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Drivers anticipate chaos in Atlanta Cup race

Take a walk down memory lane and relive Jimmie Johnson's 2016 NASCAR Cup Series win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, tying him with Dale Earnhardt for seventh on the all-time wins list.

HAMPTON, Ga. — No one knows what to expect in Sunday’s Cup race at a repaved and reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway.

But a sense of chaos is prevalent among drivers after a 50-minute practice session Saturday that featured pack racing common at Daytona and Talladega.

“That (50)-minute practice session was super intense,” Christopher Bell said. “I don’t think anybody expected the draft runs to be that big, and the pack to be that tight. It was full blown chaos, and we’ve got 500 miles of it (Sunday).”

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Cup race

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson told NBC Sports: “You don’t have a whole lot of time to relax … I think we’re going to crash at some point.”

Kyle Busch said after Saturday’s session: “There is no reason why we should crash, but we are going to. I just hope it’s not too hard.”

The concern about what could happen comes after Speedway Motorsports turned Atlanta Motor Speedway into a Frankenstein of a track, shaping and shifting the 1.54-mile track so it races more like a superspeedway. That encourages pack racing, something not seen at a track like Atlanta. The repave and higher banking in the corners (from 24 to 28 degrees) also promotes faster speeds.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s practice session at 186.616 mph. That’s 6 mph faster than Cup cars ran in 2019, the last time the series had practice at Atlanta.

Drivers note that it’s hard to lose the draft at Atlanta. That was not the case at Daytona last month. One theory for the difference is that with Atlanta being 1 mile shorter and a more narrow track, the aerodynamic hole punched by cars is more concentrated than at Daytona. That can help the cars further in the back.

Screen Shot 2022-03-19 at 4.01.35 PM

(Atlanta Motor Speedway graphic)

Drivers also said the runs seemed quicker. That could present challenges in the pack when the field is bunched.

“The narrower racetrack lends itself to some hairy moves and things like that,” Busch said. “Turning off into Turn 3 when you are running the bottom and you start to load up into the corner and your front end gets tight and you wash up the track and somebody in the middle is holding you down, holding you tight, you make contact and start a crash – I feel like that’s where we are going to see a wreck and you might also see some going down the frontstretch.”

Just as blocking is an issue at Daytona and Talladega, it is expected to be as important Sunday.

“When you get out front, you’re going to be able to control the lanes a little bit easier than a Daytona or a Talladega,” Stenhouse said. “Daytona is easier to control a lane than Talladega because it’s so much more narrow.

“You take it another step further here on how wide the racetrack is compared to Daytona. So, you’ll be able to maneuver and block those two lanes, I think, a little bit better, so I think track position is going to be important.”

With the potential for a multi-car crash or two … or more, making it to the end of 500 miles will be critical, especially for someone like Bell who has had a rough start to the season.

A crash in the Daytona 500 and engine failure at Auto Club Speedway was how Bell started the season. While he placed 10th at Las Vegas, he was 26th last week at Phoenix. The result is that he’s 30th in points heading into Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET on Fox). A win will help cure those ills, but the focus for Bell is to make it to the end of the race.

“I need to survive this one,” Bell said. “We’ve been off to a rocky start. … Getting to the end is going to be the most important thing, first and foremost, and I could see it being difficult for sure (Sunday).”