Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – ATLANTA, GA – NASCAR Cup Series drivers and teams arrive at Atlanta Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (3 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) fresh off a typically dramatic 500-lapper at the Bristol, Tenn. short track – full of all the emotions and urgency you would expect of a revised schedule that features three premier races in a 10-day stretch.
Settled in between a pair of short track events at Bristol (last week) and Martinsville, Va. (next week) in a week-and-a-half span, the potential for high drama at Atlanta this weekend is real, the competitive edge, palpable.
Defending Atlanta race winner Brad Keselowski shows up as the most recent series victor, earning the Bristol win last weekend in a race whose ending was so unpredictable that the Team Penske driver joked that he should consider playing the lottery after his winner’s press conference.
Keselowski motored on to the Bristol win after leader Denny Hamlin, who led a race high 131 laps, crashed with five laps remaining and then with three laps to go, Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano and Chase Elliott collided while dueling for the lead. All the action up front essentially left Keselowski in the cat-bird seat to hold the point for the last three laps and take his second victory in the last three races in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford.
This weekend’s 1.5-mile high banks in Atlanta, however, present a vastly different challenge from the Bristol half-miler. Only six drivers in the field have ever won a NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta before – Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Among those – Harvick, Keselowski, Johnson, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch are all multi-time winners. Johnson’s five wins – twice back-to-back races (2007 sweep and 2015-2016) – are most among active drivers. And his 28 wins on 1.5-mile tracks are a series high.
An 11th-place at Bristol marked the his first finish outside the top-10 for Harvick on the season, however he still holds a 24-point edge over Logano in the championship standings. Atlanta is where Harvick scored his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory in an emotional drive for Richard Childress Racing after taking the seat for Dale Earnhardt following his death in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500.
Georgia native Chase Elliott is third in the championship, 45 points behind Harvick. Keselowski is fourth and Alex Bowman is fifth.
Although not yet in the thick of the regular season championship standings, Joe Gibbs Racing has shown marked improvement from an unusually overall slow start to the season. Last year the JGR Toyota team won a modern day record 19 of the 36 races – all four of its drivers hoisting trophies in 2019. But this season, it’s been a slow and steady rebound from a few rough early races.
Martin Truex Jr. is now ranked sixth in points, Hamlin (a two-race winner) is seventh and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch is ninth. Erik Jones is 14th. None of them were ranked among the championship top 10 after the Phoenix race in March – the last race before the series took a two-month break for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among them, Kyle Busch won at Atlanta in 2008 (the first Toyota win at the track) and 2013 and Hamlin’s only victory was 2012. Truex finished runner-up to Keselowski last year by .218-seconds and has finished eighth or better in seven of the last eight Atlanta races.
Four of the top-six ranked drivers have never won at Atlanta. For third place Elliott, it’s an especially important venue as it’s the Dawsonville, Ga. native’s home track. He’s certainly established himself a driver to beat since the sport resumed competition. His 6.75 average running position since the May 17 return is best in the series and he’s led laps in four of the five races in that time.
“The track hasn’t changed a ton these past few years,” Elliott said. “It has a lot of wear to it, a lot of character and a lot of bumps. There is a fine line of getting your car right. I’m excited about that.
“As a team we’ve had a lot of dialogue in trying to get our NAPA Chevrolet dialed in without having any practice, which is tough. I have a lot of confidence in my guys being able to get us close and giving us enough adjustability to where if we do miss it, one way or the other we can work on it throughout the race. I’m just looking forward to the race, obviously it’s my home track and any time you go to your home track, you want to be good.”
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES
The NASCAR Xfinity Series arrives at Atlanta Motor Speedway for Saturday’s EchoPark 250 (4:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) fresh off yet another dramatic finish on the season – this time featuring JR Motorsports teammates Noah Gragson and Justin Allgaier.
The second-year Xfinity Series driver and the veteran Allgaier made hard contact in the final laps at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway last weekend with Gragson making an aggressive pass on Allgaier to claim the victory. It was one of several high profile, high action incidents involving those drivers ranked highest in the Xfinity Series driver standings and certainly raises expectations for a busy Saturday afternoon on the Atlanta 1.5-miler.
Throw in the opening race of the four-stop Dash 4 Cash incentive – Gragson, Chase Briscoe, Brandon Jones and Harrison Burton qualified at Bristol – and the motivation is at a season-high pitch. Whichever of those four drivers finishes best, receives a $100,000 bonus and the chance to raise for another $100,000 on June 13 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
None of the 2020 series regulars have won at Atlanta previously. The last time a fulltime Xfinity Series driver to win, however, was last year when Christopher Bell dominated the field leading 142 of 163 laps and edging fellow 2020 NASCAR Cup Series rookie Cole Custer by .191-seconds.
Among this year’s championship contenders, Allgaier was tops finishing third just behind Custer. It was his best career finish and his fifth top-10 in the last seven Atlanta races. His teammate Gragson has only one Xfinity Series start at Atlanta finishing ninth last year. He was runner-up in the 2018 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at the track.
While the pair’s JR Motorsports team acknowledged and anticipated a tougher-than-normal post-race team meeting this past week, expectations were they will put the differences aside come green flag.
“Justin [Allgaier], he slipped up in one and two when I was running him down and that allowed me to get inside of him and I wouldn’t have gotten to him if he didn’t slip up,” Gragson said of the Bristol incident. “Got into him the next corner, down in [turns] one and two, just got loose underneath him. We saw that yesterday (in the Bristol NASCAR Cup Series race).
“I don’t make excuses. I take responsibility so I apologize to the seven-car [Allgaier] but I’m here to win races and I’m here for the No. 9 team. They put in way too much effort for me to ride around and finish second. I’ve always been a really aggressive driver and really thankful and fortunate to race in the Xfinity Series.”
Gragson said he did see Allgaier briefly after the race.
“I saw him and he said ‘I’ll talk to you later,’ we are a family over at JR Motorsports,” Gragson said, acknowledging, “He probably owes me one.”
It was an eventful night for most of the series highest-ranked drivers. Other than Briscoe, whose runner-up finish to Gragson maintained his top position in the championship, the next five drivers in the standings changed positions following the Bristol race. Gragson had the biggest gain moving from fifth to second, only nine points behind Briscoe heading to Atlanta.
Austin Cindric, who had been second in points fell to sixth and is now 56 points off Briscoe’s pace after an early race accident also involving Ross Chastain, who fell from third to fifth in the championship, 52 points back. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has top-10 finishes in both his previous Atlanta starts. His seventh-place finish in 2018 was his career first top 10 in the series. He has 42 now.
Burton, whose fourth-place finish at Bristol moved him into third place in the championship (26 points back), will be making his Xfinity Series Atlanta debut. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota started second and finished eighth in his only NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at the track last year. And the Burton family does bring some positive history to Atlanta – Burton’s father Jeff won back-to-back Xfinity Series races in 2006-07 and his uncle Ward Burton won the 1993 Xfinity race at the track.
Joe Nemechek is the only driver entered this week with a previous victory at Atlanta (2001). Briscoe, driver of the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, has finished 15th in both his previous Atlanta starts and has never led a lap.
“I feel like our HighPoint.com Ford Mustang has been really good on the mile-and-a-halfs,” Briscoe said. “You throw in a slick mile-and-a-half like Atlanta, and that’s our bread-and-butter and where our program is the best.
“Both Atlanta and Homestead fall into that category so those are going to be two really good racetracks for us. It would be great to capitalize on that with the extra $100,000 [Dash 4 Cash] that’s up for grabs, but Atlanta is definitely a driver’s track.
“Hopefully, it’s 100 degrees outside and we can move up to the wall and just be slipping and sliding. I feel like that’s when my dirt background comes into play the most, so hopefully that’s what we’ll have and we can just put on another good race,” said Briscoe.
NASCAR GANDER RV & OUTDOORS TRUCK SERIES
The NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series returns to competition for a much-anticipated NASCAR Doubleheader on Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Vet Tix Camping World 200 (1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) opens an afternoon of racing capped off by the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at 4:30 p.m. ET. The championship standings are close and there is plenty of opportunity for some of the drivers to begin separating themselves among the competition.
Austin Hill holds a 17-point advantage over Johnny Sauter and Zane Smith atop the championship standings. Ben Rhodes is fourth, 21 points back, followed by 2018 series champion Brett Moffitt 22 points off the pace. Sheldon Creed is sixth, 30 points back. The only NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series fulltime championship competitor to win this year, Grant Enfinger (Daytona), is seventh, 39 points off the pace.
This is the Georgia native Hill’s home track and with three top-10 finishes in the season’s opening three races he would love to earn his first top five – or better yet, first victory – in his family’s backyard. His average finish of 6.0 in 2020 is a career high mark and the driver of the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota has scored points in five of six possible stages so far. Not only does he lead the championship standings, through three races, his 106.5 driver rating is the top mark as is his 351 of 375 laps run among the top-15. He finished ninth at Charlotte last weekend and has a streak of eight consecutive top-10 finishes at 1.5-mile tracks such as Atlanta.
“Racing at home is always special and with as good as we’ve been on the intermediates and to start the year, we definitely have a good opportunity in front of us this weekend,” Hill said, adding, “We’ve done a good job so far this year at getting stage points and being consistent each week. We just need to put the entire afternoon together to contend for a win an Atlanta would be the perfect place to do it.”
Defending race winner Kyle Busch and last week’s Charlotte Truck race winner Chase Elliott are both entered this weekend too. Busch leads all drivers with five Atlanta victories and is the only competitor to score back-to-back wins here (2007-08). He led 92 of the 130 laps to beat Sauter last year by .932-second. Rhodes was the only other driver to lead double-digit laps in 2019 – holding the point for 20 laps midway through the race and finishing fifth.
Noticeably absent from the top of the championship leader board through three races in 2020 is defending series champ Matt Crafton, one of only three drivers entered this weekend with a past Atlanta trophy. Crafton, who dominated the 2015 race leading 85 of 130 laps, is currently ranked 11th with only a single top five this season (fourth place at Las Vegas in March). He is coming off a tough 35th-place finish at Charlotte last week, where he led his first laps (six) of the year in the No. 88 ThorSport Ford.
Moffitt won at Atlanta in his 2018 championship season, leading only the two laps of an overtime restart. He scored his first top-10 of the year last week at Charlotte – leading a pair of laps and finishing fourth. He has two top-five finishes at Atlanta, answering his 2018 victory with a fourth place here last year.
Enfinger, who won the 2019 regular season championship and led the standings for 15 of the opening 18 races, crashed out at Las Vegas in March and rallied to a 12th-place finish last weekend in Charlotte. His single stage victory is the only stage win among fulltime truck drivers this season. He has four top-10 finishes in four starts at Atlanta, including his best effort of third last year.
Another preseason title favorite, Stewart Friesen, who joined Crafton, Moffitt and Ross Chastain in the Championship Four last season, is off to a bit of a slower start. The 36-year old Canadian has only one top 10 – a ninth place at Las Vegas and finished 30th last week at Charlotte. His only laps led are a 13-lap run up front at Daytona, where started 28th and finished 21st.