Best Races at Atlanta Motor Speedway Since 2000
Last week, Atlanta Motor Speedway announced they were repaving their track following this season. The track hasn’t undergone a repave since they added a quad-oval in 1997.
Changes include adjusting the banking in the turns from 24 to 28 degrees. The track will also be made narrower. The overall width will go from 55 feet to 40 feet.
The track produced a lot of great racing over the years. With the current configuration in the books, I want to look back at the best races at the track with this layout.
Here are my five top choices for best races at Atlanta Motor Speedway since 2000.
5. 2000 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500
Everyone remembers the race for its fantastic finish, but the race itself actually produced a lot of action.
The fourth race of the 2000 season started with Dale Jarrett on the pole. The race for the lead was unbelievably competitive in the first 75 laps with 17 lead changes. Only Mike Skinner led over eight consecutive laps during the beginning portion of the race.
Skinner essentially took control of the race from there. He led 147 of the next 160 laps. At this point, Skinner was already a Truck Series champion looking to make a career in the Cup Series. It looked like Skinner was in prime position to pick up his first Cup Series victory.
Unfortunately, Skinner’s engine blew while leading the race with 20 laps to go. This set up a battle between Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte.
Earnhardt had the lead on the restart with Labonte right behind with 13 laps to go. Labonte raced alongside Earnhardt with 10 laps to go, but he couldn’t complete the pass.
Just when it looked like Labonte would be out of it, he made a hard charge to Earnhardt’s back bumper on the final lap. He pulled alongside him in the final turn, and the two crossed the finish line side-by-side.
Earnhardt edged out Labonte by 0.010 seconds to capture his ninth career victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He led 34 laps while Labonte led 46.
Labonte had to settle for second, but he won the ultimate battle by winning the 2000 championship over Earnhardt.
For the day, Skinner led a race-high 191 of 325 laps but had to settle for a 30th place finish. Skinner never won a Cup Series race in his career.
4. 2004 Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500
It was an extremely emotional day for the NASCAR world on October 31, 2004. Just a week prior, a Hendrick Motorsports aircraft crashed, resulting in the death of ten people.
Among the ten people killed were team president John Hendrick and driver Ricky Hendrick. Ricky Hendrick was the 24-year-old son of team owner Rick Hendrick.
Starting from the pole, Ryan Newman dominated the opening portion of the race. He led 58 of the first 63 laps before losing the lead to Carl Edwards. Edwards only led 11 laps before Mark Martin took over.
Martin had the best car from thereon. He led 227 of 325 laps, but a late caution shook things up. Martin and Edwards took two tires during a pit stop, while Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson took four. The move turned out to be costly as both drivers got around Martin with 15 laps to go.
Most of the leaders pitted one last time for four tires, but Martin came off the pit lane behind Johnson and Edwards. Johnson quickly got around a few guys that stayed out. Martin nearly ran him down, but he just ran out of time. Johnson captured his seventh win of the 2004 season.
Johnson, a Hendrick Motorsports driver, chose not to do a burnout. Instead, he did a polish victory lap, meaning he would drive backward to wave to all the fans.
The other three Hendrick Motorsports drivers joined Johnson in victory lane for the celebration. They all wore their hats backward in honor of Ricky Hendrick.
In the end, Johnson fell just eight points short of winning his first championship. No matter, he went on to win a record-tying seven championships during his career.
His championships were impressive, but this win may have been the most meaningful of his career.
3. 2005 Golden Corral 500
The first race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2005 produced another thrilling finish. However, the action started early in the race.
On the very first lap, a 10-car crash took out some of the top contenders. This included Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, and Jeff Gordon.
Atlanta Motor Speedway doesn’t typically produce these big crashes, so it was surprising, to say the least.
Jimmie Johnson basically dominated the race for the first 130 laps or so. Johnson was looking to win his second consecutive race at the track. However, Johnson wasn’t going to have an easy time with Greg Biffle battling him for the lead. The two basically traded the lead for the next 160 laps. Johnson was finally able to hold a firm grip on the lead with 26 laps to go.
Edwards was looking for his first career Cup Series win. He won his first career Busch Series (now Xfinity Series) race the day before at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Edwards fell back a bit and nearly lost second place to Biffle. However, a flip switched with three laps to go, and Edwards began to run Johnson down.
He made his run and got to the outside of Johnson in the final turn. Edwards got his nose ahead of Johnson’s at the start-finish line to capture his first career win.
After the race, Edwards did his signature backflip off the car. He only led nine laps while Johnson and Biffle combined to lead 307 of the 325 laps. However, it only matters who leads the last one, and that’s what Edwards did.
Edwards went on to sweep the two races at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2005. He added another win at the track in 2008.
2. 2011 Advocare 500
Most of the exciting finishes at Atlanta Motor Speedway are the product of a photo finish. This race wasn’t quite that, but it featured a 15-lap battle between two of the best drivers of all time. The race was on a Tuesday, but it was well worth the wait.
Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon emerged as early contenders.
Busch faded in the middle portion of the race, but Gordon remained upfront. Matt Kenseth stepped up to challenge Gordon, and just when it looked like Kenseth would take control of the race, Jimmie Johnson took over the lead.
Gordon made his way back to the front of lap 288 of 325. He appeared to be in the perfect position to win the race, but his car began to struggle with just under 15 laps to go. Johnson ran him down and looked to take the win. Then, Johnson’s car struggled with a loose condition.
Both cars were sideways numerous times off the turns. Johnson got underneath Gordon a few times, but he couldn’t hold the throttle down off the turn. There were multiple times when it looked like Johnson would pass Gordon, but his car was just way too loose.
In the end, Gordon held off Johnson to capture his 85th career victory. The win placed him third on NASCAR’s all-time win list.
The finish was an unbelievable battle between two legends. Johnson was amid his prime while Gordon’s career was winding down. Still, he was good enough for at least one win a season. Gordon actually won three races in 2011, but none were more exciting than this one.
For those who aren’t as familiar with NASCAR, imagine a 34-year-old Kobe Bryant at the end of his career taking down a 28-year-old LeBron James in the prime of his career.
1. 2001 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500
Atlanta Motor Speedway has produced some photo finishes and emotional moments. This race combines the two.
Coming into this race, the NASCAR world was still grieving over the death of Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt died three weeks earlier in a crash at the end of the Daytona 500.
Dale Jarrett led the first six laps before Kevin Harvick took the lead. Harvick replaced Earnhardt following his tragic death. Harvick didn’t lead for long as Jeff Gordon took command of the race. Gordon led 118 of the first 142 laps.
The big story in the middle of the race was underdog Dave Blaney. Blaney hadn’t had any success during his Cup Series career. He led 70 laps during the middle portion of this race, but unfortunately, Blaney had a major tire problem, ending his day with a 34th place finish.
Jerry Nadeau and Jarrett swapped the lead back and forth for nearly the final 100 laps. The final 10 laps featured a five-car battle between Nadeau, Jarrett, Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Gordon.
Harvick took the lead with six laps to go, but Gordon wasn’t far behind. Gordon ran him down and got underneath him, coming off the final corner on the last lap. Gordon’s car was a little loose, allowing Harvick to win by the slimmest of margins. The 0.006-second victory was the second-closest finish in NASCAR history at the time.
He captured his first career victory in just his third career start. Harvick paid tribute to Dale Earnhardt by holding three fingers out the window during his celebration.
The race itself was amazing, but the emotions surrounding it make it one of the most memorable moments in NASCAR history.
Future of Atlanta Motor Speedway
Atlanta Motor Speedway has produced a ton of thrilling finishes and exciting races over the years. However, the racing there in the last few years haven’t been the best.
I definitely like the idea of repaving the track, but I’m not so sure about narrowing the track. The added banking should give the drivers more opportunities to pass on the top lane. However, there won’t be as much room to pass.
We’ve already seen drivers like Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson criticize the decision.
In a year or two, I guess we’ll really find out whether the reconfiguration was worth it or not. Let’s just hope it allows us to relive the glory days of the early 2000s.
You may also enjoy reading our 2021 NASCAR All-Star race review, which includes a look at which tracks could host the event in the future.