The Top Five: Breaking down the Atlanta race

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?

16 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Atlanta race”

  1. Totally agree with point 5. Had tickets and flights to today’s race but based on the weather forecasts and everyone’s doomsday predictions, decided to cancel on Saturday morning. Sucks either way but would’ve been worse if I had gone and the race rained out. No win situation for fans coming in just for Sunday.

  2. Yes, every race in all 3 series should have the “Perfect Weather Guarantee”. The next BIG question is if the track will be repaved before next year. I am 50/50 on the repave. Currently you can run any grove and is the biggest challenge of all tracks for driver and setup. The repave will make it single file racing for 4-5 years BUT would tighten up the field since setup and driver would mean less….and it would be crazy fast.

    1. Your reasoning for a repave is exactly why it doesn’t need to happen, let the better drivers show that they are better.

  3. I’m still in shock they got the race in. If I were a betting man/woman I would have lost a lot of money.

  4. I think item # 6 is attendance. Since Atlanta only has one race a year you would have thought the place would be full. Looked only 50% at best from TV. Love this sport! Nascar needs to work on marketing as much as anything!

    1. Rob,
      Given the fact that tickets aren’t scarce and you can walk up and buy one (unlike the late 90’s where everything was sold out), if you live within driving distance why would you ever pre-order a ticket. It is smarter to just wait until you see what the weather is going to be and then make a decision a day or two before the race (either buy online for will-call or just walkup). So, if you lived within driving distance of Atlanta yesterday, saw the projected weather forecast, would you have wanted to take a chance on going and it being rained out.? Or to sit out there and watch a race when it wasn’t sunny and warm? This is the new reality that faces tracks.

    2. The thing is, weather was a big factor in attendance. Like someone else stated on here, they didn’t even attempt to go on Sunday since it looked to be a virtually hopeless forecast for the day, but the race still got in. Had there been good weather, I feel as though it would’ve been much fuller than it ended up being and if the weather cooperates next year, we’ll see that.

  5. Great post, your point on missing the race due to cost is a great one. If there was a way for all involved in the sport to feel that, they would understand the fans perspective so much better. Maybe publish an article on the gut wrenching you experienced for the powers that be could hear a first hand account.

  6. I always stay a extra night when I attend a race but I drive to races, and take extra vac days the following week, attended 7 races last year attendance down at all of them, except Watkins Glen

  7. On the race:
    Atlanta separates the men from the boys, IMO. (Though, I wouldn’t put Larson in the “kid” category anymore, he’s on his 4th year, 25yo, empires built and fell in that time. Maybe media does it for the same reason they did Kahne for so long – the baby face.) You can’t get by with Daddy’s money or name. I’ve always said Chase should have been in lower tiers longer. Same with Byron (Byron more so, IMO). Getting experience is costly at the top level. Byron never spent more than a year in ANY one division over 5 or 6 years. He’s a good kid, he’s talented… and Hendrick is going to burn him out, chew him up and dump him, because not only do you need to drive a car, you have to deal with increasing sponsor demands, thanks to NASCAR’s parade of some CEO’s niece’s husband’s third cousin who wanted to get a selfie and doesn’t care about racing. Experience in lower levels, dealing with increasing media exposure and pressure, and learning to race with sponsor demands piling at your door is vital in today’s NASCAR.

    Chase nor Byron got that, and often, their inexperience shows up on tracks and I don’t think it’s solely because of them and the car. Chase doesn’t look very happy anymore, he knows the song and dance, but he looks tired – already. Drivers need adjusting to the ever constant “Hey you, meet X, Y and Z instead of talking over your car with your crew, then go here for a radio interview, here for 16 pressers, here for a sponsor plug, then here for TV”. It can wear on a driver’s mentality, especially if you are thrust into it at the highest levels, at a severely young age. Combine that with experience communicating to older men – some old enough to be your grandpa – that you WANT something from them and demand it, and it’s really rough on a 17/18yo.

    Atlanta showed the steel mentality veterans have built up, and put on a clinic to the young guns.

    On Atlanta’s policy:
    Atlanta has found something, a niche, that helps fans, especially knowing that no track ever sells out. (Daytona insisted they sold out, my photos of the stands show a different story, unless a whole lot of people’s kids got sick…) The speedways have been driving costs up for years. An RV slot at Daytona for Duels-500, 3 rows back was $1700 for two adults. I have to pay an extra $250 for another wristband for my son since he’s old enough now. The night race is a “mere” $900 total.

    While we drive over from the west coast, work is still a factor. This is why, in the rarest of moves, when Daytona STARTED the race a few races ago, at nearly 10pm, the stands were fuller waiting…. what, 6 hours I think it was, plus finishing at 2:30am, than if it had held off until Sunday afternoon, or worse, Monday. I know this was a rare thing, because of the tire test on Monday, they didn’t want to push off, it was told to me it was something vital.

    NASCAR should work to do ALL races same day regardless of start time and Atlanta has made fans feel like they are worthy with the Weather Guarantee. I missed Atlanta in fall 2003 – I was 4 weeks after having my first baby, at the track, spending my first day away from my kid, with my beloved Daddy, driving about 3 hours. And it rained. They called the race at 2pm. I was emotional and devastated. It cleared up by 4. With tracking drying, they could have had it racing by 7. Sunday night race in the ATL.

    Nope. And they didn’t have the guarantee. Which, for my Dad, it was an expensive trip to our family that we got nothing.

    For fans who have a home track they go to every year, the guarantee MEANS A LOT to them. For me, I paid over $3k a year, for both Daytona race weekends. Having a little insurance, to show that after all that cash, especially since Daytona NEVER sells out in RV slots (even worse in my situation, IMO, since we don’t even use hookups, literally, it’s 99.9% profit to “give away” a spot in the next race, making cash on fan zone, track purchases, food purchases, etc., since they provide no services except trash to us, we take up a barrel for trash, once a day, so figure in the 5 minutes the trash-takers have to spend on me), and it looks stellar on TV to have the infield filled up.

    And with the weather guarantee, and how boring Daytona is now (the 3-4 hours on track action doesn’t really equate to the $2k+ that we are spending anymore, now that my kids are hitting ages we have to pay for them to do what they’ve always done – climb on the RV), guess where we are taking all that cash? Atlanta! We can do the drive, knowing that whatever we pay (which is considerably less anyway), we will get a race – eventually. We held off going to farther tracks, because of cost versus rainout/work factor.

    It sounds silly, but even if we miss a race going, it gives us something – hope. Hope for the next race, something to look forward to. Not regret, disappointment, feelings of “we wasted all this time and money for nothing”.

  8. I’ve been to every Atlanta race but one since 2000, and have seen attendance drop from 100,000+ to whatever it was yesterday. (For yesterday, I partially blame the forecast. We went with the expectation that we’d only see part of a race, at best. But the drive was less than two hours and we figured it was worth the risk.) Our tickets for four cost us $32 total due to a Great Clips promotion. Our experience at Atlanta is always excellent and I’m troubled by the declining attendance. What I see is the following: (1) Many fewer out-of-state vehicles in the parking areas (2) Less promotion on Atlanta radio and TV stations (specifically, driver appearances and interviews) (3) Show cars aren’t in our area (90 minutes from the track, east of Atlanta) any more. We used to see Home Depot cars here regularly. Since they left the sport, we don’t see anyone.

    Frankly, it feels like NASCAR sees the declining attendance, doesn’t know what to do about it, so does nothing. Having said that, Ed Clark (AMS President) is regularly interviewed, but I don’t think he has the same impact as the drivers do.

    I wonder how much ticket sales contribute to profitability and if the tracks wouldn’t be better served by filling the stands with really inexpensive tickets and making their money on concessions. I think that once you get people in the stands, some will get hooked and become paying customers in future years. How about “NASCAR – Celebrating 70 Years with No Ticket over $7.00 for the Entire Season”. Then promote the heck out of it. Who’s with me?

  9. Carl I’m one of those out of state plates you no longer see. We went to every fall race from 98-08 but since they moved the race to LDW to now the second of the year, we’ve not even considered attending to be quite honest. I know race dates are challenging because moving one means moving another but you do really have to wonder what kind of long term viability as a date on the calendar NASCAR expects for Atlanta when they put it as the second race in February. We absolutely loved making the trip back when it was in the fall and mostly when it had the late October date. Unfortunately, it is hard to see that happening anytime soon as it would just add another 1.5 miler to the chase. I really don’t know what the solution is but it really is a shame for such a great and historical racetrack.

    Someday NASCAR will wake up and realize how much the schedule needs to be overhauled. I used to cringe at the thought of something less than 36 points races but I’m warming to reducing to 30-32 and then you build the schedule with each track hosting just one race. From there you award second dates to those tracks that can support them, continue to mix up the chase races, rotate the championship race and add a couple new tracks when warranted. I also think the idea of a throwback race similar to what Jeff Burton recently suggested is a great idea. If you can somehow make that the “all-star” race, all the better. But the unfortunate reality is that you have two public companies with a monopoly on the race dates and until that changes (merged and sold???) they will be hard pressed to make such changes.

    1. Agree with every word Dustin. The schedule does need a major rework and, other than Daytona and Charlotte, a second date should be awarded on merit (or make the Chase races the only second dates each year). Rockingham died in this second-race-of-the-year slot – probably because the weather was so iffy at this time of year. I agree with you that the same fate could end the Atlanta race.

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