The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season continues to be defined by unpredictability. Four different races have produced four different winners, only two of which won a race in 2021. Twenty-six drivers have at least one top-10 finish while the gap between 1st and 23rd in the standings is just 58 points. Parity has been the name of the game when it comes to NASCAR Next Gen.
A redesigned Atlanta Motor Speedway looks poised to continue that trend.
A repaving project at this 1.5-mile oval, the first since 1997, was paired with a banking change from 28 to 24 degrees. The turns, frontstretch and backstretch were also realigned, bumping up speeds to well over a 180-mile per hour average. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led the way in Saturday practice, posting a speed of 186.616 mph as cars immediately stuck together like superglue in drafting packs.
“I found myself holding my breath several times,” said Christopher Bell after emerging from his race car. “It’s a full-blown speedway race, for sure. It’s going to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen, I can promise you that.
“It was full-blown chaos, and we’ve got 500 miles of it tomorrow.”
Those are strong words, backed up by NASCAR’s moves to bring the lower-horsepower package here reserved for the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega. The double-yellow line rule is also in effect to help cut down the risk of the Big One rearing its ugly head in this new configuration.
Will it matter? A tighter racetrack, tighter competition overall, and the handling issues surrounding the Next Gen chassis have the 37-driver field on edge entering Sunday. Pack racing on a 1.5-mile oval has these guys lapping in less than 30 seconds and spending the majority of that time navigating the tighter turns of AMS. If a wreck breaks out, it feels like Bristol in that there’s nowhere to go for anyone even remotely near the incident.
Get ready to sit on the edge of your seat… and stay there for well over three hours. In the cockpit, that leaves everyone scratching their head as to how this 500-miler will play out. Expect a lot of caution flags at an intermediate, again, and a whole new style of competition at a track that used to chew up tires and spitting them out. Fresh asphalt shouldn’t do that this time around, although the hope is the multiple grooves AMS is known for will put drivers in position to move around the track and create plenty of drafting lines.
There’s a long list of drivers licking their chops to get into victory lane in 2022: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are just some of the big names on the outside looking in. We’ll see if the big guns can sneak through the likely Atlanta wreckage or whether the upsets plaguing the NCAA Tournament will leak their way over to the NASCAR side.
Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Date: Sunday, March 20
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Stewart-Haas Racing
How about Chase Briscoe? He didn’t have a single top-10 finish on an oval track last year during an abysmal rookie campaign. Four races into this year, he has two, including the first win of his career at Phoenix Raceway. Briscoe led 101 laps in that race, fending off multiple challengers during some frantic late-race restarts to take the victory.
But Briscoe isn’t the only Stewart-Haas Racing driver showing improvement. Aric Almirola has three top-10 finishes in his retirement season; Kevin Harvick was sixth at Phoenix and sits 10th in the standings. Even Cole Custer, with a NASCAR Xfinity Series win at Auto Club Speedway, has shown signs of digging out of a year-plus slump.
Who's at the Back: Brad Keselowski
A top-10 Daytona 500 finish gave hope to Keselowski’s new chapter as driver/owner. Ever since? We’ve learned just how far the No. 6 team has to go. Three straight runs outside the top 10, including a 23rd at Phoenix, have dropped him down to 18th in the standings. Teammate Chris Buescher has had more upside, running 10th in that same race, but also sits on the outside of the playoffs looking in (21st).
Three of Corey LaJoie's crew members joined the growing list of those suspended after their car lost a wheel on the racetrack. Crew chief Ryan Sparks, jackman Allen Hollman and front tire changer Blaine Anderson will be sidelined for four weeks after the Spire Motorsports No. 7 Chevrolet had a tire fall off at Phoenix Raceway. Front Row Motorsports and Kaulig Racing lost their appeals on similar penalties this week that were assessed earlier in the season.
John Hunter Nemechek is the latest driver added to the budding talent rotation at Joe Gibbs Racing. The full-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver, running for Kyle Busch Motorsports, has been hired by JGR for three NASCAR Xfinity Series events. Nemechek ran the Cup Series as a rookie in 2020 before taking a step back down the ladder to rebuild his career, posting six wins in the sport’s NXS and CWTS divisions since the start of 2021.
Hendrick Motorsports will try their hands at the 24 Hours of Le Mans next summer. The organization is choosing to enter a modified version of the current Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro with Jimmie Johnson’s former crew chief, Chad Knaus, managing the project. Listed as a Garage 56 entry, the team will be listed in the official results but won’t race for the overall win as the innovative effort is a crossover between stock car and sports car competition.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight top-5 finishes by Ross Chastain for the first time in his Cup career. Chastain had only three top 5s during the full 2021 Cup season running for Chip Ganassi Racing.
The average age of the four Cup Series winners through the first month of 2022. Every race in the sport’s top three divisions, in fact, has been won by a driver under 30.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
In an unpredictable race with superspeedway characteristics, Ford and Team Penske stick out. Ryan Blaney starts on the outside pole, is this race’s defending winner and has three straight top-5 finishes at the track. Joey Logano's track record is far less impressive – his last top-5 run was way back in 2015 – but a third-place starting spot provides early track position. Finally, there’s Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric, more of a mid-tier pick whose 16th-place seat on the grid leaves room for position differential.
Alex Bowman won’t be the first Hendrick Motorsports name you see on the list, not with Kyle Larson's dominating performance at Atlanta last spring. However, Bowman quietly put together an average finish of 3.5 in two AMS starts in 2021, posting a position differential of plus-24. An 11th-place starting spot gives him a shot to lead laps early and tack on some extra stage points.
Tyler Reddick seemed to figure things out the last time the Cup Series visited Atlanta. Finishing sixth, he brings those notes to a redesigned facility along with the momentum of two straight top-10 finishes this season (along with 90 laps led in the race before that out at Auto Club Speedway). Don’t count out the way Richard Childress Racing-aligned cars seem to have mastered the handling of the Next Gen chassis faster than most.
Christopher Bell also earned his first top-10 finish in three career Atlanta starts last summer (eighth). Starting 27th this time around, he’s got a shot to rise far higher and has a little desperation attached. Bell sits 30th in the points, posting three finishes outside the top 25 in four races and watched NASCAR Xfinity Series teammate Ty Gibbs win again at Atlanta Saturday. That seat in the No. 20 is getting a little hot.
In three career AMS Cup starts, Cole Custer has improved every time: from 19th, to 18th, to 17th in a down year last summer. Custer is benefitting from the wave of good fortune at Stewart-Haas Racing and has the intermediate chops to put together a top-10 finish from midpack.
I’m thinking the pack racing type of competition here may benefit Bubba Wallace despite no career top-10 finishes at AMS. His new 23XI Racing teammate, Kurt Busch, has the most victories at Atlanta of any active driver (four Cup wins) and Wallace himself has been improving here, finishing a career-best 14th as Busch raced to the win for CGR last July.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com has Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney at +950 odds to win Atlanta, beating all drivers on the board. Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin are next up at +1200 followed by hometown hero Chase Elliott, from nearby Dawsonville at +1300.
If you really, really believe in a guy like Cole Custer, he’s sitting on the longshot board at +8000. Kurt Busch, the July winner, is at +2000 and is a much safer Cinderella pick.
What I Think
I’m going with Ryan Blaney a second straight week to break into the win column after a strong start to 2022. But in a race where half the field could get wiped out through crashes, it’s a chance for a surprise winner to break through.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
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