|WOODY: Nashville’s Atwood races through adversity
|Posted: Sunday, May 6, 2012 5:21 am
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While in his late teens, Nashville’s Casey Atwood was widely considered NASCAR’s next Jeff Gordon, a handsome, personable youngster with can’t-miss racing talent.
Atwood signs a picture for a young race fan in 2004 at the Dover Speedway in Delaware. (Photo by U.S. Navy)
Fast-forward a dozen years – a lifetime in racing – and Atwood is back where he started, running Saturday-night fender-benders at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway.
It’s been a wild ride for Atwood, from the top of the racing world to the bottom.
“Looking back, I’m still not sure what went wrong,” says Atwood, 31, married and the father of two daughters. “I guess I made some bad choices.”
Casey’s “bad choice” was signing with Ray Evernham in 2000 to drive in the Sprint Cup Series as a teammate of legendary Bill Elliott. Like so many things in life that look so sweet but quickly turn sour, it sounded like a good idea at the time.
Evernham Racing had just been chosen to lead Dodge’s ballyhooed return to NASCAR. With millions of dollars in backing and a veteran teammate like Elliott, it seemed to be a dream situation for young Atwood. I traveled to Charlotte, N.C. for the Dodge/Evernham press conference at which Casey and Elliott were introduced as the team’s drivers.
Thrust into the national limelight, I thought Atwood responded well to the glare and pressure. I covered his Cup debut at Richmond, Va., in which he excelled, as he did in several other races.
Atwood came close to winning twice as a rookie. One near-certain victory was snatched away by a blown tire and another time a late caution wiped out a solid late-race lead.
It was an impressive start, and Casey appeared on track to fulfill his dream of becoming one of the sport’s elite drivers.
Then something went wrong. He’s still not sure what.
Prior to a race at Atlanta, Evernham held a press conference to announce that Jeremy Mayfield was taking over Atwood’s ride. What about Casey? He would drive a “second” car.
Why the change? Evernham didn’t make it clear at the time, nor has he to this day.
The team’s second car turned out to be second-rate and Atwood struggled through the season. His career was derailed, and a couple of years later he was out.
While Evernham never explained his decision to demote Atwood, there were whispers around the circuit that Casey was not adept at dealing with the media and sponsors. I never saw that – in fact, just the opposite. I always found him to be accessible and cooperative, outgoing and engaging.
I thought -- and wrote -- that Atwood got a raw deal. But despite the crushing disappointment, Casey refused to criticize Evernham. He still won’t.
“Looking back, I made some bad choices,” is all he’ll say.
“I jumped into the Cup Series too fast. I should have stayed in the (second-tier) Nationwide Series another year or two and got more experience. But I don’t blame anyone for my mistakes. I made the choices.”
He adds: “Do I regret how things turned out? Sure I do. Ever since I was a little kid I dreamed about being a race driver, and suddenly there I was – racing in the Cup Series with the top drivers in NASCAR. And then it was gone.
“If I had it to do over I’d do a lot of things differently, but the past is the past and it doesn’t do any good to dwell on it. I don’t have any hard feelings toward anyone and I don’t blame anybody for what happened. I know I’m capable of driving a race car on the top level and I haven’t given up on my career yet.”
But the prospect is grim. At 31 and relegated to running a handful of obscure races at the old Fairgrounds, Atwood’s chances of getting another big-league shot are slim.
Casey was once the brightest young star in NASCAR’s galaxy. Nobody’s sure what happened to the sparkle.
Larry Woody can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.