NASCAR Cup drivers set to venture into the unknown at Atlanta

Atlanta Motor Speedway takes center stage this weekend when the NASCAR Cup Series stars arrive for Sunday‘s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (3 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

NASCAR last raced at 1.54-mile Atlanta on July 11, 2021, and since then, the track has been repaved and reprofiled, with the racing surface narrowed from 55 to 40 feet in the corners.

Banking in the turns was increased from 24 to 28 degrees, the steepest incline of any intermediate speedway on the NASCAR circuit.

The new configuration should make for exceptional high-speed racing, prompting the sanctioning body to mandate a superspeedway competition package for the fifth event on the Cup schedule. Horsepower in the Next Gen race cars will be reduced to approximately 510, down from 670 at so-called open-motor tracks.

But for one of the most anticipated races of the season, the actual character of the racing remains unknown. Will fans see the type of pack racing typical of Daytona or Talladega, or will they see a hybrid of superspeedway racing and the type of competition that characterizes intermediate downforce tracks?

“I have no clue on this one, actually,” said Austin Dillon, driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. “I watched a couple laps of the test that they had, and I‘ve heard people say that we‘re going to be wide open and speedway racing on a mile and a half, and it‘s gripped up. We‘ll just have to see what that really is like.”

Ross Chastain, who participated in a Goodyear tire test at Atlanta in January, leans toward a pack racing prediction.

“It‘s like a superspeedway—it really is,” Chastain said. “The transitions are a little sharper than Daytona and Talladega, but its smooth enough and has enough grip to that we‘ll be OK. It’s Daytona minus a mile.”

To anticipate the racing at Atlanta, Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Cup Series champion Kyle Larson, has been studying the Daytona 500, the first superspeedway race with the Next Gen car.

“We‘re looking heavily at what we learned at Daytona earlier this year, and there was a team test and wheel-force test in Atlanta since the repave,” Daniels said. “You can‘t expect it to be like a normal intermediate track-type race…

“I think the race on Sunday will start out looking like a superspeedway race. But because of the tighter corner radius compared to Daytona and Talladega, there is going to be much more of a requirement for the car to handle well, and that could lead to the pack breaking up and it becoming more of an intermediate track race.”

Larson led 269 laps in last year‘s spring event before being overtaken by race winner Ryan Blaney with eight laps left. Blaney‘s victory was the fifth straight for Ford drivers, before Kurt Busch won the July race in a Chevrolet.

Noah Gragson seeks to maintain Xfinity Series podium streak

At this point, Noah Gragson can‘t really improve. He can only maintain.

The driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet started the season with a third-place run at Daytona International Speedway. He followed that with runner-up finishes at Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.) and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Last Saturday at Phoenix Raceway, Gragson took the next logical step in the progression, winning for the first time this season. He‘ll try to keep that remarkable streak of podium finishes intact in Saturday‘s Nalley Cars 250 (5 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“This season has been nothing short of amazing,” said Gragson, who will also drive a Cup car on Sunday for Kaulig Racing. “The runs we have been able to put together just shows how hard these No. 9 guys have been working. Now it‘s time to head to Atlanta, where I know we will be competing for the win and adding more playoff points for later in the season.”

Justin Allgaier, Gragson‘s teammate, is the defending winner of the race. But if the racing on the new pavement indeed resembles the character of competition on a superspeedway, the Kaulig Racing cars have to be considered likely contenders.

“There are a lot of unknowns this week as far as what this track will race like,” said AJ Allmendinger, driver of the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet. “We know if it races more like a superspeedway, our cars are really fast at those tracks.

“Overall, I think it’s one of those things where we just don’t know what to expect. We will have to wait to get a feel for it during practice. I think track position will be critical, so we have to stay up front all day. I‘m definitely going into it with an open mind.”

Allmendinger won the June 2020 race at the track.

John Hunter Nemechek hopes to reclaim last year‘s form at Atlanta

A five-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series winner in 2021, John Hunter Nemechek would like nothing better than to finish without incident in Saturday‘s FR8 208 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

So far this season, the closing laps of races have been unkind to the driver of the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota. Nemechek started second and first, respectively, at Daytona and Las Vegas, but late crashes dropped him to finishes of 24th and 25th in the two events.

Nemechek participated in the January tire test at Atlanta. Since then, NASCAR has instituted the yellow line rule for superspeedways at the 1.54-mile track, prohibiting passing on the apron.

A lot of things have changed since we were there at the tire test, double yellow line rule now,” Nemechek said. “A lot of changes going back…

“The first laps in a pack may be at the start of the race, so a lot to learn, a lot to figure out in a short time, but hopefully it‘ll be fun, and hopefully we can bring home our first checkered flag of the year.”

Nemechek is one of three former Atlanta winners entered in Saturday‘s race. The others are Matt Crafton and Grant Enfinger.

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, March 20
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,263,045
TV: FOX, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 500 miles (325 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 105),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 210), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 325)
2021 Race Winner: Ryan Blaney

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Nalley Cars 250
The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, March 19
The Time: 5 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,232,553
TV: FS1, 4:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 251 miles (163 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 40),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 80), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 163)
2021 Race Winner: Justin Allgaier

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Next Race: Fr8 208
The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, March 19
The Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $669,442
TV: FS1, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 208 miles (135 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 135)
2021 Race Winner: Kyle Busch

— NASCAR Wire Service —

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