'' Newman insisted. ''We've had a car that's been capable of winning all three races this year.''
No one is better on pole day than Newman. In just his fourth full year on the circuit, the 27-year-old college graduate already has two poles this season and 29 in his career tied with Ricky Rudd for 11th place in the modern era.
Newman hasn't been quite as successful on race day, though his 11 victories are nothing to be ashamed of when most of his racing is still in front of him.
Even so, it's a bit bewildering that he's never been able to finish high than fifth at Atlanta.
''To me, qualifying is a little bit easier,'' Newman said. ''It's just two laps, you vs. the track, with no other cars and no pit stops.''
He's off to a solid start this season, ranking ninth in the points after consecutive ninth-place finishes at California and Las Vegas. A victory in Atlanta could push him near the top of the Cup standings.
''As a driver or a team or a crew chief, you can create a lot of excuses,'' Newman said. ''The bottom line is it takes teamwork among everybody. Maybe the car's not up to snuff. Maybe we're not making the right adjustments during the race. I can't say it's one thing we're lacking.''
So far, the young season has been a head-to-head battle between the Fords of Roush Racing and the Chevrolets of Hendrick Motorsports.
Jeff Gordon (Hendrick) won the season-opening Daytona 500, Greg Biffle (Roush) took the checkered flag in California and Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick) crossed the line first at Las Vegas last weekend.
The overall standings have a similar feel. Defending series champion Kurt Busch (Roush) is out front again, followed by Johnson, Biffle, Gordon and Carl Edwards (Roush).
Johnson would have been in the lead, but his car failed inspection after the Las Vegas victory. NASCAR inspectors found his roof was too low, leading to a 25-point penalty for Johnson and a two-week suspension for crew chief Chad Knaus.
The team appealed, allowing Knaus to remain the voice on the other end of Johnson's headset for Sunday's race. But the harsh penalties are still looming over the entire organization.
''We've been in total shock,'' Johnson said. ''It put us on our heels. We're finally back upright and we've caught our breath. We understand what could happen. We don't agree with it, but we're moving on.''
Johnson looked just fine in qualifying, putting up the third-fastest run, and he's had plenty of success in Atlanta. He won the fall race last year and has three other top-five finishes.
And don't forget: This team already has shown it can deal with adversity of a much more tragic nature.
Last October, 10 people were killed when a team plane crashed while en route to a race at Martinsville. The general manager and chief engine builder were among the victims, along with owner Rick Hendrick's brother, son and two nieces.
''We thought we couldn't go on,'' Johnson said. ''But the people below them were so well-trained, we were able to keep the ship afloat. We don't want to do it without Chad, but if we're put in that position these guys are well-trained, focused and dedicated. They know what's going on. We should be able to get the job done.''
Knaus wasn't the only crew chief to feel NASCAR's wrath after Las Vegas.
Kyle Busch's runner-up car also failed a post-race inspection, leading to a two-week suspension for crew chief Alan Gustafson. With an appeal pending, he'll be in the pits this week.
Todd Berrier, the crew chief for Kevin Harvick, will be watching from home. He received a four-week suspension after admitting he rigged a fuel tank for qualifying, making it appear to be carrying a full load when it actually wasn't.
While Berrier has appealed, his team knows there's little chance of his entire suspension being wiped out. So he began serving his sentence this weekend.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. might want to consider fudging the rules a bit. Since a second-place finish in the Daytona 500, he has run into all sorts of problems.
Junior had three flat tires at California and finished 32nd. Last week, he caused a five-car wreck early in the race, finished 42nd and was forced to apologize for his bonehead move.
Earnhardt appears headed for another poor showing in Atlanta, where he's the defending race champion. He was terrible in practice and will start 35th after a poor qualifying run.
Then there's Newman, who'll be starting up front.
''Obviously, we have some momentum with a pole and a good car,'' he said. ''I'm looking forward to the race.''
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