Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway…
1. Veterans Day
The top eight finishers at Atlanta all have at least eight seasons in the Cup Series — a veteran-heavy scoring pylon led by the definitive expert on this old track.
Was it by chance all those experienced drivers found themselves finishing toward the front?
“There’s no coincidence,” Kevin Harvick said.
First of all, Harvick is simply better than other drivers at Atlanta. He understands exactly how to get around the bottom quickly and without abusing his tires — as demonstrated in leading a combined 66 percent of the laps in the Cup and Xfinity Series races.
“He can be on a tricycle and probably be that fast here,” said Joey Logano, who finished sixth.
But the other drivers in the top eight aren’t too shabby either, and it’s because they know how to race from the days when it wasn’t just hammer-down and go all-out — a finesse that can only come with experience.
“This is just the way it used to be when you had a lot of horsepower and you could spin the tires a lot,” Clint Bowyer said after finishing third. “It seems like you get on these tracks like we’ll be at next weekend (in Las Vegas) and it’s qualifying laps every single lap, and those kids will show back up.”
“Those kids” weren’t much of a factor on Sunday. Kyle Larson finished ninth and Chase Elliott was 10th after pit strategy (the same as the one Denny Hamlin and Logano used).
But the others in the top 10 — Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Bowyer, Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Logano and the Busch brothers — all have at least 300 Cup starts.
So despite the youthful look to the Daytona 500, it was the veterans who took over once more experience came into play.
“Talladega is in April,” Harvick said, inferring that would be the next time young drivers would dominate the running order again.
2. Fords focused
Toyota dominated the last two seasons and Chevrolet had its fearsome new Camaro body hitting the track this year, which led everyone to believe the Fords might spend 2018 playing from behind.
But then the manufacturer went out and swept the top three spots at Atlanta, taking four of the top six positions overall.
“It’s clear the Fords have an unfair advantage,” joked Hamlin, who has spent the last two years hearing all the accusations about Toyota’s edge.
Ford drivers were optimistic after their solid day, but cautiously so. Atlanta is “a unique beast” and much different from the other intermediate tracks, Logano said. Just because a driver has a good Atlanta race doesn’t mean it will translate to the other tracks.
Las Vegas “really shows where your mile-and-a-half speed is at,” he added. “Next week will be the true test to see where we’re at.”
Bowyer acknowledged he was “a little bit nervous” in the offseason after knowing the Chevrolets would be showing up with a new body and the Toyotas wouldn’t lose anything.
“But so far, so good,” he said.
3. Jimmie’s jam
What in the world? After two races, seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is 35th in the point standings — behind even Mark Thompson and DJ Kennington, who only ran the Daytona 500. He is the lowest-ranked driver of all those who have run both Cup races so far.
That’s what happens when a driver finishes 38th and 27th in the first two weeks of the season.
So is it time to panic? Of course not. Johnson and the 48 team can win anywhere, and that’s all it will take.
Still, it has to be unsettling at the very least. Johnson didn’t run well the entire weekend and was lapped on two different occasions before spinning out and really putting his race in the craptastic category.
Another bad run at Vegas could certainly challenge the team’s morale.
4. Gunning it
It’s really quite amazing how few hiccups there have been on the pit stops so far, at least in terms of subtracting one crew member. As noted after the Clash, it doesn’t seem like much of a factor and teams are quickly adapting to the new choreography.
What has been a challenge so far? Pit guns, apparently. As reported here last October, NASCAR implemented a common pit gun for every crew this year. But as it turns out, some teams are having hiccups.
Truex crew chief Cole Pearn told NBC’s Nate Ryan and ESPN’s Bob Pockrass after the race the pit guns were “pieces of shit.” And Truex noted it certainly would be unfortunate if a faulty gun cost someone a win or a spot in the championship race.
Several teams, including Truex, Harvick and Alex Bowman appeared to have issues with them.
But is that a trend, or just a coincidence? Or are they getting blamed for pit crew members messing up?
After all, it didn’t seem like the problems were widespread.
“Mine worked, so we’re happy,” Hamlin said. “If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t be happy.”
It seems too early to judge if this is going to be an ongoing problem or not. Perhaps as the teams work through the quirks of the new gear, it won’t be as big of a deal. But if it happens again in the next few weeks and turns out to be a continuing issue, it’s going to cause some major grumblings from the drivers.
5. Rain Dance
I woke up Sunday morning absolutely convinced the race would be postponed. Even the most optimistic forecasts said there was only a 20 percent chance of getting the race started, and once the rain hit, it would sit over the track and not move until Monday afternoon.
I’ve been through plenty of rainouts before, but this one was different. Now that I’m spending my own money (money many of you gave me through Patreon to travel to races), I felt deeply disappointed and sort of sick over it.
American Airlines was asking $414 to change my flight, which was a no-go. And buying a new flight would have been in the $500 range. That meant I was going to have to go home without seeing the race after making an investment to get here.
That sucked. But even with that feeling, it’s still not the same as what many fans go through during a rainout. After all, I’m supposed to be here; this is my job. Fans who stretch the budget and spend vacation time in order to make a race and then have to leave to get back home for work, school or other obligations must feel so empty and sad when that happens.
I had a little taste of it Sunday morning, but I got lucky when the entire race unexpectedly got in, just with a two-hour delay.
If it hadn’t, at least fans at Atlanta had a “Perfect Weather Guarantee” that would have given them a ticket credit had the race been postponed and they were unable to attend.
That should be the standard at all tracks. The industry has to make it so that NASCAR’s most loyal customers don’t get burned and have nothing to show for their time and money. Because after an experience like that, who would want to come back and try it again?