|SOURCE: Adam Pretty, Getty Images|
At the turn of the Millenium, expectations for Cup rookies were higher than ever. Two years earlier, Tony Stewart scored three wins in his rookie campaign, tying the 1987 record set by the late Davey Allison. One year earlier, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won two points races and the All-Star event, and was out-foxed for the rookie title by Coca-Cola 600 winner Matt Kenseth. The 2001 rookie class promised to be the strongest one yet, including open-wheel turned Busch driver Jason Leffler and Truck Series stars Kurt Busch, Ron Hornaday, Jr., and Andy Houston.
Over the 2001 offseason, Atwood was one of the favorites to dominate the rookie battle. Three years earlier, during the Busch Series race at his home track in Nashville, the 17-year-old Atwood took the pole, led nearly one-third of the distance, and finished second behind Mike McLaughlin. Two years earlier, the 18-year-old scored his first two Busch Series victories at Milwaukee and Dover, the former a last-lap bump-and-run on race leader Jeff Green. Just one year before, when he finished a career-best 8th in the Busch standings, the 19-year-old signed with former crew chief Ray Evernham, who was set to start a two-car Cup team in 2001. In his third Cup start at Homestead, Atwood started 5th and finished 10th. With that, Evernham set Atwood as Bill Elliott’s teammate for 2001. Both would be running brand-new Dodges, a manufacturer whose return to the series Evernham had spearheaded.
But through the first 27 rounds of the 2001 season, Atwood struggled. He rolled into Kansas just 30th in points with just two top-ten finishes, both coming in the previous five races. The rookie battle, meanwhile, had been taken over by a late addition. In the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death in the Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick had taken the controls of the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet, and had claimed two victories of his own. While Atwood wasn’t far off the pace of the rest of his rookie class - coming into Kansas, Kurt Busch was just four spots ahead of him in 26th - many couldn’t help but perceive his season as a disappointment.
The September 30 race was the first NASCAR event held at the Kansas Speedway, which that year joined Chicagoland Speedway on the calendar to increase the schedule to its current 36 races. Atwood timed in 5th, his best start since Pocono that July.
Starting 43rd in the race was Hut Stricklin in the #90 Hills Brothers Coffee Ford for longtime car owner Junie Donlavey. Stricklin had missed eight of the season’s first 28 races, but finished a season-best 6th at Michigan in June - the team’s best finish in more than three years. Stricklin only held the spot for a matter of seconds.
As the field headed into the first corner, 4th-place starter Stacy Compton’s #92 Kodiak Dodge cut down on Atwood’s #19, sending Atwood’s Dodge spinning up the track. 12th-place starter John Andretti, stuck in the high lane, had nowhere to go and collided with the left-front of Atwood. Ricky Craven spun to the inside in the ensuing chain-reaction, but returned to the track with Andretti. Atwood was the only driver involved who was done for the day. Craven came home 21st. Andretti ended up 39th, 121 laps behind.
Between Atwood and Andretti in the Bottom Five were 42nd and 41st-place Todd Bodine in Travis Carter’s #66 Kmart Blue Light Special Ford and Ward Burton in Bill Davis’ #22 Caterpillar Dodge, who tangled and crashed in Turn 2 on Lap 69. Bill Elliott, Atwood’s teammate, joined him in the 40th spot. After leading 33 of the first 55 laps, Elliott’s engine let go, handing him his first DNF of the season.
In the closing stages of the 2001 season, Atwood’s performance picked up. He won his first pole at Phoenix, then two weeks later in his return to Homestead led 52 laps and was in position to win before Bill Elliott slipped by with five circuits to go. With only a 26th-place rank in points to show for it, however, Evernham replaced Atwood with Jeremy Mayfield for 2002. Atwood spent one season driving Evernham’s expansion team, the #7 Sirius Satellite Radio Dodge co-owned by Jim Smith, but the finishes still weren’t there. 35th in points at season’s end, Atwood returned to the Busch Series. He’s only run two Cup races since.
Atwood’s most recent start in NASCAR’s top three divisions came on November 14, 2009 at Phoenix, where he came home 41st in Wayne Day’s #85 31-W Insulation / CertainTeed Chevrolet. Today, Atwood, now 35, still runs late models and lives in the Nashville area.
*This was Atwood’s only last-place finish in 75 career Cup starts.
*This was the first last-place finish for the #19 in a Cup Series race since February 23, 1997, when Loy Allen, Jr.’s #19 Child Support Recovery Ford fell out with clutch issues after he completed 68 laps of the Goodwrench Service 400 at Rockingham. Allen’s car was fielded by TriStar Motorsports, which is still active in the XFINITY Series today.
*Atwood was the first driver to finish last without completing a lap since that February’s race at Rockingam, where Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s #8 Budweiser Chevrolet wrecked out of the Dura Lube 400.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #19-Casey Atwood / 0 laps / crash
42) #66-Todd Bodine / 67 laps / crash
41) #22-Ward Burton / 67 laps / crash
40) #9-Bill Elliott / 134 laps / engine / led 33 laps
39) #43-John Andretti / 146 laps / running