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The Callahan Report: Gordon, B. Labonte favored in Atlanta

By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
ATLANTA, GA (March 8, 2001): Set aside three and a half hours Sunday to watch real NASCAR action. The Winston Cup teams converge on the Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend. They will fight, bump and grind their way around the 1.54-mile track for 500 miles. Drivers will experience white-knuckles, headaches, and accelerated heart rates. Fans will enjoy wheel-to-wheel racing, the trademark that has become associated with America's most popular racing series.

Jeff Gordon (Chevrolet Monte Carlo), a three-time NASCAR Winston Cup Champion, has mastered the tricky course in Atlanta two times. He won this race in 1995 and again in 1999. Expect Gordon to capitalize on the momentum he carries from an impressive win in Las Vegas last weekend. Gordon started the Vegas race from the 24th position. He used patience and power to capture the win. While Gordon didn't do extremely well in this race last year, he was able to pull off a top ten finish. He and crew chief Robbie Loomis seem to be clicking on all eight cylinders now, after working through a "lean" year in 2000. Gordon heads to Atlanta second place in the point standings. He is the favorite to become the first two-time winner of the 2001 season.

Defending Winston Cup Champion, Bobby Labonte (Pontiac Grand Prix) has been virtually silent so far in 2001. Expect all that to change this weekend. Labonte has always loved racing in Atlanta. Some drivers' style seems to match certain tracks. Labonte and Atlanta go together like babies and diapers. He won this race in 1998. Labonte dueled to the finish with Dale Earnhardt in last year's race. Labonte lost by an eye-blink, but proved his talent by charging from his 22nd starting spot. NASCAR's newest champion sits 19th is the season point standings after three races. He should improve his status significantly this weekend in Atlanta.

Another driver who does well in Atlanta is Jerry Nadeau (Chevrolet Monte Carlo). Part of the powerful Hendrick Motorsports Racing Team, Nadeau scored his first Winston Cup victory in Atlanta's fall race last year. Many people thought that was a "surprise" win. It was simple an overdue victory for a talented driver on a well-organized team. With the right breaks, Nadeau and Atlanta are a combination that can be hard to beat.

Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI) (Chevrolet Monte Carlo) drivers Michael Waltrip and Steve Park won the first two races of the season. The team has it all together. The team shares information like two old veterans on a park bench share war stories. Steve Park gets the nod as the favorite in Atlanta from the DEI stable. Park finished this race in 4th place a year ago. After winning at Rockingham earlier this year, his appetite for victory has only been increased. Expect the Pennzoil colors to be shining bright in the front of the pack Sunday.

Ford drivers continue to struggle early in the 2001 season. Dale Jarrett, the 1999 Winston Cup Champion, finished in second place to Jeff Gordon at Las Vegas last weekend. If Ford is going to show itself in Atlanta's victory lane, Jarrett is the best bet. He is seasoned and he has horsepower. His patient driving style will pay off in victory sometime this season. Atlanta may be the first of many.

If there is a dark horse candidate for Atlanta, it has to be Todd Bodine (also in a Ford Taurus). The New York native has been exceptional in his early performances so far this year. Bodine did not race a full season in Winston Cup last year, but one of the races he did participate in was Atlanta. Bodine flew through the traffic jam to a 7th place finish in an under-funded ride and with little experience. It was an impressive performance for a kid who started the race in 24th place. Bodine's talent is coming to the surface. That talent could easily be in victory lane Sunday.

The green flag drops for the 2001 Cracker Barrel 500 at 1:00 p.m. (ET) Sunday. Turn up the volume and let the concrete rumble. The NASCAR Winston Cup racing season is in full swing.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.