That’s Racing: The rise and fall of Casey Atwood

Friday, August 15, 2008 at 1:34am

The hullabaloo surrounding young NASCAR phenom Joey Logano is reminiscent of the media mania that engulfed Nashville teenager Casey Atwood nine years ago.

At the time Atwood was breathlessly billed as “NASCAR’s next Jeff Gordon.”

Hopefully Logano’s comet won’t flame out as quickly as Atwood’s.

When Logano won this summer’s race at Kentucky Speedway shortly after his 18th birthday, he replaced Atwood in the record book as the youngest winner in the history of NASCAR’s Nationwide Series.

Logano has been accorded “can’t miss” status in terms of his superstar future.

Atwood was given the same coronation when he came out of Fairgrounds Speedway. He was clean-cut, bright and personable, and a natural-born racer. He became an overnight success in the Busch Series and several top Sprint Cup team owners clamored for his autograph on a contract.

Ray Evernham won – unfortunately, says Atwood today – and in less than two years with Evernham his career was in tatters. It has never recovered.

“Do I ever look back and think about what might have been? Sure I do,” says Atwood, who spends most of his time fishing and doting on his two young daughters. “It’s hard not to. I had lots of choices (about which team to join) and I made the wrong one.”

Among the prominent team owners who wanted Atwood was Rick Hendrick. Had he gone with Hendrick as a teammate of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson – and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. – how differently might his career have been? Instead of sitting on the sidelines would he be chasing championships?

“I guess we’ll never know,” says Atwood. “But I’ve never questioned my ability. I almost won two Cup races near the end of my rookie season. But it (the decision to replace him) had already been made by then.”

Evernham never explained his decision. There were reports that he felt Atwood didn’t work well with the media and sponsors.

Atwood has always taken the high road. He says only that he was “surprised and disappointed” by the sudden turn of events.

Atwood hasn’t given up on his racing dream. During the June race at Nashville Superspeedway he practiced the car driven by Greg Biffle, as Biffle pulled double-duty between Nashville and Pocono.

“All I can do is try to keep my name out there and make sure that teams know I’m available,” Atwood says. “I know I can still drive a race car. I just need a chance. There’s going to be a lot of older drivers retiring in the next few years and maybe some jobs will open up.”

The problem is that more hot young drivers like Logano are coming into the sport. For every old veteran who hangs up his helmet, a dozen young leadfoots are jockeying to take his place. Atwood realizes that every day he sits out makes it harder for him to get back in.

“It’s been extremely frustrating,” he says. “I’m still trying to figure out what went wrong.”

Larry Woody is a veteran sportswriter in Nashville and has covered auto racing for almost four decades.

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