Labor Day Of Love: Will The Atlanta Race Become a NASCAR Tradition?

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst ISeptember 2, 2009

ATLANTA - MARCH 08:  A general view of cars on track during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 8, 2009 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

For NASCAR fans, Labor Day weekend has traditionally lent itself to the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Quite the irony, considering the three-day reprieve paying homage to diligent workers saw 43 drivers negotiating around a narrow 1.36-mile egg shaped facility.

By the race's conclusion, cars would obtain that famous Darlington Stripe, otherwise known as right-side damage in the form of a scratch or dent.

Tire rubs, crumpled up fenders, and the South Carolina heat were just some of the aspects of the race weekend.

Things changed in 2004 when "The Realignment" made its first rounds in the sport, immediately at the expense of two historical speedways in Darlington and Rockingham.

Darlington saw its Southern 500/Labor Day date moved to a chilly, November Chase spot while Rockingham lost its second event to the California Speedway, which replaced the holiday spot from "The Lady In Black."

Almost from the start, fans reacted in disbelief and dissension over the tremendously unpopular move.

While the sport was catering itself to larger markets like Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth, a bit of its history was decaying like a well-loved restaurant changing its management and menu offerings.

Eventually, Rockingham was eliminated from the Cup series, becoming a testing facility for the NASCAR ranks and a premier facility to the ARCA and Hooters Pro Cup Series.

Texas Motor Speedway, located near Fort Worth, would gain Darlington's second date and play host to one of the final chapters for the championship in November.

Labor Day weekend racing, however, was like Saturday Night Live from 1995-'98: nothing more than just a name with an obscure face.

Despite the big market presence, the racing at Auto Club Speedway paled in comparison to the product delivered by the famed Darlington venue.

Imagine, if you will, seeing that lovable beast in your city destroyed for some corporate, elitist design that would even alienate the commoner from watching a game.

Think of how baseball shifted from the luscious green, playground-like stadiums to Astroturf-laden arenas that became eyesores in later years: total waste of time.

Whether it was the paltry fan attendance numbers or the incredibly unbearable Southern California heat of early September, the sport decided to shuffle some dates on the schedule for the 2009 season.

California was moved to a mid-October spot in what was essentially a trade with Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Hampton, Ga. facility was moved to Labor Day weekend, thus becoming the penultimate race before the Chase.

In the eyes of some enthusiasts and purists, the Labor Day tradition has been brought back to the "right region" in the form of the Southeast. However, this new date might merely serve as an audition for the survival of Atlanta's two races.

Should Sunday night's race be a tremendous or even moderate success, perhaps it will state its case for survival with the impending possibility of Kentucky Speedway joining the NASCAR Cup circuit.

Years ago, the thought of Atlanta losing a race date was absurd. After all, it was the fastest non-restrictor plate track and usually produced quality racing, with numerous lead changes and dramatic last-lap dramatics.

Its history was another factor of sentimentality. An "Underbird" in Alan Kulwicki triumphed with his ultimate glory in his brief, but illustrious career with the 1992 NASCAR championship, two legends paid homage to fallen heroes in 1993, and many photo finishes took place within this decade.

Bobby Labonte and Dale Earnhardt waged in a memorable duel in the final 10 laps during the 2000 Cracker Barrel 500, never separated by more than a mere fender.

Racing alongside or nose-to-tail to the checkers, their mounts reached the stripe separated by mere inches, with Earnhardt taking the victory.

A year later, the story was almost the same with different participants. Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick found themselves waging in a tremendous struggle, with both Chevrolet drivers playing mind games for the win.

Separating themselves from a "Daytona" like pack following the 10-lap-to-go mark, the No. 24 and No. 29 cars were seemingly equal, with the only question being this: Who wanted the win more?

Harvick's car had enough momentum to defeat the perennial champ, winning on an occasion that seemed fitting to their fallen hero in Earnhardt.

Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson also waged in a magical moment in 2005, with the "unknown" Roush talent besting the Hendrick contender for the trophy.

Fans can easily come up with their favorite Atlanta memory, and the case is clear: Atlanta deserves this new Labor Day date weekend.

Hopefully, it will always have two race dates to entertain old-time enthusiasts and new-school fans into watching an incredible sport competing in one of the most excellent facilities on the circuit.


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