Empty seats at NASCAR event leave drivers 'a little baffled'

Associated Press • Mar 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

HAMPTON, Ga. - Big patches of empty seats under the Atlanta Motor Speedway press box Sunday prompted Jeff Gordon to say he was "a little baffled."

"I know there's a lot of race fans around here," Gordon said. "I've been hearing that they were going to have some empty seats. It's hard to say. It's really hard to say. . . . This place should be packed."

Observers estimated the stands were no more than two-thirds filled for the NASCAR event, and total capacity is about 125,000. The listed attendance was 94,400.

There were hopes attendance would be boosted by great weather, but one week after a snowstorm, not even temperatures in the high 70s could fill the seats.

It was more proof of the economic downturn's impact on sports.

"We are far from immune from what's going on in our economy," said Carl Edwards, who finished third.

The least expensive ticket for the race was $39.

Atlanta Motor Speedway has two races on the NASCAR schedule, including a fall race that has moved to Labor Day weekend.

"Atlanta has had a tough time," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. "You'd think that this place would do really well. I love it. I love coming here. . . . I would hate to see them lose a race, which I ain't saying they will. . . . It is a great race track with a lot of history."

More Disappointment for Martin: Mark Martin's first pole since 2001 only led to more racing disappointment.

The 50-year-old Martin entered the race 34th in points after frustrations with blown engines the last two weeks.

He lost his chance for his first win since 2005 when he blew out his right-rear tire on lap 214 and hit the Atlanta Motor Speedway wall, causing major damage to the back of his car.

Martin's crew stripped off the twisted sheet metal and Martin returned to the rear of the field to finish 31st. He led five laps.

No Repeat for Kyle Busch: Kyle Busch, the defending champion in Atlanta who was coming off a win last week in Las Vegas, finished 18th while his older brother Kurt enjoyed the win.

"It just was a bad day. We have them," said crew chief Steve Addington.

"We didn't have a good car today from the start. . . . It was just no grip out of the race track. We started making gains on it there at the end. We could make it last for about 30 laps and then that would go away."

Painful Pass: The first pass of the race field was completed away from Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Martin Truex was back in his No. 1 Chevrolet, starting 23rd, after a bout with kidney stones.

Truex was taken by ambulance to Spalding Regional Medical Center in nearby Griffin on Saturday after experiencing brief bouts of intense pain during practice. After being examined and given fluids, he was released from the hospital and passed the stone at about 10 p.m.

Truex finished 10th.

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