The “Real” Season Begins in the ATL

Don’t get me wrong, the Daytona 500 is by far the biggest race of the season, and the biggest day on the NASCAR calendar. But the nature of restrictor plate racing lends itself to a style of racing that is not common throughout the season.

That’s why the real season begins this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile intermediate track where handling, tire conservation, downforce, strategy and speed are all necessities to run well. The bulk of the schedule is made up of intermediate tracks, as well as three of the next four races on the schedule in Cup. In the next month or so, we’ll find out which teams and drivers have the upper hand for the remainder of the season.

WHAT: Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. 325 laps, 500 miles. Three stages (80, 80 and 155 laps, respectively)

WHEN: Sunday, March 5, 2016. Green flag scheduled to fly just past 2:30 p.m. ET

WHERE: Atlanta Motor Speedway, 1.5-mile quad-oval in Hampton, Ga. TV coverage on FOX

FAVORITES: Jimmie Johnson (5-1) as well as Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick (6-1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER:

Jimmie Johnson. He led 52 of the 325 laps after Kevin Harvick dominated. This win last season marked Johnson’s 76th, which then tied him with Dale Earnhardt on the all-time wins list. The win was one of four on the season for the No. 48.


THE LINEUP:

Kevin Harvick won the pole for Sunday’s race, rocketing his No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford around the track at an average of 190.398 mph. The pole is Harvick’s second straight on 1.5-mile tracks (Homestead, 2016). Despite having the highest driver rating out of all competitors for the past three seasons at Atlanta at a whopping 130.7, he only has one win in 2001, which also happened to be his first. Harvick topped the 10-lap average in practice No. 1.

Five drivers (Michael McDowell, Cole Whitt, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Derrike Cope and Cody Ware) also failed to record a lap due to NASCAR’s new inspection policy, stating that if a team fails any section, they must go all the way back through the whole process, not just the section that the team failed. They all will make the race, though.

Ryan Newman will roll off second with Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski rounding out the top five. Finishing off the top 10 when the green flag flies will be Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin. Other notable starters include Chase Elliott in 11th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 12th, Kurt Busch in 13th, Jimmie Johnson in 18th, Clint Bowyer in 25th and Kasey Kahne in 29th.


MONSTER MILESTONE:

This weekend’s race marks the 2,500th for NASCAR at the premier level. In those 2,500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, there have been 31 different drivers to win a title, 156 different tracks raced on, 186 different winners, 234 different pole winners, and 2,536 different drivers to make at least one start in the MENCS.

The first Cup race was held at Charlotte Speedway in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, June 19, 1949. That race was won by Jim Roper, who was driving a Lincoln.


KURT GOING FOR TWO:

Coming off his first-ever Daytona 500 win, Kurt Busch looks to add a second win in as many races to his already impressive 2017 resume. He has found victory lane at AMS three times in his career (2002, 2009 and 2010). Only one of those wins came with Ford.


JIMMIE LOOKS TO STAY HOT:

After winning the last two races at Atlanta, Johnson is looking for his sixth career win at AMS, which would tie him for the most all-time with Jeff Gordon. The seven-time champion has five wins, 14 top five finishes and 16 top 10 finishes at the track, while also owning the top average running position (8.7), driver rating (107.1), and third-best average finish (9.6) at the track among active drivers.


ELLIOTT, KAHNE’S TIME TO SHINE:

Chase Elliott was oh-so-close last week to winning the 500, but the racing gods had other plans. He is realistically a top pick to win this weekend (hint, hint) in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He finished eighth at AMS last season.

The 21-year old’s teammate, Kasey Kahne, is in a bit of a cold streak. Winless in his last 84 races in the MENCS, Kahne looks to stop his skid by winning at the track which gave him his last win back in 2014 in Atlanta. The driver of the No. 5 has three wins (2006, 2009 and 2014), seven top fives and nine top 10s in 20 starts at the Hampton, Ga. track.


NEW LOWER DOWNFORCE:

This has probably been the biggest storyline that nobody talked about throughout the offseason. But with Carl Edwards stepping away, Monster stepping in and Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming back, who could blame them?

NASCAR’s new lower downforce package makes its debut this weekend. The changes include a decrease of the rear spoiler from 3.5 inches to 2.375 inches, a decrease in downforce from 2,100 lbs to 1,600 lbs, outboard regions of the splitter being reduced by three inches and the deck fin being tapered to match the decreased spoiler height. In addition, drivers must begin the race using the tires with which they qualified on.

For all you visual learners (myself included), take a look at the changes for 2017.

Credit: NASCAR

The sanctioning body’s goal of this new package is to put the race more in the driver’s hands and less in the engineers’ and mechanics’ hands. The race cars will be a handful to drive and hopefully will produce better racing on the track. You can bet that the advent of stages, this package and aggressiveness will bring this package’s positive aspects to light.


TIRES, TIRES AND MORE TIRES:

Atlanta Motor Speedway is known for chewing up tires and spitting them out with reckless disregard. The abrasive surface, commonly compared to sandpaper, wears the Goodyear rubbers out faster than any other track on the circuit. With speeds approaching 200 mph and elongated, sweeping corners in both ends of the race track, you have a perfect recipe for drivers complaining and crew chiefs in predicaments.

NASCAR has reduced the number of tire sets allotted for each team per race weekend this season. At Atlanta, teams will have a maximum of 13 (counting the one set that will be used for qualifying to begin the race) to use throughout the 500-mile event.


BYE BYE OLD SURFACE:

Sunday’s showdown will mark the final race on the old, abrasive surface at AMS. The announcement of a repave was met with negativity from the NASCAR community, as Atlanta always produced some of the best racing on the schedule.

The asphalt surface has been in existence for 20 years, but all good things must come to an end. It will be repaved upon the exit of teams after this race weekend and the new surface is expected to be ready by mid-April.

“Many of NASCAR’s greatest moments have occurred on this racing surface,” AMS president Ed Clark said in a press release. “And I have no doubt the world’s best drivers will give it a proper final event before the new surface comes to life.” We’ll miss you, old Atlanta.


PREDICTION:

On Victory Lane this week, I predicted Chase Elliott to earn his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at his home track, so I’m sticking to my guns and taking the 21-year-old Dawsonville, Ga. native to win the FOHQT 500. His odds are 12-1, according to Westgate.

As for a dark horse, I’d lean towards Ryan Newman. He has seven career poles at Atlanta, the best average starting position of active drivers, and won six consecutive poles from 2003-2005. Plus, he topped the speed charts in the first practice (187.875 mph). Kevin Harvick had the best 10-lap average in the first practice, followed by Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch.

NOTE: It’s another tripleheader weekend. The NASCAR XFINITY Series will go green on Saturday afternoon just past 2:30 p.m. ET on FS1 in the Rinnai 250, and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Active Pest Control 200 will begin just past 4:30 p.m. ET on FS1 as well.