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NIGHT JUST RIGHT FOR ATLANTA FANS

The Sprint Cup race's new start time boosts attendance at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Associated Press

HAMPTON, Ga. - The inaugural Labor Day race weekend and Atlanta Motor Speedway's first scheduled night race combined to boost attendance.

The stronger demand for tickets also created some problems.

Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark apologized to fans who experienced difficulty when they were unable to buy tickets online last week.

"It's a buzz like we haven't seen around here for a long time," Clark said Sunday.

NASCAR does not release official attendance figures. Several reporters estimated attendance for late Sunday's Pep Boys Auto 500 at about 100,000, a big increase from the estimated attendance of 60,000 for the Kobalt Tools 500 in March.

NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp estimated attendance at 100,000 to 110,000.

Clark said that on some days, ticket sales for this weekend's races were twice as strong as in recent years. Atlanta's fall race moved to Labor Day weekend this year, a more attractive date than its previous slot in October, even though that one was within the 10-race Chase for the Championship.

"It has exceeded probably what we expected," Clark said. "I've talked to a lot of the people who are here, and they're very tickled that we're doing this on Labor Day weekend."

One advantage: Thanks to the holiday, many fans could enjoy Sunday night's race without worrying about getting up early for work on Monday.

Speedway officials reported near-record ticket sales on Friday and Saturday and a single-day record for sales Monday. The track did not release the number of tickets sold.

ALL FOR 1 - AND 7:30: Clark said he has heard more talk that NASCAR could soon announce more consistent starting times for 2010. Clark said the standard start time for afternoon races might be 1 and the consistent start for night races will be 7:30. Some races, including Atlanta's March race, have had later starting times. "What I've heard is TV wanted the later starting times, but what they found is that when they had a 3 o'clock start time or whatever, people would come home from church and do other things," Clark said.

NIGHTS OF THUNDER: Actor Tom Cruise, who became friends with team owner Rick Hendrick while filming the racing movie Days of Thunder, attended. Cruise, wife Katie Holmes and daughter Suri also were Hendrick's guests in June at Infineon Raceway in California.

NO REPEAT: Defending race champ Carl Edwards was forced to the garage on Lap 83 to have his radiator and oil cooler repaired. He returned 23 laps down. Track debris ruptured the radiator. Sunday was Edwards' first Cup race after breaking his right foot playing Frisbee with friends Wednesday. He has been on crutches and wears a walking boot when he's not racing.

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