HAMPTON, Ga. - The No. 44 race car returned to its NASCAR shop in North Carolina on Saturday after it was recovered along a remote road in suburban Atlanta, apparently abandoned by the thieves who stole it from a hotel parking lot.
While the discovery didn't occur in nearly enough time for Team XTREME to compete in this weekend's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it was a huge boost for the small-budget operation in its bid to make the next event at Las Vegas.
"There was no damage whatsoever," team owner John Cohen told The Associated Press. "Nothing was taken off the car. Even the antennas that went to the radio were still in the seats."
Police in Gwinnett County northeast of Atlanta received a suspicious vehicle call at approximately 2:30 a.m. Saturday, nearly 24 hours after the race car was stolen, said Jeffery Richter, the public information officer. A motorist spotted the No. 44 machine along a darkened road and quickly realized it must be the stolen race car.
Cohen was called to the scene, confirmed it was his $250,000 race car off the shoulder of the road, and called a tow truck to take it back to their shop in suburban Charlotte.
"It was backwoods," Cohen said. "There were no lights around. (The thieves) made sure no one could see them while they were getting rid of the car."
While the truck and trailer that were hauling the race car weren't found at the scene, the truck was spotted a few hours later in Stockbridge, Georgia, not far from the hotel where the theft took place, said Morrow police Detective Sgt. Larry Oglesby, who led the investigation in the south Atlanta suburb.
"The truck was on the side of the road," Oglesby said. "A citizen driving by noticed it and said, 'Hey, that looks like the truck on TV.'"
He said the handle on the driver side door was busted, as well as the ignition switch. While no arrests had been made, Oglesby said his department had a "person of interest" and was continuing to pursue leads to determine just how many people were involved. He also identified a vehicle used by the thieves, which was spotted on a surveillance video.
There was still no sign of the trailer and its other contents, which included a spare engine valued at $100,000 and racing equipment valued at $17,500.
"We've got two out of three," Oglesby said. "Now we're looking for the trailer."
The car was found about 20 miles from the hotel south of Atlanta where it was stolen early Friday. Since the truck and trailer had no markings to indicate they were part of a race team, police speculated that thieves likely didn't realize what they had stolen and might abandon the high-powered car.
"Have you seen that show '48 Hours?'" Cohen said. "I figured if we didn't have it back in 48 hours, we were not getting the car back. The first 24 hours is crucial. It was definitely right at 24 hours when we got the car back."
The team didn't bring a backup car to Atlanta, so it had to withdraw from Sunday's Sprint Cup race after missing Friday qualifying. Travis Kvapil was set to drive.
Since the No. 44 car wasn't damaged, Cohen said it should be able to run at Las Vegas with Kvapil behind the wheel. The team also plans to send a backup car.
Kvapil is also set to run for Team XTREME the following week at Phoenix.
Normally, the car is transported using the team's hauler, an 18-wheel tractor trailer. But, with a winter storm moving through the Southeast this past week, Cohen sent the hauler to Atlanta a couple of days early.
Back at its shop, 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 team members.
They got to Morrow, 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. 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.
"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."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963