HAMPTON, Ga. — This isn't the way Atlanta Motor Speedway wanted to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
The high-banked track has traditionally hosted two NASCAR Sprint Cup races each year, but that will change in 2011. Track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc. shifted the attendance-challenged spring date to another of its facilities, Kentucky Motor Speedway.
So Atlanta, site of tonight's Emory Heathcare 500, is about to become a one-race town — despite being a huge market right in the heart of traditional NASCAR country.
"I started coming here in the 1980s," said Mark Martin, at 51 the oldest regular driver in the series. "I love this place. I hate to see it come to that."
He's not alone. The 1.54-mile quad-oval has long been one of the most popular in the series among drivers, who love its hair-raising speed and multiple grooves.
"I wish we raced Atlanta every other week, maybe three times a month," Carl Edwards said. "I really, really like this place."
But there's more to racing than just racing.
The spring event at Atlanta, often plagued by poor weather, struggles to draw. So SMI owner Bruton Smith had to make a hard business decision: If he wanted a Cup race at Kentucky, it would have to come at the expense of another of his tracks.
Atlanta was the most logical candidate, despite its long, proud Cup history.
Even tonight's race, the Labor Day weekend event that Atlanta will keep in 2011, isn't expected to sell out.
"It's unfortunate, but it's necessary," driver Kyle Busch said. "When you can't sell seats, you don't deserve to go to that racetrack twice."
Atlanta International Raceway, about 20 miles south of its namesake city, opened July 31, 1960, as a 1½-mile oval. Fireball Roberts won the first race, the Dixie 300. The inaugural Atlanta 500 was held later that year and a tradition was born. For many years the track hosted the Cup finale.
"The sad part in all this is that so much of what our sport is started right here in north Georgia," track president Ed Clark said. "At one time, Atlanta was the hub — not Charlotte. That got away, and now this race date is getting away."
QUALIFYING: Denny Hamlin earned the pole for today's Cup race at 187.330 mph. He edged Ryan Newman, who shares the track record with seven Cup poles. "I'm a very bad qualifier," Hamlin said, "so I'll take it."
NO CHANGE FOR JUNIOR: ESPN.com reported that Rick Hendrick has no plans to remove Lance McGrew as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief. There was speculation that Hendrick Motorsports might make a change.
HUMPY SLAMS HOMESTEAD: SMI owner Smith criticized NASCAR for ending its season in South Florida, likening Homestead Miami Speedway to "North Cuba." Smith says he'd prefer NASCAR to run its final Cup race at SMI-owned Las Vegas Motor Speedway.