Typically, NASCAR’s Daytona 500 is the most unpredictable race of the season. Restrictor plate racing provides parity, giving hope any of the field’s 40 cars has a chance to win. The second race of the season, Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuickTrip 500, in Atlanta is supposed to be a return to normalcy. Only a handful of favorites are supposed to forge to the front as the sport’s 2019 championship picture takes shape.
Not this year.
This weekend marks the start of perhaps the most unpredictable Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season of racing we’ve seen on intermediate tracks. New rules were implemented this offseason in a move to tighten up competition throughout the field. Based on the All-Star Race last year, the expectation is they’ll increase the importance of drafting and keep the field bunched together similar to the larger restrictor plate tracks Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway produce.
Will it work? That remains to be seen. Testing produced mixed reviews, enthusiasm mixed with criticism the changes take too much out of the driver’s hands. Speeds are down and that means at some tracks they’ll be able to run wide open, making races a matter of strategy and learning how to slice through the pack through someone else’s mental mistakes.
Kyle Busch referred to the new rules as a “chess match,” retraining drivers on when and how they’ll be aggressive throughout the field. But the truth is, testing can only tell you so much. Sunday is the first time we’ll have 40 cars on track for a set of rules designed to keep them within striking distance of each other for 500 miles.
Will the sensation of speed lost on the racetrack affect fans? Will the entertainment value of more passing and a longer list of leaders make up for it? And is this adjustment the opening middle-tier teams need to jump up and make a postseason push?
It’s time to finally find out. NASCAR had promising news from Daytona, ratings flat from the 500, which meant their depleted fan base stuck around year-to-year. It’s a baseline from which there’s finally an opportunity to grow once again.
Sunday, we’re going to find out if those fans are going to stick around for changes expected to radically redesign the way these cars race on 1.5-mile ovals for years to come.
Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway (Hampton, Ga.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing
Toyota took a back seat for most of Daytona Speedweeks but put their best foot forward in the Daytona 500. Underdog Matt DiBenedetto led a career-high 49 laps and was in contention until an ill-timed bump by Paul Menard took him out.
That started a Demolition Derby of sorts over the final 50 miles or so. But when the smoke cleared, Toyotas were still on top of the charts. Joe Gibbs Racing honored their fallen former president, J.D. Gibbs, by placing their cars in the top three finishing positions. Denny Hamlin won his second Daytona 500 in three years, followed to the finish line by Kyle Busch and Erik Jones. It’s the first time since Hendrick Motorsports in 1997 a team swept a Daytona podium; but this time, there was an extra angel looking down from above.
“It was the most important night of my occupational life,” said owner Joe Gibbs who, you know, has a few Super Bowl trophies to compare it to. “It’s the biggest win I’ve ever had in my life in anything. J.D. built our race team, was the guy that ran day-to-day operations for 27 years. He invested his life in our race team.”
For more on the life and times of J.D., check out his legacy site in his honor.
Who’s at the Back: Martin Truex Jr.
How weird to have Truex on this list considering the rest of JGR performed so well. But it was a quiet debut for the driver and crew chief Cole Pearn in their new digs at the No. 19 Toyota. They never really contended in any of the races at Daytona Speedweeks, then crashed out late without ever leading a single lap.
Atlanta, of course, will be the telltale for how these guys are settling in at Toyota. But it was a bit surprising to see Truex invisible at a race he desperately wants to win. Runner-up in 2016, Truex now is 0-for-15 in the Great American Race, a record of futility that even eclipses teammate Kyle Busch (0-for-14).
McDonald’s is supporting Bubba Wallace this weekend in a one-race deal. The company typically sponsors Chip Ganassi Racing and has moved its backing over to Kyle Larson for most of 2019. Wallace, driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, is still seeking primary sponsorship for a handful of races this season.
Spire Motorsports has switched its number to No. 77 starting this weekend and has Xfinity driver Garrett Smithley behind the wheel. Smithley made a handful of Cup starts for Starcom Racing last year, finishing no better than 32nd in each event. The team continues to work in a partnership with Premium Motorsports as it continues to build up operations after purchasing a charter from Furniture Row Racing at the end of 2018.
Ryan Reed is returning to the sport in a one-race deal with DGR-Crosley’s No. 17 Gander Outdoors Truck Series operation. Reed lost his full-time ride in the Xfinity Series when sponsor Lilly Diabetes left the sport at the end of 2018.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Finishing position for Jimmie Johnson at Daytona, his first points-paying race with new crew chief Kevin Meendering. Last year, it took until Fontana in March for Johnson to register a top-10 finish.
Miles run in this year’s Daytona 500, the second straight year the Great American Race has finished in overtime.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to bet against Kevin Harvick at Atlanta Motor Speedway no matter what package is in place. Harvick has four straight top-10 finishes at the track including a dominating performance last year in which he led 181 of 325 laps. In fact, any league with a laps led bonus is an extra reason to keep him on the roster; he’s led 915 of 1,640 laps here in his last five starts, a whopping 55.7 percent.
While Kyle Larson doesn’t necessarily have a sparkling track record at AMS, new rules on intermediates should favor those who drive the best on them. Larson seems to love these cookie-cutter ovals and does have a second and ninth-place finish in his last two Atlanta starts. He’ll also be hungry to impress after an ugly Daytona that included several wrecks and a lack of speed in his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
Ryan Newman has qualified seventh or better in his last five Atlanta starts. While that hasn’t always translated into the race, I expect a strong effort with a Roush Fenway Racing team that could benefit from the new package. Teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. showed well at Daytona and the Fords appear to have not skipped a beat thus far with the new Mustang.
William Byron was a ho-hum 18th in his Atlanta debut last year. But the team won the pole at the Daytona 500 and has been boosted this offseason by new crew chief Chad Knaus. Chances are new rules will put Knaus in position to capitalize on his mechanical experience and that can only help Byron, walking around in 2019 with a new boost of confidence.
If you’re scratching your head so far, thinking some of these are unconventional picks the answer is: absolutely! With an unpredictable package, now is the time to stick your neck out and try something to see if your roster can inch above the pack.
Two lower-tier guys I really like are Matt DiBenedetto and David Ragan. DiBenedetto hasn’t run well at Atlanta throughout his career; his best run is just 28th in three starts. But remember, this man led the most laps in last week’s 500 and overachieved with a team that has close ties to Joe Gibbs Racing. There may be some more early speed in this Leavine Family Racing team than we thought; the No. 95 team was also a respectable 21st in this Atlanta race last year with Kasey Kahne.
As for Ragan, he’s run 23rd the last two years with Front Row Motorsports. But once again, the new package offers an opportunity for drivers like him to move up the pack. I’d also keep my eye on rookie Ryan Preece, who had an impressive top-10 effort in Daytona with JTG-Daugherty Racing. If he runs well in qualifying, I’d pick him up.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick tops the Atlanta charts with 4/1 odds, according to CBS Sportsline. Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are next in line with 6/1.
A great longshot bet? How about Jimmie Johnson with 25/1 odds. A new crew chief may bring out some old magic in the seven-time champ.
What I Think
I’ll say Kevin Harvick wins his second straight race at Atlanta. But don’t be fooled by me picking the favorite. I expect an unpredictable 500 miles and some unfamiliar names inside the top 5.
— 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.