That's Racing: Atwood’s watching, waiting, hoping

Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 1:41am

Nine years ago the national media labeled young Nashville racer Casey Atwood a NASCAR phenom — a can’t-miss superstar, the sport’s next Jeff Gordon.

Atwood had just signed a glittering contact to drive for the new team of Ray Evernham as a teammate to celebrated veteran Bill Elliott. Atwood, everybody agreed, was on a rocket ride to the top.

Today those press clippings are as faded as Atwood’s career.

Atwood, 28, is running a partial schedule in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series, driving a car fielded by journeyman Wayne Day of Goodlettsville.

What went wrong? Atwood wishes he knew.

“Maybe someday the whole story will come out,” he says, adding with a still-boyish grin: “I’d like to know myself.”

Whatever derailed Atwood wasn’t due to a lack of talent. As a rookie in 2001 he was as good as advertised. He almost won a couple of races during (his best finish was 3rd) and picked up a pole at Phoenix.

Then, for some reason, Evernham put Jeremy Mayfield in Atwood’s car. Atwood was relegated to a car that was never competitive. That was the beginning of the end of Atwood’s Cup career. A year later he was out.

Atwood’s career free-fall remains one of the sport’s enduring mysteries. Evernham never explained his decision — not even to Atwood.

“He didn’t say why he did it,” Atwood says. “I was as surprised and mystified as everybody else.”

There were grapevine whispers that young Atwood didn’t handle national media and sponsorships obligations well. But those of us who dealt with him regularly found him unfailingly accessible and accommodating. If there was a problem, Atwood says nobody told him.

Looking back, Atwood refuses to be bitter about the experience.

“I’m not mad at Ray or anybody else,” he says. “For whatever reason it didn’t work out and I’m sure he was disappointed too. Instead of dwelling on what went wrong I’m focused on the future and trying to get my career back on track.”

Atwood is married, and he and wife Laura have two daughters, Kaylee (3) and Emma (1). Atwood divides his time between his family, fishing and golf. And racing. He hasn’t given up racing.

“I get in a car every chance I get,” he says. “I appreciate the chance that Wayne Day gave me. He has limited resources so we’re limited in what we can realistically hope to accomplish. But there are some smart people involved with this team and I think we do pretty well with what we have to work with.”

Atwood has not surrendered his dream of someday returning to the Cup series.

“I know I can race on that level because I’ve done it,” he says. “I want people to know that I’m still available and interested in driving. I’m ready if the opportunity comes along.”

Watch and wait — that’s about all he can do. And wonder what might have been.

<i>Woody is a Nashville sports writer who has covered racing since the early 1970s. </i>