Atlanta Motor Speedway’s new pavement produced a new style of racing in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series. Back in March, the sport tried a pack racing-style rules package on the 1.5-mile oval, mirroring Daytona and Talladega. For now, it’s been labeled a temporary fix while drivers break in the new asphalt on this reconfigured racetrack.
A season-high 46 lead changes later, the adjustment at Atlanta was deemed a success, part of NASCAR’s strong start to the year. While the sport’s Next Gen chassis has been at its best on intermediate tracks, concerns about speed and lack of tire wear have them running the same pack racing style in Sunday’s Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart.
But running in packs here produces a different type of challenge than the three, sometimes four-abreast racing at the larger superspeedways. The size of the track plus the length of the corners make it more difficult to sustain more racing lines, meaning pushing through the pack requires more precision – like a chess move on steroids.
“Things just happen a lot faster,” explains Kevin Harvick. “So the decisions have to happen faster, the cars move around a lot more, the corners come up a lot quicker. A lot more just seat-of-your-pants, just ‘Go here, go there, do this, do that.’”
“We’re zipping around a mile-and-a-half at really high speeds,” Tyler Reddick adds, “Running upper 180s (miles per hour) for the entire lap. Not a lot of rest down the straightaways and the corners are so long and all the aggressive pack racing that we had really drains you mentally.”
The good news for drivers looking to sneak into the playoffs is Atlanta’s pack racing setup could provide an opportunity for a surprise winner. And win-or-bust looks to be the scenario for an increasing number of drivers like Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Michael McDowell and Bubba Wallace who are too far behind on points to make the playoffs otherwise.
Also, like Daytona and Talladega, major wrecks littered the Atlanta landscape here and turned several contenders into innocent victims. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Kyle Busch and Reddick are just some of the drivers looking for full resets as the March race featured 11 caution flags – the most for a 500-mile event at AMS since 2010. The fact the July race is 100 miles shorter will only heighten the aggression we’ll see.
With that said, qualifying getting washed out puts the heavyweights out front. Points leader Chase Elliott starts from the pole and has never won at his hometown track. Ross Chastain starts alongside, the last Cup pack race winner with a thrilling last-lap pass at Talladega Superspeedway.
Can NASCAR’s two biggest stars of the season stay out front? Or are we destined to have another shock winner in a season filled with unpredictability?
Either way, don’t expect the current package at Atlanta to go anywhere anytime soon. Especially with the Next Gen struggling on short tracks and road courses, the last thing NASCAR needs is to mess up a track where the new car is racing well.
Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart
Date: Sunday, July 10
Time: 3:00 p.m. ET
Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway (Hampton, Ga.)
TV: USA Network
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Tyler Reddick
Reddick tied a record by becoming the fifth first-time winner in the NASCAR Cup Series this season, fighting past road course ace Chase Elliott in the final stage at Road America and cruising to a comfortable 3.3-second win.
It snapped a year of “almosts” for a Richard Childress Racing driver who’s had near misses at so many races this season. The No. 8 team has now transitioned from bubble organization toward taking the next steps when the playoffs come around in September.
“We don’t just want to get in,” said team owner Richard Childress. “We talk about being a contender for the championship… I truly think that we will be a contender for the championship when we get into it.”
Who's at the Back: Loris Hezemans
Why bring attention to a small team just looking to make their way on the Cup circuit? Hezeman’s last-place finish at Road America (fuel pump issues) is his second DNF in as many races with the new Team Hezeberg No. 27. The unchartered program is running a limited schedule in hopes of joining the series on a full-time basis in 2023 and beyond.
Problem is, Hezemans and this team are just one example of how some of the new, part-time efforts are struggling in 2022. Kaz Grala and Floyd Mayweather’s effort finished their last race together (Charlotte) some 13 laps off the pace.
At least they made it to a track? Those are the only two extra cars, period, to show up since the end of April in Cup as supply chain issues and parts shortages hamper new organizations from getting off the ground.
Noah Gragson received a 30-point penalty in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and was fined $35,000 this week for his actions at Road America. Gragson intentionally made contact with Sage Karam’s No. 45 in that race, causing a major incident that collected around a dozen cars. “Learning how to keep emotions in check,” said his JR Motorsports team in response, “Is all part of the learning experience.”
A Chicago street course is looking increasingly likely for the 2023 Cup schedule. The Athletic is reporting a potential three-year deal is on the table for a new event in the Windy City with an announcement planned for July 19.
Christopher Bell and Bubba Wallace are swapping pit crew members starting this weekend at Atlanta. There were changes made to the front tire carrier and changer for both teams while the rear tire changer was adjusted on Bell’s car. Both teams are winless and struggling to make the playoffs this season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Total cautions thrown at Road America last weekend, both for stage breaks. It was the first Cup race this season to run without a caution for cause (engine, crash, etc.).
Average finishing position of Michael McDowell halfway through the season. That’s nearly four positions better than the 2021 Daytona 500 winner’s previous career high (20.5).
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
You need to look at Atlanta like Daytona or Talladega: anyone can work their way through the field. That said, keep an eye on Hendrick Motorsports. While Ross Chastain won the last pack race at Talladega, William Byron and Kyle Larson combined to lead 70 laps there. Chase Elliott starts on the pole and is due for a pack race win: his last came way back in the spring of 2019 (Talladega). And Alex Bowman has snuck through for two consecutive top-10 finishes at pack events after a disappointing Daytona 500.
Don’t like Hendrick? How about Ryan Blaney, who’s led 74 laps in three pack races this year but failed to cash in. The pressure for him to win is growing with the number of winners on the Cup circuit and Blaney has the speed to do it; Team Penske already has a pack win this season with teammate Austin Cindric (Daytona 500).
Now that Tyler Reddick has made the playoffs, the pressure increases on RCR teammate Austin Dillon. Dillon, the 2018 Daytona 500 winner, is a pack race specialist and looks at this weekend as one of his best chances to make the playoffs himself. Coming oh-so-close at Talladega in April (second), both the speed and experience is there for him to take it one step further. And a 26th-place starting spot could lead to a flurry of position differential bonus points.
The last time we saw Erik Jones at a pack race, he was leading heading to the white flag at Talladega before misjudging some blocks on the final lap. Jones understands the need for his No. 43 team to win and Richard Petty-owned teams often put more emphasis on these types of pack races. Like Dillon, starting 25th also offers a position differential opportunity.
At Atlanta in March, Corey LaJoie snuck through for a fifth-place finish, a career best with a Spire Motorsports team who knows pack races are their only chance to contend on a regular basis. Can LaJoie somehow become a sixth first-time winner? It won’t be easy. But even another top-10 finish would lead to a giant roster bonus for an inexpensive driver who starts way back in 30th position.
Todd Gilliland? Yes, I’m talking that Front Row Motorsports rookie. Everyone will be hopping on the Michael McDowell bandwagon with the latter’s pack racing success. McDowell also has seven top-10 finishes this season, a career high.
But Gilliland may actually be the better play despite failing to finish any of the three pack races to date. At some point, luck needs to turn his way and the No. 38 team has quietly shown its own consistency, logging laps with their freshman to the tune of seven straight top-25 finishes.
What Vegas Thinks
Like most pack races, vegasinsider.com has a crowded field at the top. Ross Chastain, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott are sitting at +1000 to win the Quaker State 400 followed by six drivers at +1200. There’s no better example to show how these pack races are the most unpredictable on the Cup circuit.
Looking for a longshot in the madness? Corey LaJoie is +25000 if you believe in another first-time winner.
What I Think
I’m going out on a limb and saying Richard Childress Racing goes back-to-back with Austin Dillon winning his first race of the year. 14 different winners will put more pressure on heavyweights like Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. who haven’t gotten to victory lane yet this season.
— 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.