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Dr. Diandra: Atlanta a chance for Trackhouse to regain momentum

Nate Ryan, Dale Jarrett, and Steve Letarte address whether or not Chevrolets can remain on a roll at Atlanta Motor Speedway after sweeping the first four races of the regular season.

Today’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway is a chance for Trackhouse Racing to regain the momentum it lost last week.

Daniel Suárez entered Phoenix with three top-10 finishes, including one top five. He incurred multiple speeding penalties at Phoenix: He sped on pit road. He then had to make a pass-through lap and sped doing that (he cited a mistake with the team’s pit road calculation). Although Suárez fought his way back to the lead lap, he finished 22nd.

Ross Chastain had two top 10s and a 12th-place finish — and led the standings. Chastain ran sixth approaching the last restart, but found himself in the wrong place, which was anywhere near Denny Hamlin. Chastain finished 24th.

In addition to Trackhouse regaining its momentum, a win could also slow Hendrick Motorsports’ charge.

And a Trackhouse win would make five out of five wins for Chevy.

Trackhouse’s best Next Gen superspeedway

My last post highlighted underdogs with the potential for a strong finish at Atlanta. In overall average finish at superspeedways in 2022, Chastain ranks sixth and Suárez ninth.

But superspeedways are not created equal.

Atlanta features the same type of pack racing as Daytona and Talladega — but Atlanta is a full mile shorter. Everything happens faster. Drivers don’t have the time to think and plan that long straightaways allow.

In addition to requiring more from the driver, a car that works at the larger speedways might not handle well enough for Atlanta. Balance is much more important this weekend.

Those differences play right into Trackhouse’s strengths.

The graph below shows drivers’ average finishes at Atlanta in yellow and at Talladega & Daytona in blue. The graph only covers 2022 because that’s all the data we have for the Next Gen car. I included only drivers with a 15.5 or better average at Atlanta.

A two-bar chart comparing the average finishes of drivers at Atlanta relative to those at Daytona and Atlanta

Chastain and Suárez post average finishes around 20 at Daytona and Talladega. When it comes to Atlanta, however, Chastain and Suárez are first and second with average finishes of 2.0 and 5.0.

Chastain finished second in the spring and summer races at the revamped track. Those finishes are despite being involved in two accidents in each race. Suárez finished fourth at the first race and sixth at the second.

Trackhouse fields fast cars at Atlanta. Chastain qualified second at the second race and seventh at the first. Suárez qualified 13th at the first race and seventh at the second.

But speed isn’t the only factor. Despite being involved in accidents, both drivers completed both races. They also gained (or didn’t lose) positions during the last 10% of each race.

The competition

Chastain and Suárez aren’t the only drivers seeking to regain momentum at Atlanta.

It’s difficult to quantify how much of a threat Kyle Busch is because he changed teams this year. He had an average finish of 26.5 last year at Atlanta with Joe Gibbs Racing, but a brilliant run at this year’s Daytona 500.

If you’re wondering about Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr., he has an average finish of 31.0 at Atlanta, with DNFs at both races.

Trackhouse’s biggest competition at Atlanta comes from Hendrick Motorsports. Trackhouse consistently placed just behind HMS last year at Atlanta.

  • William Byron, who enters Atlanta with two consecutive wins, won the first Atlanta race in 2022.
  • Chase Elliott won the second.
  • Chastain led the second-most laps at the first Atlanta race. Byron led the most.
  • Chastain led the third-most laps at the second Atlanta race. Elliott let the most, followed by Byron.
  • Suárez’s 46 points at the spring race is tied (with Ryan Blaney) for the third-most points earned at any Atlanta race in 2022.

    • Chase Elliott holds first place with a perfect 60-point race.
    • William Byron holds second with 52 points.

But 2023 presents new circumstances. Last year at this time, neither Chastain nor Suárez had ever won a Cup Series race.

This year, Elliott won’t race Atlanta due to a fractured left leg. His substitute, Josh Berry, earned his first top-10 last week. But Berry has only two races worth of experience in the Next Gen car. None are at superspeedways. He finished 33rd and second in the Xfinity Series last year at Atlanta.

Alex Bowman comes into Atlanta with an average finish of 21.0 at the track, while Kyle Larson‘s average is 21.5. Their 2022 average finishes at Talladega/Daytona are 15.7 and 22.75 respectively.

With Elliott out, Byron is the highest-ranking HMS driver in terms of average finish at Atlanta with a 15.5. In addition to the spring win, a crash relegated him to a 30th-place finish in the summer race.

But Louvergate puts the HMS drivers at a further disadvantage. Their crew chiefs are serving four-week suspensions, although HMS has appealed the penalties. Hendrick has a deep bench, but any disruption introduces the opportunity for hiccups.

This year, Trackhouse has one major advantage over Byron in this race: No driver wants Byron to win. It’s better for everyone if no driver accumulates too many points, stage points or playoff points. Chase Elliott proved that last year.

But winning at Atlanta requires the Trackhouse drivers to address issues that have plagued them in previous seasons.

Suárez has a history of speeding penalties and a knack for incurring them too late in the race to recover. Getting a pass-through penalty at Atlanta likely means losing multiple laps if a driver has to serve it under green conditions.

Chastain’s aggressive driving has made enemies. Chastain lost 18 positions following last week’s altercation with Hamlin. But even a driver choosing not to work with Chastain can send him to the back quickly.