HAMPTON, Ga. -- Atlanta Motor Speedway feels a lot better about its future position in NASCAR's racing lineup.
Next year's schedule is expected to move the raceway away from its position as the final stop on the Winston Cup Series schedule. Weather in mid-November has been an issue five of the past six years at Atlanta, so there's a sense of relief knowing next year's race probably will fall on the final weekend of October.
That's the official version. Here's the unofficial reason:
Once a vaunted spot among a 10-month schedule that stretches the traveling show from California to Miami, from Texas to New Hampshire, the final race has become too much work for so little return.
Atlanta flourished in 1992, when the final race not only marked the end of Richard Petty's career, but it also featured a race for the championship that included five drivers with a mathematical chance of the Winston Cup championship. As it turns out, Alan Kulwicki won the title by just 10 points the difference between two finishing positions.
Since then, however, the biggest drama associated with the final race has been keeping a step ahead of rain. Title chases generally are determined long before the season finale, and that makes the final 500 miles a mere formality.
A year from now, it's going to be Homestead-Miami Speedway's problem to justify tripled hotel rates and five-hour traffic jams for a race that likely won't matter.
If the South Florida track wants a firsthand look of what to expect in 2002, it needs to be in Atlanta on Nov. 18 for the NAPA 500. By then, Jeff Gordon probably will have lapped the field in the race for the championship.
Gordon, who now seems fully recovered from a two-year slump when he wasn't a major player in the drive for the championship, is on a roll that's every bit as reminiscent as his runaway title seasons of 1995, '97 and '98.
Heading into Sunday's Pepsi 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Gordon has rebounded from a second-place position in the standings to a 194-point lead in just three races. He's won the past two races and has compiled 14 top-five finishes in 22 races.
More amazing is that he's led 25 percent of all the laps this year, while the rest of the top-five drivers in the standings Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin and Tony Stewart have combined to lead a little more than 17 percent of the laps. In all, Gordon has led at least one lap in 18 of 22 races.
''Momentum can work in both directions,'' Gordon said during a break in Tuesday's test session at Atlanta Motor Speedway. ''If all the things are right, the confidence builds, and it trickles into positive energy that surrounds the team. When things start to go bad, you start to question things and, all of a sudden, all that negative energy comes in.
''What makes a great team in our sport is a team that can rebound from a bad race. Our team has shown that here. We had a wreck at Daytona, and we had a situation with the motor at Chicago, and we've come back and done real, real well.''
When Gordon finished ninth in the standings a year ago his worst since his rookie season of 1993 it was easy to write him off. Crew chief Ray Evernham got a lot of the credit for the team's three championships, and his departure during the 1999 season for the Dodge project seemed to have a profound effect.
Just when the level of frustration reached its zenith, everything suddenly made sense. Gordon and new crew chief Robbie Loomis were doing it all wrong, and it took his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jerry Na deau, to point them in the right direction.
''We started measuring a lot of things, and we started talking about things,'' Gordon said. ''I've got to get the feel for the car that I'm looking for, and I wasn't getting that feel. Once we got help from the 25 car, I started feeling more comfortable. We started building from that. The October race at Charlotte (N.C.) is when it all turned around. We made a bunch of changes for that race. We knew right then we hit on something.''
Now the rest of the racing world knows it, too.
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