The Top Five: Breaking down the Atlanta race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway…

1. Answer blanks

If it was possible to learn even less than we expected at Atlanta, that’s what happened. There were zero answers to anything, and nothing conclusive was revealed that would help shed any light on how this season will unfold.

For example:

— How did the new rules package perform? Trick question! That was only part of the new rules package, and Atlanta’s worn-out surface only offered a reflection of future races if you like looking in funhouse mirrors.

“This is a one-off race,” Clint Bowyer said. “There is no track we go to anymore that is as slick as this and as hard on tires.”

— Who was the fastest car? Debatable! Kyle Larson led the most laps and was great in clean air, but only finished 12th after he had to restart in traffic. Martin Truex Jr.’s chance at a win was denied because he couldn’t pass a lapped car for a long time. Kevin Harvick had bursts of speed but faded, and Brad Keselowski was a top-five car who capitalized on the timing of a caution.

“I got out of the car and I was like, ‘How did the 2 win?'” Erik Jones said. “I don’t think today is a good judge (of speed). It was an odd race.”

— Who is in trouble? No one! Yeah, Hendrick Motorsports’ top finisher was 15th, so that’s a bad day. But when everyone drafts at Vegas next week, Hendrick might be just fine. It’s definitely not a Chevy problem, because the Ganassi cars looked good. So who knows? I don’t. You don’t. They don’t.

As much as I’d LOVE to jump to conclusions about everything — the racing, the championship favorites, the potential playoff misses — there really aren’t any answers to be had.

That’s frustrating in some ways, but in other ways it keeps the intrigue going while the predictable racing — which was hated so much when the Big Three dominated last summer — is kept at bay.

2. Atlanta still Atlanta

If you didn’t know there was anything different about the cars, what would you have noticed about this year’s racing at Atlanta compared to last year?

The cars did seem noticeably slower from the press box view, and they also seemed to hang together on restarts a bit longer. Other than that, it looked like a typical Atlanta race — wild restarts followed by strung-out racing, long green-flag runs and an exciting finish out of nowhere.

The rugged surface makes it such a quirky place, I’m not sure there’s any form of stock car racing that would look any different over the course of 500 miles. I don’t care if it’s the Gen 5, Gen 6, Gen 7 or the Gen 12 (assuming the Gen 12 isn’t flying cars); Atlanta is just Atlanta, and if you show up expecting anything more, you’re going to be disappointed.

3. Keselowski guts it out

Do you remember the last time you had the stomach flu or food poisoning? Remember how it felt?

Whoa, whoa, whoa…I didn’t ask for details! Keep it to yourself, geez. No one wants to hear about that, and I’m surprised you would think this is the appropriate place to share your story.

Anyway, I’m guessing it was unpleasant for you. So it’s actually quite hard to even imagine someone racing for 500 miles — let alone winning the race — on the day after that happens.

Good for Keselowski, whose win was certainly surprising based on both his health and his car’s performance in qualifying (which was also ill).

A scientist or psychologist needs to come to NASCAR and do a study on why drivers seem to elevate their game when battling illness or pain. From Keselowski’s broken ankle win at Pocono to Denny Hamlin’s victories in 2010 and 2015 after knee injuries to Tony Stewart’s legendary poopy pants win at the Glen, drivers seem to be able to focus and perform even when not feeling well.

I’m guessing it has something to do with adrenaline and concentration masking the discomfort, but it’s quite fascinating no matter the reason.

4. Saving money on hearing aids

Remember the whole controversy about how NASCAR was considering reducing the noise of the engines? Well that actually happened as a side effect of the lower horsepower engines, and the result is actually quite pleasant.

The pedestrian tunnel at Atlanta requires people to walk down steps right next to the track, and I took that route Sunday while traveling from the press box to the infield late in the race.

In the past, I can remember having full ear protection in that spot and the cars somehow still being ear-piercing. But today it was noticeably more tolerable — so much that I experimented with not using any ear protection to see what it sounded like. Honestly, it was no problem.

Were the engines still loud? Oh, for sure. They just weren’t painfully noisy, which isn’t something I missed. So far, the volume with the 550 horsepower package seems to be “loud, but not too loud.” That’s not a bad thing.

5. Media Matters

You probably didn’t notice — because there’s no reason you would, really — but this weekend was the debut of a new media model NASCAR is trying. For the most part, it went great.

That’s important for fans because you’ll end up getting more content and exposed to more storylines when the media speaks with the drivers more often. In addition, reporters get exposed to more opinions and insight, which helps shape our understanding of what’s going on.

Some of the new media features include increased interview opportunities on Fridays, a requirement that every driver stop in a media bullpen after his qualifying lap, the fastest driver from each manufacturer speaking after final practice on Saturday and the top 10 drivers coming to a bullpen on pit road after the race.

That’s wayyy more access than the media was getting a year ago at this time, and NASCAR has now made such things mandatory. It’s not something you may be aware of on a weekly basis, but hopefully you’ll notice through the coverage from the outlets you regularly follow.

Post-Atlanta podcast with Kelly Crandall

Kelly Crandall from RACER joins me at Atlanta Motor Speedway to help sort through the first taste of the new rules package. Plus, PRN’s Brett McMillan and MRN’s Kyle Rickey turn your texts into the next generation of “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity.”

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?

The Top Five: Breaking down the Atlanta race

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Today: Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Unhappy Harvick

Kevin Harvick absolutely destroyed the field in a performance reminiscent of the ass-kicking Martin Truex Jr. laid on everyone in last year’s Coca-Cola 600.

But there was a big difference. Truex finished off his win, where Harvick blew it with a speeding penalty Sunday on the final pit stop.

At least Harvick owned up to the error after ripping his pit crew multiple times last season when they cost him races. This time, the pit crew was outstanding all day long — and Harvick was the one who failed to close.

“I just made a mistake that I preach all the time that you don’t need to make and beat yourself, and then you go out and make it yourself instead of following all the things you preach,” he said. “That part is hard for me to swallow.”

The talk coming out of Atlanta will focus on his mistake, but in reality, there’s a huge moral victory to be had. The fact Harvick could come out in the first intermediate track race of the season after switching to Ford and be that good is a really positive sign for the rest of the season.

Personally, I thought Stewart-Haas would struggle after leaving Chevrolet and the Hendrick Motorsports alliance. As it turns out, Harvick is as good as ever.

The mistakes? It’s a long season, and they can always be cleaned up.

Don’t give Keselowski a chance

I don’t have the stats to back this up, but it seems like whenever Brad Keselowski gets an shot at a victory — after fighting his way through a comeback — he often capitalizes on it.

Keselowski thrives on adversity and loves when people count him out. It brings out the blue-collar fighter in him, and you can’t let him sniff the lead in that situation or he’ll snatch it away and end up with the trophy.

That’s what he did at Atlanta. His team had a major screw-up after Keselowski had taken the lead on a late pit stop, and Keselowski had to return to the pits to add some lug nuts. He came out 13th, and his chances looked to be over.

Did he have a meltdown or flip out on his team? No. He went back to work, rallied back and was able to pull off one of those signature scrappy wins.

“Everybody stayed focused and nobody had to say anything,” he said. “We know the deal. We know this isn’t going to be easy. You have to keep your head down and keep fighting at all times and that’s what we did.”

Keselowski is easy to overlook. He can come off as a bit of a dork, and other drivers dismiss him at times when he spouts off. But that’s almost always a mistake with Keselowski; he might not look like he could beat you in a fight, but it’s best not to give him a chance.

Hey Dale, so about that new aero package…

What the heck? For all the talk and hype about the new even-lower downforce package, combined with an old track surface that eats tires, the expectations were pretty high for a thrilling race.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much in the way of action until the end. I asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. about why the race seemed, um…

“Uneventful?” he said.

Exactly. No wrecks? No spins?

“We’re all pretty good, I guess,” he said with a smile.

Look, it’s obviously way too early to judge the new aero package. But it was kind of weird that last year’s Atlanta race seemed racier than this year’s. And Earnhardt knew what I was getting at.

He suggested (perhaps half-jokingly) NASCAR should “take more downforce off til we start wreckin’ more.”

“These cars, they did take a lot of spoiler off,” he said. “But we all still have a lot of side force. You can’t even read the damn sponsors on some of the Toyotas, they’ve got such big quarterpanels.”

Side force keeps drivers from spinning out, Earnhardt said. And all the cars –not just the Toyotas — have a lot of it.

“You know how they talk about the Trucks, when they get sideways and they kind of straighten themselves out because they’ve got that big flat side?” he said. “We’ve all kind of got that same thing going on here. The spoiler makes it harder to drive, but still, when we get (out of shape), we get a little side force kicked in and it helps you save it.”

The problem, Earnhardt said, is even if NASCAR cut the side skirts or something along those lines, the teams would likely figure out how to get the cars back to where they were before.

“Look at a picture of Carl Edwards when he won here, passing Jimmie (Johnson in 2005),” Earnhardt said. “Look at where the splitter on those cars is when they cross the finish line. They’re like six inches in the air.

“That’s what we really need to be doing, but you can’t unlearn the engineering we’ve done in these cars. So we’re all going to find a way to keep them sealed up.”

Kahneiacs Rejoice!

Kasey Kahne has missed the Chase for two straight years. Last year, he didn’t lead a lap.

But Kahne’s fans? Man, they are so impressively loyal.

I asked one Kahne fan in Daytona: “If he doesn’t start doing better, how long will you stick it out?”

“Until he retires,” she said. “He’s my driver.”

So those dedicated Kahne fans deserve something to cheer about. And they might get it this season.

Kahne was all smiles when he emerged from his car after a fourth-place finish on Sunday — and not because the car was that good all day. Actually, Kahne and the No. 5 team struggled with many of the same things they had in the last couple seasons. They weren’t very good for much of the race.

But this time, unlike in the past, the team made the right changes, got the car better and got themselves out of a hole. I asked Kahne how significant that was.

“That’s actually really hard to do,” Kahne said. “It’s hard to do when you’re one of the best teams and drivers and running up front all the time. So for us, the last year or two, it’s been really hard — and today we did it.

“That was really nice to see and be part of. We’ll just keep building from there. But yeah, it feels really good to dig out of where we started.”

Another week like this, and Kahne fans might really have reason to start feeling optimistic again. Combined with a top-10 finish in the Daytona 500, Kahne’s Atlanta finish has him eighth in the point standings.

Kahne isn’t starting the season with a deficit this year. That’s a good sign for a driver who needs a rebound.

Get that outta here

At the end of Stage 1 and Stage 2 — during the race — small trophies were awarded to the No. 4 team. Stewart-Haas Racing tweeted pictures with crew chief Rodney Childers holding the trophy.

Now, I like the stages and all — they provide a good break for mostly uneventful races like Atlanta — but come on, people!

A trophy for winning a stage?? The stages are cute little excuses for cautions and there are definitely some benefits (I’m a fan!), but let’s not overdo it by giving away trophies. Isn’t a playoff point enough for a stage win?

Fortunately, I’ve been told this is not a NASCAR thing but a track thing. I hope other tracks don’t follow suit. No offense to Atlanta, but one trophy is enough for the race.

NASCAR fans don’t seem like the kind of people who like participation trophies, so let’s just forget this little incident ever happened and bury the stage trophies idea along with the Sprint narwhals.

Atlanta makes Carl Edwards miss racing, but no comeback plans

Carl Edwards was back at a NASCAR track on Friday for the second time this year, on hand at Atlanta Motor Speedway at the request of his successor in the No. 19 car, Daniel Suarez.

Edwards said he watched the first part of the Daytona 500, but skipped the rest once the field started wrecking. He didn’t miss that part of it, he said.

But standing in the infield of an Atlanta track where he won three times, Edwards said, “I miss driving” — at least for a day.

Still, Edwards said he was “going to try really hard to stick to my plan, step away and make sure I get my perspective right.” He said he was “certain” he wouldn’t take any full-time offers at this time and was only in attendance because he was asked.

“I’m really, really grateful to have made the decision I made,” he said. “I’m having a lot of fun. Everybody calls it retirement; I haven’t called it retirement officially.

“I admit I brought my helmet and driver suit today, just in case somebody needed something. But I’m having a lot of fun. I’m just so grateful to Coach (Gibbs) and everybody for letting me make the decision I made. But it is cool coming back here and seeing everybody.”

Edwards also attended the Phoenix test to help Suarez in January and openly addressed rumors about his departure.  He took another shot at them Friday.

“I could have messed with you guys somehow on the rumors and stuff,” he said. “Carlos (Slim) pays me a million dollars a race to come hang out. Penske wants me to spy on the Toyotas.”

He chuckled.

“No, it’s pretty cool just to be here (because) they want me here,” he said.


The qualifying quandary at Atlanta

This afternoon’s qualifying session at Atlanta Motor Speedway has me quite intrigued, thanks to a few new rules that could make it more unpredictable than usual.

It might turn out to be a whole bunch of nothing, but then again…it could be chaotic.

Here are the two reasons why:

1. Inspection

Oh, this is delicious. As a stickler for rules, I love it when the teams push the limits and then blame NASCAR for why they failed inspection. That happened two years ago, when 13 cars couldn’t get through inspection in time for qualifying and never got to make a lap.

At the time, it looked bad for NASCAR; all the drivers pointed fingers at officials, who were like, “No, YOU!” But if you examine at the situation today, any problems are going to be the teams’ fault.

Since this is the first “real” race with the new aero package, teams are going to push the limits. And if they go too far, it’s going to potentially cause them to miss qualifying.

Starting this year, teams can’t just fail an inspection station, pull out of line for a quick fix and try again. Now they have to take the car back to the garage, make a fix and start the entire inspection process from the beginning. That’s going to cost them a lot of time — potentially enough to never get on track for a qualifying spot, especially if other cars are doing the same thing.

But — and here’s the big twist for today — missing qualifying might not be the worst thing in the world because…

2. Tire strategy

As you know, the tires wear out quickly at Atlanta. Combine that with the new rule which requires teams to start the race on the tires they used for qualifying, and there’s a big opportunity for strategy there.

Think about it: If a car makes it to the final round, it will likely have at least two more laps on the tires than a car that doesn’t get past round one. So it might be an advantage to sandbag in qualifying, then zoom past cars on older tires at the start of the race.

Add in a rule — revised this week after discussion with the teams — that allows a team which doesn’t make a qualifying lap to start the race on sticker tires, and you could see some cars at the rear do the whole Kyle-Busch-in-Xfinity thing and go from back to front in no time.

Anyway, those things might not take place — since just when you expect something to go down in NASCAR, the opposite usually happens. But if you see it, then consider this a heads up.