HAMPTON - Grab hold of that steering wheel and hang on, guys.
It's time to go racin' in Atlanta.
The best stock car drivers in the world are preparing for another treacherous day on the high-banked oval that resembles an old country road from up close, but feels more like a sheet of ice when you're pushing the pedal toward speeds of 190 mph.
It's a throwback to old-style tracks like Darlington and Rockingham, the winner usually determined by which driver is most adept as straddling that fine line between going as fast as possible without ending up in the wall.
'As confined as Darlington is, it's still easier to drive than this place,' said Mark Martin, who'll start from the pole in today's Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. 'This thing is so big, so sweeping. When you're sliding for your life from turn 1 to turn 4, you're sliding for your life for a long time.'
Sounds like this should be known as 'The Track Too Tough To Tame.'
While the quality of tires provided by Goodyear is often the focus of handling issues - few will ever forget Tony Stewart's memorable tirade against the company after last year's spring race in Atlanta - it's really a perfect storm of various factors that forces cars to slip-slide their way around the 1.54-mile oval.
Start with the Car of Tomorrow, which is a lot harder to control than the cars of yesterday. Then go racing on a track that hasn't been paved in 12 years, leaving a rough, gritty surface. Throw in long, sweeping turns that generate some of the fastest speeds on the Cup circuit. And try to keep it all together on four tires that are designed for reliability first, speed second.
'It's a handful, man,' said Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose daddy won nine Cup races in Atlanta, all but one of them on the track's old configuration.
In 1997, the facility was redesigned from a pure oval into a quad-oval. The main straightaway became the backstretch. A slight bend was inserted into the new front stretch. The entire surface was repaved, transforming Atlanta into the fastest of the non-restrictor plate races.
Now, a dozen years later, the place is showing plenty of wear and tear.
'The track just developed these bumps and swells that continue to grow,' said three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. 'When you walk out there, there's nothing but jagged rocks and stones sticking out.'
So they need to repave, right?
Nope. Most drivers despise a new surface because it takes years to reform the grooves that naturally work their way into a track, allowing for more passing.
'As soon as you repave a track, it kills the racing,' Stewart said. 'You're down to one lane, and it's three or four years before you can do anything. That puts us in an even worse position. I like it when they leave it the same.'
Stewart went off on Goodyear after last year's Kobalt Tools 500, saying the company 'can't build a tire that is worth a crap.' Now, he seems more inclined to spread the blame around for the less-than-ideal driving conditions.
'The track is getting to the point where it's falling off worse than the tires are,' Stewart said. 'It seems like every year the track changes more than what they can anticipate. I don't know if anybody can do it right now.'
Smoke has been one of the early surprises in this Cup season, holding down the eighth spot in points after the first three races. Most expected him to go through a bit of a transition period after he left powerful Joe Gibbs Racing to take control of his own team, especially since he's always been a notoriously slow starter anyway. But he's been strong in qualifying (11th this week) and showed that he's likely to be a Chase contender in his red No. 14 Chevrolet.
Also standing out through the first three events: teammates David Reutimann and Michael Waltrip, both inside the top 12 in the points after struggling mightily the last couple of seasons, and former Cup champion Bobby Labonte, ninth in the standings after moving to a new, merged team.
As for the winner of the last three Cup championships, well, it's a much different story.
Johnson is 19th in the standings after getting caught up in a wreck at the season-opening Daytona 500, where he finished 31st, and making a series of uncharacteristic mistakes at Las Vegas last weekend. He nearly wrecked on pit road, overshot his stall, and finally drifted too high on the track, which sent him crashing into the wall for a 24th-place finish on a day when he led more laps than anyone.
'We just need to hit our stride,' Johnson said. 'One thing we didn't have last year was fast race cars. We hit our stops. Our strategy was good. I didn't make any mistakes. This year, the car is ready but we're making mistakes. Last week, I was looking for the walk-off home run but I swung and missed and stuck it in the fence. We'll certainly race for wins. But we don't need to be in a big hole. We just need to come out and have a strong race.'