HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — For NASCAR drivers, the 21-year-old track surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway feels like their favorite, old friend.
A slippery, thrill-packed friend.
"This place is awesome," Ryan Blaney said. "We're slipping and sliding."
The track is overdue for new asphalt, and drivers are renewing their annual plea to give the surface one more year. They love racing on the old 1.54-mile track, patches and all.
"Anytime you get a chance to run in Atlanta with the old track, sliding around, it's always fun," said Austin Dillon, who won last week's Daytona 500 and will start 25th in Sunday's rain-threatened Monster Energy Cup race.
The first few laps in Friday's practice and qualifying let drivers know the Atlanta track is different.
"It's a bit of a surprise to come here a year later and get reminded of how crazy this place is, how slick it is and how fast it is," said defending Cup champion Martin Truex. "Definitely a cool place to come knock the rust off."
Kyle Bush, who on Friday won the pole, said it's especially crucial to start from the front in Atlanta.
"Qualifying up front at Atlanta is important," Busch said. "It's so hard on tires here, you don't want to roll back on tires and pass a lot of cars. ... Having to come from behind is harder to do than protect the position you already gained."
The 2017 race was expected to be the farewell for the old surface. Instead, the persistent lobbying effort by drivers helped convince NASCAR and Atlanta Motor Speedway officials to wait at least one more year.
"No decision yet," AMS president Ed Clark said. "We're going to get through the weekend and then look at it again."
Clark said input from drivers on the decision is welcome but not all-important.
The track was repaved for the last time in 1997. An announcement from AMS last year said the decision to delay installing a new surface was made "after an in-depth review and exhaustive consultations with NASCAR, Goodyear, race teams and drivers."
The threat of rain on Sunday led NASCAR on Saturday to move up the scheduled start by one hour, to 1:06 p.m. ET.
According to weather.com, there is an 80 percent chance of rain on Sunday. There is a 100 percent chance of rain on Monday, causing additional complications for NASCAR crews who move equipment to Las Vegas for next week's event.
The track's performance on a wet day could influence the decision to repave the surface before the 2019 race.
"I would say there is not a driver in the garage that wants to pave this track or wants this track to get repaved," Truex said. "Unfortunately, we are going to find out on Sunday. I think the weather and the circumstances we will have to deal with this weekend are going to be what makes that decision for us."
Dillon aims to become the first driver since Matt Kenseth in 2009 to win the season's first two races.
Rookie Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr., who finished second last week, will become the first black driver at an Atlanta Cup race since Bill Lester finished 38th in 2006.
Truex will start 35th after his car didn't pass inspection before Friday's qualifying. Truex's car chief Blake Harris was suspended for the weekend. An additional penalty was a 30-minute practice hold on Saturday.
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