Aging pavement should give NASCAR racing a fresh feel at Atlanta Motor Speedway
What's old is new again at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Folds of Honor Quiktrip 500. Almost three months after the sport was originally here, NASCAR's COVID-19 quarantine will be lifted for the 1.54-mile oval's only Cup Series race of 2020.
The pavement at AMS is some of the oldest on the circuit; it hasn't been touched since a 1997 reconfiguration of the track into a quad-oval. Typically, as a normal driver on the highway you'd be frustrated over all the bumps and rough riding from aging asphalt.
But for NASCAR's 550 horsepower package? An intermediate setup that has made passing anywhere from difficult to impossible at races like Charlotte Motor Speedway a few weeks ago? These extra obstacles are a godsend. Tire conservation and driver talent are front and center here for a track that eats your Goodyears up and spits them out.
So much for two-tire stops halfway through a green-flag run. So much for times so close together with this package, drivers simply run in place for 15, 20, 25 laps at a time. No, at AMS you see a refreshing back-and-forth of drivers fighting for position. Multiple grooves allow for plenty of side-by-side action; find the right one to unlock maximum speed.
Tire conservation tends to favor veterans so it's no surprise 10 of the last 11 races here have been won by Cup Series champions. (Lone exception: Kasey Kahne in 2014). Expect the cream to rise to the top once again in a sport that's seen multi-car giants Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing win each of the sport's first nine races.
Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Time: 3:25 p.m. ET
Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway (Hampton, Ga.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kyle Busch
No, he didn't win Sunday's race at Bristol Motor Speedway. That went to Brad Keselowski, a second gift in three weeks after Chase Elliott and Joey Logano made contact in the final three laps.
But Bristol marked an important step forward for the reigning Cup Series champion. Busch led his first laps in Cup since the 2019 Daytona 500 (100 circuits) and easily had his most competitive run of 2020. It's a moment that could jumpstart a sleeping giant in the No. 18 team that has watched teammate Denny Hamlin run circles around them in recent weeks.
Who's at the Back: Ty Dillon
First off, kudos to Dillon who led an engaging discussion with Bubba Wallace this week on Instagram live about racial injustice in the country. He's been one of the leaders within NASCAR's push to take a proactive stance on the issue. Well done.
Sadly, Dillon's on-track exploits have been far less impressive. He crashed out to 39th at Bristol, part of a three-race stretch where he's run no better than 25th. Nine races in, he's dipped to 27th in the season standings and seems a longshot, at best, to make a playoff run with single-car Germain Racing.
Retirement rumors dogged Ty Dillon for much of 2019, repeatedly denied, and ultimately untrue. But as Richard Childress' grandson slogs through a disappointing fourth Cup season, it's fair to start wondering about his future once again.
Nashville Superspeedway will reopen next season for the first time in nearly a decade. The track's reward? A 2021 Cup Series date. The 1.33-mile superspeedway, located 35 miles east-southeast of Music City, last hosted a NASCAR Xfinity Series race in 2011. The reopening will coincide with their first-ever Cup Series event, a date stripped from track owner Dover Motorsports, Inc.'s main facility: the Monster Mile out in Delaware.
NASCAR is dipping its toe in the water with fans returning to the racetrack. Next weekend's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida will allow 500 military personnel into the facility as spectators. No tickets will be sold to the general public, however, with strict rules against tailgating and bringing coolers into HMS.
The sport has also finalized its racing schedule through early August. On the list are two more midweek experiments as the sport plays around in advance of 2021. Charlotte Motor Speedway will host the NASCAR All-Star Race on Wednesday night, July 15; eight days later, Kansas Speedway will host a Thursday night, points-paying race to make up for their May postponement. That event will cap off a streak of 15 NASCAR Cup Series races in two months before a nine-day summer layoff.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight races where Chase Elliott has been leading inside the last 20 laps of the race. He has only gone on to win one of those events.
Finishing position for Daniel Suarez at Bristol Motor Speedway for Gaunt Brothers Racing. It's the first time GBR has finished inside the top 20 in a Cup race outside of Daytona and Talladega.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
If Martin Truex Jr. is going to have a breakthrough with new crew chief James Small, Atlanta's a good place to start. The duo's sluggish beginning to 2020 could turn the corner with Truex's great AMS track history: runs of 6th, 7th, 8th, 5th, and 2nd in his last five starts. The No. 19 Toyota team needs a boost after a mix of bad luck and poor performance in the first nine races; Truex's price makes him an intriguing play.
Eleventh (11th). That's Kevin Harvick's worst finish in the first nine races of 2020. It's hard not to keep riding the hot hand heading to a track where he's led a whopping 960 laps in his last six AMS starts. That includes a win (2018) and five straight top-10 results. Don't bet against a guy who picked up his first career Cup win here back in 2001.
At some point, Clint Bowyer's luck has to turn. A disappointing roller-coaster 2020 seemed to correct itself with last week's runner-up finish at Bristol. Now, we head to Atlanta, a place where Bowyer's No. 14 Ford has ticked off two straight top-five results. Bowyer has run much better than his results have shown this season and is likely worth the price to pick up here.
Ryan Newman wasn't allowed to qualify as NASCAR's COVID-19 rules call for a random draw. But he had six straight top-15 starts at this oval, a track where he's yet to win in his career. Can he build upon last year's 13th-place run in what was just his second race with Roush Fenway Racing?
Atlanta's a track that leans toward experience. That said... some of the Cup rookies could be dark horses for top-10 finishes at a bargain price.
Christopher Bell has won here in the sport's Xfinity Series and has cleaned up his act with Leavine Family Racing (two top-10 finishes in his last three Cup starts). John Hunter Nemechek was within striking distance of Front Row Motorports' first-ever top-10 finish on an intermediate track at Charlotte a few weeks back. And Tyler Reddick has been fast just about everywhere Cup has been this season.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick leads the way with 5/1 odds at Atlanta (per vegasinsider.com). But pole-sitter Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch sit close behind at 13/2. Alex Bowman, who has already won once at these 1.5-mile ovals this season, is fourth at 8/1.
Want a good longshot? Christopher Bell is at 150/1. You could do worse!
What I Think
I think Kevin Harvick is in good position to cash in at Atlanta Motor Speedway for a second time in three years. But don't be surprised if a JGR car (Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, even Martin Truex Jr.) comes through to pull a minor upset.