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Five things to watch in Sunday’s NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway

Folds of Honor Quiktrip 500 - Practice

Folds of Honor Quiktrip 500 - Practice

Sarah Glenn

The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 signifies the start of the “real” Sprint Cup season, minus the restricted engines of Daytona International Speedway. The rules in place for Sunday’s race at Atlanta will be those that are run in 32 of 36 races this season, making it a more accurate barometer of which teams will be fast out of the gate this year. Here are five things to watch Sunday:

1. Fast times: During Saturday’s final practice, Kevin Harvick topped the charts (despite an engine failure with a 191.054 mph lap – nearly bettering the fastest lap set in qualifying last season (191.278 by Aric Almirola). That pace is achieved despite new 2015 rules that feature a decrease of 125 horsepower and 24 percent downforce in an attempt to slow the cars and enhance the likelihood of passing.

So what gives? Temperatures are much cooler at Atlanta this weekend than when NASCAR visited over last Labor Day weekend, so there is more grip in the track. The colder temperatures also have caused a downforce spike that exceeds last year’s levels, according to Harvick.

“You’re talking a 50-degree swing in temperature,” he said. “When you’re adding 8-9 percent of downforce to the car just because of air density, that’s a big change. It’s making more downforce than what they took off probably, compared to last year”

Drag also has fallen by 12 percent, meaning cars cut through the air faster and effectively adding more horsepower than was lost in the detuned engines. Harvick also said engine gearing has an impact, helping raise corner speeds by a breathtaking 11 mph over last year. “So you’re turning around 9,000 rpm,” he said. “So that’s probably eight or 900 less rpm as well as the power reduction on top of that. When you take that much power and you do that again with the gear, you’re just going to be able to carry more throttle and corner speed.”

The cool conditions, though, multiply the impact of the other factors, and it’s expected speeds won’t be nearly as high next week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile oval. That might offer a better gauge of whether NASCAR’s goals are being achieved.

2. Engine worries: Atlanta’s 500-mile races always put an enormous strain on engines, and the new rules will add another layer to it. With the reduced horsepower, drivers can stay on throttle much longer during the course of a lap. Sam Hornish Jr. estimated during Thursday’s test that he could hold the accelerator at 100 percent for about 80-85 percent of the lap.

The green flag temperature is forecast for 47 degrees, and cooler conditions are optimum for engines turning maximum horsepower and being more susceptible to failures. There should be many skittish engine builders and teams when the green flag drops Sunday.

3. Different driving styles: Throw in the throttle changes with the tire management demanded by the always abrasive surface, and Sunday’s list of contenders at Atlanta might feature some new names because of the new approach. Danica Patrick, who finished a career-best sixth at Atlanta last year, said she likes the package because it suits a smoother approach that doesn’t require jamming on the brakes.

“Generally having to be smoother and not rolling a lot of speed is something I feel comfortable doing and like doing,” she said. “I do think it suits my comfort zone and how I like the car. I think that the car needs a certain platform and attitude to do that well. That is the kind of platform I like.”

4. The man in yellow: Ranking high on that list of fresh contenders might be the hottest driver in NASCAR. Pole-sitter Joey Logano will start Atlanta in the same position he finished the Daytona 500. Though he cut his teeth racing Legends cars as a kid on the tiny oval at Atlanta, he has struggled on the big track with one top-10 (a ninth) in eight Sprint Cup starts. He is a whiz in the Xfinity Series here, though, finishing in the top 10 of all four starts prior to Saturday.

“It is more towards an Xfinity car,” he said. “ You’ve got less horsepower and less downforce. So directionally, it could be a good thing for me. I think we need to see what happens in the race, but it does take a little bit of a different style.”

5. And the other Fords? Aside from the momentum from Logano’s career-making win, it’s been a quiet week for the Blue Oval. The only other Fusion starting in the top 10 is Hornish (eighth), and the Roush Fenway Racing cars of Greg Biffle (19th), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (20th) and Trevor Bayne (29th) will have some ground to make up early.

The Roush drivers cautioned during the preseason that it might take several races for their off-season overhaul to take effect. If they show improvement at Atlanta, it could bode well for a 2015 rebound.