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Back to reality

Roush Fenway looks to sustain hot start back East

Posted: Monday March 3, 2008 3:13PM; Updated: Monday March 3, 2008 3:13PM
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88), who finished second in Las Vegas on Sunday, is one of several drivers looking forward to returning East.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88), who finished second in Las Vegas on Sunday, is one of several drivers looking forward to returning East.
Harry How/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS -- As NASCAR leaves Las Vegas following an extended two-weekend Western swing, it's back to basics for the Sprint Cup teams as they return to the Southeast and what Dale Earnhardt Jr. calls two "real race tracks."

Next Sunday's 500-mile race at Atlanta Motor Speedway provides the "Car of Tomorrow" its first test on the circuit's fastest speedway, while the following week's short-track showdown at Bristol Motor Speedway marks the one-year anniversary of the new car's debut.

While some continue to use the "Car of Tomorrow" tag, the handle is a misnomer since tomorrow actually came last year. And with the new car featured in every Cup race this season, even the top teams have struggled trying to find the right setup.

"It's just the third race, man," Earnhardt said after finishing second to Carl Edwards in Sunday's UAW-Dodge 400. "We ran it some last year, but all at short tracks. We need more time. I think you'll keep getting it better and better the more time you have with it. They need to explore softening the left-side tire. Just a tiny bit of left-side grip would help out a bunch and keep people from complaining so much.

"But the car's coming around. I mean, it is what you make of it, really: take it and build it, do the best you can. We've got to go to Bristol and Atlanta, a couple real race tracks, and have some finishes there."

While Hendrick Motorsports was expected to be the team to beat at the start of the season, Roush Fenway Racing has won two of the first three races including Edwards' back-to-back wins at California and Las Vegas.

But Earnhardt says the next two tracks could see Hendrick drivers return to form and his confidence in the new car remains high.

"We tested a lot at Atlanta and it feels as good as it can for the fact that it's a CoT," Earnhardt said. "The tire is pretty good for that track. They've done a great job. We have pretty good grip there.

"Bristol, they redid the track, and everybody is still trying to pull some tricks there. We'll have to see how we end up when we get there, but I'm enjoying it."

Edwards has won two straight races, but he's also a two-time winner at Atlanta. Many expect the Roush Fenway driver to be a real threat at the 1.54-mile oval.

In addition to being a tremendous athlete, Edwards is also a student of racing and has done his homework on Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"I think Atlanta is going to be a little bit different than California and Vegas," Edwards said. "Obviously it's a different race track, but the pavement is a little different. The bumps there, the things that make it so much fun making Atlanta are going to be difficult for all of us to get a hold of. I know when we were there at the test, we were not very fast last time we were there, so I'm hoping we're a little bit faster.

"And I'm really looking forward to Bristol. We had a great race there last time. That place is really neat now that you can run three-wide there, so that's going to be a lot of fun. I'm a little bit nervous about how fast we're going to be at Atlanta. Everyone is aware right now in this sport that anyone could go there and be dominant. There's just no telling. I think we'll be all right, but it's just an unknown right now."

Even two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson feels the pressure entering the next two races. A bad start to the season can have a lasting impact, and so much can still change over the next two races.

"I'm trying to be smart on track and make sure we get off to a good start with the points," Johnson said. "It's something we have always been able to do and it's helpful. It lets us focus on the right things and really start pushing hard after you get past that five-race mark.

"It may sound crazy, but we set goals and the first goal is to make sure we are in the top 35. That sounds remedial, but it's a tough business out there. It has a potential, in race six of this season, to have some guys get caught out."

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