NASCAR viewer’s guide: Atlanta Motor Speedway
When NASCAR returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend, teams will be in for something new.
The 1.5-mile oval was repaved and reconfigured following its July 2021 race, with Speedway Motorsports changing the corner banking from 24 degrees to 28 degrees and widening the frontstretch in an effort to promote superspeedway-style racing similar to Daytona and Talladega.
Teams will be using the same rules package featured at those mammoth tracks, but both Daytona and Talladega are 2.5-plus-mile behemoths. At a tighter mile-and-a-half track, Atlanta’s resurfaced reconfiguration remains an enormous unknown before race weekend:
Inquiring minds want to know ...
Few tests have been held in Atlanta since the track was redone, but among the drivers with experience in Cup cars are Ross Chastain, Kurt Busch, Chris Buescher, David Ragan, Drew Herring and Justin Allgaier.
Allgaier has driven both the Cup Wheel Force Data car and the Xfinity car and noted his experiences in both have been “completely different.”
When initial reports of the reconfiguration trickled through, drivers like Kyle Busch expressed displeasure with the decision, but that frustration seems to have eased as Speedway Motorsports has worked with drivers on changes throughout the process.
Michael McDowell, like most drivers, has yet to see the new surface for himself. While there is plenty of room to speculate what the race will look like, drivers enter this weekend with far more unknown than known.
“The guys that I have talked to said the track has a lot of grip and it’s very easy, wide-open, much like Daytona and Talladega,” McDowell said in a March 9 teleconference. “So I’m kind of anticipating that style of a race, but just like everybody else, with not making any laps, you just don’t know until you get there.”
Superspeedway favorites to watch?
If Sunday’s race is anything like a superspeedway race, it’s fair to wonder whether the favorites at Daytona and Talladega become the ones to watch in Atlanta.
Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick should immediately jump out as contenders in that case. According to Racing Insights, they are the only two drivers who appear on 1.5-mile and superspeedway tracks for the best career averages. Hamlin averages a 16.69 finish at superspeedways and 13.6 on 1.5-mile tracks, while Harvick averages 16.52 and 11.87 respectively.
Another to watch is Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney. He is a three-time superspeedway winner and the defending winner of the spring race at Atlanta. The seven-time Cup winner also placed fourth in this year’s Daytona 500, his seventh top five on a superspeedway.
Is “The Closer” getting closer?
Speaking of Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion is in the midst of a 47-race winless streak, his most recent victory coming at Bristol in 2020 to cap a nine-win season.
Sure, the track is much different than anything Cup has seen there before. But Harvick is a three-time winner at Atlanta, with victories in 2001, 2018 and 2020.
Stewart-Haas Racing has already gone to Victory Lane this year courtesy of Chase Briscoe’s first career win at Phoenix last week, and Aric Almirola hasn’t finished worse than 12th through four races. Harvick is on par with his teammates with finishes of seventh (Auto Club), 12th (Vegas) and sixth (Phoenix) in his last three races, his lone DNF coming at Daytona after a late-race crash.
Nothing about this Atlanta will be familiar, but maybe a Harvick victory would change that.
Give credit to Gragson
Noah Gragson is off to an historic start in the Xfinity Series. With finishes of third (Daytona), second (Auto Club and Las Vegas) and a Phoenix victory, Gragson joins Harvick (2005) and Elliott Sadler (2012) as the only drivers in series history to start the year with four consecutive top-three finishes.
Gragson has never won on a mile-and-a-half track but has finished runner-up four times on such tracks, second-most without a win behind only Daniel Hemric. He also has a Daytona victory in his back pocket if Saturday’s race plays out like a superspeedway. No driver has ever earned five straight top-three finishes to start the season. Gragson could be the first on Saturday.
Thirty-seven teams dot the Cup Series entry list for Sunday’s race at Atlanta. The lone open car choosing to participate this weekend is NY Racing Team, which will field Greg Biffle in the No. 44 Chevrolet with sponsorship from Stillman College. The car has featured Grambling State University at Daytona and Florida A&M University at Las Vegas, highlighting HBCU programs through a partnership with Urban Edge Network.
David Ragan will pilot the No. 15 Ford for Rick Ware Racing.
In the Xfinity Series, 43 cars will compete for 38 starting spots in Saturday’s qualifying session. Sage Karam, a seven-time starter in the Indianapolis 500, will make his season debut with Alpha Prime Racing after making four starts for Jordan Anderson Racing in 2021.
The Truck Series will see 36 trucks in action Saturday, with no teams in danger of going home. Ross Chastain, runner-up in the Cup race at Phoenix a week ago, will make his Truck season debut driving the No. 41 Chevrolet for Niece Motorsports.
In a Wednesday teleconference, RFK Racing driver Chris Buscher acknowledged teams are still limited on parts and pieces, which limits how aggressive they can be in practice. But the need to learn still prevails, even if Buescher tested the No. 6 Ford there in January.
“We need to get out there,” Buescher said. “We need to get some group runs in. I would expect that you’ll see teams try and control their groups, stay with cars they know they trust. I think that will be our initial plan. If we feel like we need to get into a bigger group, we will.”
Qualifying on Saturday will follow the usual single-car, single-lap procedure as Cup teams will be separated into Group A and Group B based on a calculated metric that factors fastest laps, points positions and results from the previous week’s race. The five fastest teams from each group will advance to the second round for another single-lap effort to compete for the pole position.
The Xfinity Series and Truck Series will each get one 50-minute practice session on Friday before single-vehicle, single-lap and single-round qualifying on Saturday morning.
This weekend’s schedule and forecast
(All times Eastern)
Friday, March 18
Forecast: 93% chance of rain, high of 65 degrees, low of 54 degrees
- 3:05 - 3:55 p.m. -- Truck practice (FS1)
- 4:05 -4:55 p.m. -- Xfinity practice (FS1)
- 5:05 -5:55 p.m. -- Cup practice (FS1)
Saturday, March 19
Forecast: Partly cloudy, high of 65 degrees, low of 40 degrees
- 10:30 a.m. -- Truck qualifying (FS2, FS1 at 11 a.m.)
- 11:30 a.m. -- Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
- 12:30 p.m. -- Cup qualifying (FS1)
- 2:30 p.m. -- Truck race (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
- 5 p.m. -- Xfinity race (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
Sunday, March 20
Forecast: Sunny, high of 67 degrees, low of 38 degrees
- 3 p.m. -- Cup race (FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)