March Madness reigns supreme in the background of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET, FOX). But while college basketball Cinderellas take center stage in Indianapolis, NASCAR's top seeds should establish themselves up front at this 1.54-mile quad oval.
It's a prime opportunity for these favorites to step up. Only five drivers won two Cup Series races or more last season, the lowest total since 1998: Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and 2020 NASCAR Cup champion Chase Elliott. None of them have won thus far in 2021, a mild surprise although all of them are solidly in playoff position.
Atlanta could very well change that, a track where Harvick in particular has starred in recent years. The Stewart-Haas Racing Ford veteran has led 100-plus laps in seven of the last nine races, including last June with a drive that ended in victory lane. It's a facility that catapulted Harvick's career 20 years ago, taking Dale Earnhardt's former ride to the win just one month after his death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Hamlin also has been victorious here, in 2012, and showcased speed in the form of three stage wins this season. Keselowski has won twice here in the last four years, adding 97 laps led in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. They're currently 1-2 in the series standings and building their resumes for the Championship 4 come November.
Elliott, the sport's Most Popular Driver, is the hometown favorite and led 26 laps from the pole last June. Finally, there's Logano, 0-for-14 all-time here but with 33 laps led in his last three AMS starts.
This quintet looks to get off the schneid at a track whose aging asphalt favors veterans like them capable of preserving tires. Long green-flag runs, especially in the final stage, provide an opportunity for drivers to make moves in the low-horsepower package with a wide track that's got plenty of room to race.
When the competition's close, side-by-side action has provided a number of nail-biting finishes: in a five-year span from 2001-05, three races were decided by .03 seconds or less. But as Atlanta's asphalt has faded, clean air has gained added importance and maintaining contact with the front is crucial after restarts.
Can the big names maintain track position and slug out an Atlanta victory among themselves? Or will a Cinderella somehow find a way to sneak through?
Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Date: Sunday, March 21
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway (Hampton, Ga.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing
Let's start with Martin Truex Jr., who earned just his second victory with second-year crew chief James Small after sneaking by Logano during a late restart at Phoenix. It broke his 0-for-30 slump at the track, punching a playoff ticket for a hopeful return trip to the Championship 4 come November.
But Truex isn't alone up front. Hamlin is the point leader by some 39 markers already while Christopher Bell clinched a postseason spot of his own with a win at the Daytona International Speedway road course. When two-time Cup champ Kyle Busch is sitting fourth on the depth chart, "only" 15th in points you know your team is hitting on all cylinders.
Who's at the Back: Cole Custer
The dreaded sophomore slump has come for the 2020 Cup Series Rookie of the Year. An 11th in the season-opening Daytona 500 has been followed by runs of 13th, 23rd, 25th and 31st at Phoenix Raceway last weekend. Bad luck has snakebit the team, peaking in the form of Bubba Wallace's front bumper while battling for a top-15 result in Sunday's closing laps.
Could another NBA player be making his way into NASCAR ownership? A report surfaced this week four-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James is a new partner at Fenway Sports Group. The owners of Major League Baseball's Boston Red Sox, among other sports franchises, also happen to be investors in two-car Roush Fenway Racing (Ryan Newman and Chris Buescher). Will James follow Michael Jordan's lead into stock car competition?
Daniel Suarez and Brad Keselowski will have replacement crew chiefs this weekend after both were busted for missing lug nuts in post-race inspection from Phoenix Raceway. Jose Blanco will take the reins for Suarez over at Trackhouse Racing while engineer Grant Hutchens mans the pit box for Keselowski.
A NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver has tested positive for COVID-19. 26-year-old rookie Kris Wright, running full-time for Young's Motorsports, will miss the race this weekend and be replaced by Josh Berry. It's the first positive COVID test for any NASCAR racer in the sport's top three divisions this season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Lead changes last Sunday at Phoenix, the most for a Cup Series race at the track since 2013.
Drivers to complete every lap of the season's first five races: Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kevin Harvick will have the highest salary for most daily fantasy formats considering his past history here. Doesn't matter. The man has led such large chunks of races here the past seven years with Stewart-Haas Racing it's hard to see that trend changing in 2021. You can't miss out on the bonus points up front even if it squeezes your roster down the line.
Denny Hamlin, by virtue of sitting on the pole, is your other best bet in this tier. Position differential means he can only go backward but three stage wins show how the No. 11 team has speed at all points in the race. Those 10, sometimes 20-point bonuses for victories help cushion the blow if Hamlin fades late.
Kurt Busch has quietly established a successful Atlanta resume during his time at Roush Fenway Racing, Team Penske and now Chip Ganassi Racing. The 2004 Cup champion has five straight top-10 finishes while leading a healthy 116 laps during that stretch. The last time Busch finished outside the top 15 here was 2009 and I wouldn't expect that to change this Sunday.
Austin Dillon now has three top-15 Atlanta finishes in his last five starts here for Richard Childress Racing. It's part of RCR's increasing speed on the intermediate tracks, a trend that bodes well for a driver on the upswing since the fall of 2020.
Ryan Newman hasn't found his groove since returning from near tragedy in the 2020 Daytona 500. The last time he scored a top-5 finish was way back in 2019. But Atlanta is a place he's had a history of success, sneaking in back-to-back top-15 runs with current employer Roush Fenway Racing. Add in a cheap salary and Newman's a great backfill for your roster.
Daniel Suarez continues to impress with Pitbull's new team over at Trackhouse Racing (three races led the last four weeks). Two top-15 runs in four career AMS starts provides hope he can replicate that performance with a single-car organization who's overachieving thus far in 2021.
What Vegas Thinks
Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. lead all drivers with 13/2 odds according to vegasinsider.com. Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick are right behind at 7/1.
Longshot picks are slim pickings this week in a race top-tier drivers should control from the start. Maybe Austin Dillon at 50/1?
What I Think
Kevin Harvick gets his act together after an atypical start to 2021, breaking out of his slump and speeding right into AMS victory lane.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.