Tuesday's Advocare 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton was almost the perfect race. It featured a number of thrilling battles throughout the field and was capped off by one of the best duels for victory in recent memory. Furthermore, it was a historic event, as race winner Jeff Gordon took sole possession of third place on the all-time Sprint Cup winners list.
Alas, the race was only almost perfect because it was a Tuesday race, rather than the Sunday night event the track, NASCAR, the teams, and the fans had been planning for months. Still, despite having those plans ruined by the one thing beyond NASCAR's control -- the weather -- there is plenty to remember about a soggy Sunday at the 1.54-mile Speedway.
The clouds were already gray over North Georgia once my mother and I started out on our journey from my hometown of Calhoun -- about 75 miles northwest of the A -- but the rain had held off. It proved an inept teaser, as we were well aware that the rain wasn't expected to arrive until mid-afternoon at the earliest. Even if it somehow stayed dry, the forecast had already thrown a wrench in my plans. My friend Suzy, who had planned to travel down from Charlotte with her daughter for the race, was forced to back out.
There were a few sprinkles along the way as we traveled down I-285 in order to avoid traffic for the Atlanta Braves game against those pesky Dodgers, but they were just that: sprinkles, and light ones at that. I repeatedly reassured my mom that while NASCAR might not let them start the race under these conditions, they would possibly hold off on throwing the yellow flag if they popped up during green-flag racing. Of course I knew it was supposed to get heavier, but I digress.
We finally arrived at the track with rain beginning to fall at about 3:40 p.m., around two hours after our departure. That gave us 20 minutes to get down to the Chevrolet stage, where Tony Stewart was scheduled to appear at 4 p.m.
Stewart is my favorite racer -- as evidenced by the red No. 14 cap and black t-shirt with his Office Depot and Mobil 1 cars that I had worn to the track -- and has been since 1998, but this would be my first time seeing him in person (the driver intro parade laps aside). We made it with time to spare, as the emcee for the Chevy Q&As, named Johnny D, was working the crowd. He joked that someone had told him he had such an easy job, just interviewing NASCAR drivers, to which he had replied "I'm interviewing Tony Stewart."
Longtime Stewart fans and folks who have followed his sparring sessions with NASCAR's media corps got a kick out of that, but there were legitimate concerns that his recent slump along with the pressure of trying to make the Chase could make for a less-than-pleasant session. Johnny D also had us torment the lady who runs Team Chevy's Twitter account by shouting her least favorite phrase: "Outstanding!"
Finally, Stewart arrived -- on time, which was surprising given his penchant for being fashionably late to everything from sponsor meetings to autograph sessions -- to the roar of the assmbled crowd. The popular two-time series champion was engaging, thoughtful, and funny, not grouchy or on edge at all, which came as a little bit of a surprise. That's not to say he was Mr. Prudent.
He poked at a female Jeff Gordon fan who had made a sign which included the name of her home state by saying, "I'm just glad she knows how to spell Mississippi." He then added that "There's a lot more red here (the color of his No. 14 Office Depot machine) than that blue (Gordon's color for most of his Sprint Cup career) you're wearing." When questioned about Gordon's fans in general, Stewart replied "My fans have more balls."
Once the Q&A was over, my mom and I turned to leave. Behind us we could hear Johnny D introducing Jamie McMurray. I had to feel bad for Jamie, coming up right after Stewart, as most of the crowd dispersed. Many of us, my mom and I included, headed to the mini-village of traveling merchandise haulers known as "Souvineer Row."
After doing a little shopping (three 1/64 Tony Stewart cars and a 1/64 Kevin Harvick car), photography (I took a picture of Joey Logano on the side of his trailer for Suzy and a picture of Danica Patrick on the side of hers for myself...), and pot-stirring (I shouted "Go 48!" as I passed Kurt Busch's trailer, a nod to the Dodge driver's long-standing feud with Jimmie Johnson), we decided to go ahead and go pick up our tickets at the gate outside the Elliott Grandstand. Early in our long walk from the front of the track all the way around into the third turn ticket office, the bottom fell out. Without an umbrella or pancho to protect us, we got absolutely soaked.
The rain had finally eased up by the time we got to the Will Call office. My mom picked up our tickets and the vouchers for a program and four hot dogs and Coca-Colas that had been included in the Walmart ticket package I bought and we headed to our seats in the third row of the 59th section of the grandstand named for Georgia's greatest sporting hero.
We'd only been sitting there for a few minutes, taking in the sights from our seat -- and discussing a clearly drunk Kurt Busch fan (which is redundant) with the gentleman sitting behind us after the interloper did his best Ric Flair "WOO!" when he stepped onto the stairway -- when Lynyrd Skynyrd took the stage for their Fast Cars and Guitars concert [Editor's note: This sentence is why SB Nation Atlanta exists]. I've never been a big Skynyrd fan ("Freebird" aside), but I have to admit that it was an awesome show. I love my Southern heritage and classic rock, so I might have to give them a shot.
Before driver intros, a parade of cars promoting AMS's Friday Night Drags rode past on the track's apron. With the likelyhood of seeing and hearing Sprint Cup cars dwindling with each raindrop, it was quite the treat when a few of the hot-rodders revved their V8s.
Driver intros went off as scheduled, but there was no parade lap because of the rain. Once the intros were complete, the waiting game officially began. With respect to Skynyrd and Tony Stewart, that wound up being the most entertaining part of the night.
For one thing, if one loves people-watching, there were plenty of people to watch. Some had clearly partaken in a few adult beverages either at the track or when they were getting ready. The most entertaining outfit had to be two rows in front of me, where a woman had tied a couple of bandanas together to create her top. There were also quite a few folks dancing in the rain, especially when to my dismay the track played The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" over the PA system. Trust me, there is nothing like watching a bunch of drunk John Travolta wannabes (which is also redundant). It took a little bit of the displeasure out of getting drenched.
Of course, the rain persisted and track president Ed Clark finally had to announce the race had been postponed. It was an unfortunate, though at that point not at all unexpected, end to an evening I had been planning for nearly a year, dreaming of how it might go. Still, in spite of the sogginess and the lack of cars on the track, there were a few things that salvaged the trip.
I haven't looked for an official figure of how many folks showed up at Atlanta Sunday, knowing well what was in store in terms of weather, but just from what I saw, it was as good as the track could have hoped for if not better. The track hopefully got a boost from all of us who showed up and didn't budge from our seats until Mr. Clark finally had to tell us to go home. I believe it is because we all knew what kind of race would play out Tuesday, and we were hoping somehow we would get to see it ourselves.
Now the countdown begins to September 2, 2012, the tentative date for next year's Advocare 500. Hopefully it will be dry.