As NASCAR heads back to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Quaker State 400 this weekend, its first race of 2021 was a reminder of how, once upon a time, someone knew how to beat Kyle Larson down the stretch at an intermediate track. Back in March, Ryan Blaney used lapped traffic to sneak past Larson and lead the last nine laps at this 1.54-mile quad-oval, handing Ford their fifth straight victory at AMS.
Here’s the problem: Blaney hasn’t won since. The Blue Ovals have been feeling blue for some time now, going 10 straight races without a Cup Series victory while slipping into a distant third in the manufacturer’s race. One of their top programs, Stewart-Haas Racing, sits winless one year after Kevin Harvick torched the series for a career-high nine victories. Barring a miracle, SHR will send just one driver to the NASCAR playoffs (Harvick) three years after planting four inside the Round of 8.
That leaves Ford’s hopes almost exclusively in the hands of Blaney’s Team Penske operation. The three-car team of Blaney, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski went on a run in the spring, winning three times in a five-race stretch. But they sit winless since Talladega Superspeedway at the end of April, watching Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports program run circles around the rest of the competition.
“The last couple months for us probably haven’t been the smoothest as far as needing a little bit of overall speed,” Blaney said. “You go through those rough patches during your season and you just hope to clean them up by playoff time.”
It hasn’t helped to have a circus-like atmosphere of distractions, rare for a team known for its professionalism and driver longevity. Keselowski has all but announced his departure for 2022, moving on to become a part-owner at Roush Fenway Racing. Blaney’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, announced his retirement after the season. Speculation’s run wild on Penske’s replacement and whether the Team President’s son, Austin Cindric, will take over the No. 2 car or replace a struggling Matt DiBenedetto at Penske’s satellite program, the Wood Brothers.
It’s created an outside appearance the team is struggling to keep its act together. That’s where AMS becomes a real test. Larson has been dominant at this track type, leading 84 percent of all laps run at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Nashville Superspeedway. His victories at those tracks were by an average of over seven seconds.
Kyle Busch has had the speed lately to run with the HMS pack, scoring a victory at Pocono Raceway in June and running third to Chase Elliott at Road America last weekend. But Ford remains hard-pressed to find its own challenger, failing to put a single driver inside the top 5 at Road America.
That’s where Blaney steps in, the Blue Oval crowd’s top 20-something talent at the Cup level. In five full-time seasons, he’s never won more than a single race per year. Sweeping AMS would work wonders in rebuilding confidence for a Penske program getting outhandled and outmotored for three solid months.
“This weekend will be a really good idea to see where we stack up,” Blaney said. “Going back to a place where we won at and was really competitive – to kind of see where we stack up now with us probably thinking we need a little bit of speed.”
Can Blaney, Joey Logano or another Ford driver step into the void? Or will HMS, after seven wins in the last eight races, continue to drive off into the sunset?
Quaker State 400
Date: Sunday, July 11
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway (Hampton, Ga.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Chase Elliott
There’s no better medicine for Elliott after a rough month of June than his favorite track type: road courses. Cruising to victory at Road America July 4, the first Cup race at the track in 65 years, Elliott now has posted seven of his 13 career wins at this track type. Only Jeff Gordon (9) and Tony Stewart (8) have more career victories on road courses in NASCAR history.
The key for Elliott is everywhere else: he’s led just 67 laps on ovals this season. But with the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL a playoff race, it feels like he’ll automatically punch a ticket into the Round of 8.
Who’s at the Back: Ty Dillon
Cutting back to a part-time schedule this season, Dillon has just a handful of opportunities to shine. The hope was driving for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series would rebuild his confidence, translating into the handful of Cup starts he has for Gaunt Brothers Racing.
It hasn’t happened. Dillon was 26th at Road America, his worst finish of the year for GBR. In nine combined NASCAR starts this year, he has just one top-10 finish. Remember, that includes NXS equipment that’s won multiple times with Kyle Busch and Ty Gibbs.
This weekend’s races will be the last before Atlanta Motor Speedway undergoes a major overhaul. The track will be repaved for the first time since 1997 while the banking in the turns will be increased, from 24 to 28 degrees. The plan also includes a narrowing of a racing surface known for multiple grooves. The width of the turns will shrink as much as 15 feet, from 55 to 40 as AMS looks to provide more exciting racing.
The SRX Series snatched up a big name for its season finale next week at the Nashville Fairgrounds. Chase Elliott will race against his father, Bill, in the new All-Star Racing series, joining Hailie Deegan to fill out the 12-driver field. The Saturday night, primetime series on CBS has featured legends like four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart.
USA Network announced it will air an eight-part Cup Series documentary on the NASCAR playoffs. The new content, which will run in 2022, is the first of what will be many shifts to USA for NASCAR coverage once NBCSN signs off for good later this year.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Average finish of Chip Ganassi Racing’s two drivers (Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain) after learning their team would be sold to Trackhouse Racing at the end of the 2021 season.
Cautions in three of the last six races, including this past Sunday at Road America. That’s the fewest in the Cup Series this season as races have tilted toward long green-flag runs.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Larson is a blessing and a curse when it comes to your daily fantasy roster. The Good: he’s going to score you a lot of points. The Bad: he’s so expensive it limits your ability to balance a team out.
In the end, I think you need to ride the hot hand until it cools off. Consider Larson has seven top-two finishes in his last nine starts, including those impressive wins at Charlotte and Nashville. He led 269 laps at Atlanta in March before finishing second. And a rare sixth-place starting spot offers position differential points! It’s hard to win without him at this stage.
If you’re looking to build without Larson, Kevin Harvick is a solid alternative. A 10th-place finish in March was his worst at AMS since 2014. In between, he’s scored two victories and led a whopping 1,111 laps.
Austin Dillon is in solid position for a playoff spot with Richard Childress Racing (+98). Atlanta offers him an opportunity to close the deal. With runs of 11th and sixth in his last two starts at the track, Dillon’s figuring out the configuration at the right time. A surprising 11th-place run at Road America, his best on a road course, provides unexpected momentum entering the weekend.
It’s now or never for Chris Buescher with a playoff bid at Roush Fenway Racing slipping away. Buescher has fallen 25 points behind the cutline and Kurt Busch after five straight races without a top-15 finish. Atlanta is one of his better tracks, a place he’s scored top-10 finishes with two different teams in his last three starts. The No. 17 Ford needs to start punching back before Busch TKO’s him on the mat for good.
Aric Almirola has shown signs of life the past month after a catastrophic start to 2021. The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran was fourth at Nashville, the most recent intermediate track, and scored an eighth-place result at Atlanta back in 2019. A middling, 20th-place starting spot means position differential points as an added bonus.
Daniel Suarez will be motivated after mechanical problems derailed him at Road America. There’s no margin for error now with Trackhouse Racing’s No. 99 team if they want to contend for a postseason berth. A 17th-place finish at AMS in March combined with a 27th-place starting spot portends plenty of upside for your roster.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson has impressive 11/4 odds to win this weekend according to vegasinsider.com. The next drivers up, Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch, could do no better than 8/1.
In the longshot category, Austin Dillon is sitting at a reasonable 50/1. You could do worse than a driver who has a previous win on this track type.
What I Think
How can you bet against Kyle Larson? Hard to see the Hendrick train being stopped anytime soon with focus shifting to the Next Gen car.
— 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.