HAMPTON, Ga. » Police have found the NASCAR race car stolen from a hotel parking lot near Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Team XTREME said the car was discovered early Saturday northwest of Atlanta in Gwinnett County, about 20 miles away from where it was taken. The team tweeted a pictured of team owner John Cohen standing in front of the No. 44 Chevrolet, which was ditched in a wooded area near Loganville, Georgia.
Morrow police Detective Sgt. Larry Oglesby, leading the investigation in the south Atlanta suburb, confirmed to The Associated Press that the car was recovered. Valued at $250,000, the high-powered machine appears undamaged.
"So Happy to have ‘old faithful’ back. Favorite race car," the team wrote on Twitter.
The discovery came too late to help the team this weekend. It was forced to withdraw from Sunday’s Atlanta race.
The race car, along with the pickup truck and trailer that were hauling it, were snatched just a few hours before Travis Kvapil was to run in qualifying. Team spokeswoman Amanda Ebersole said police did not recover the other contents of the trailer, which included a spare engine valued at $100,000 and racing equipment valued at $17,500.
Still, the recovery of the car will help the low-budget team go forward with its plans to race at Las Vegas next weekend.
Normally, the No. 44 car would have been transported using the team’s hauler, an 18-wheel tractor trailer. But, with a winter storm moving through the Southeast this week, Cohen sent only the hauler to Atlanta a couple of days early.
Back at its shop near Charlotte, North Carolina, the team continued putting in 18-hour days to prepare the car, a different version than the restrictor-plate version that raced in the season-opening Daytona 500. The No. 44 was sent to Atlanta late Thursday aboard the much-smaller trailer, accompanied by crew chief Peter Sospenzo and six other crew members.
The team got to Morrow late Thursday, not far from the speedway, and stayed overnight at a hotel. The trailer, with the red race car inside, was parked outside along with the black 2004 Ford F-350 pickup truck that was pulling it. Surveillance video showed the truck and trailer being driven out of the parking lot shortly after 5:30 a.m., Oglesby said.
The team was scheduled to leave for the track at 5:45 a.m., and a crewman had been outside a few minutes before the theft, smoking a cigarette.
"I’ve been doing this since 1979," Sospenzo said. "I’ve probably been to 1,200 hotels and 1,200 race tracks. Never once has this happened. It’s crazy. But there’s a first for everything, I guess."
It was an especially tough blow for Team XTREME, which doesn’t have the funding of major multi-car operations such as Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. Despite a wreck in qualifying, the team managed to make the field for the Daytona 500 with Reed Sorenson behind the wheel. He finished 32nd in the race.
Sorenson switched to a different team for the Atlanta race, prompting Team XTREME to hire Kvapil, a one-time Sprint Cup regular who had only five starts in the top NASCAR series last season and was looking to make his first appearance of 2015.
"It’s really bizarre," Kvapil said. "You can handle maybe getting a flat tire, or getting caught up in a wreck, or a blown engine, something that actually happens on the race track. Or you don’t qualify, because you don’t have enough speed. But to not even get a chance … that’s pretty disheartening."
For a few hours, the team held out hope of the car being found in time for qualifying Friday, but it was forced to withdraw when it missed NASCAR’s mandatory inspection.
At least they got the car back.