Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – HAMPTON, GA – This weekend marks the first repeat track visit of the 2022 season for the NASCAR Cup Series with the highly anticipated Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Hendrick Motorsports’ driver William Byron won the first race at the newly reconfigured 1.54-mile Atlanta oval back in March – a race that featured track records in number of race leaders (20), lead changes (46) and green flag passes for the lead (141). Kurt Busch is the defending race winner, taking his victory last year before the track remodel.
And with eight races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field, the building intensity is palpable.
Last week Tyler Reddick became the season’s fifth first-time NASCAR Cup Series winner – tying the record for new winners in a season in the Modern Era (1972-2022) – taking the victory over the road course master and series driver standings leader Chase Elliott at Wisconsin’s Road America.
This week the competition returns to Elliott’s “home track” outside Atlanta and the question is quickly becoming, ‘how many winners will the 2022 season feature?’ The number is currently at 13 race winners with only 16 drivers advancing to the Playoffs in September. And there are notably still a handful of former champions and perennial winners still looking for a shot to earn that automatic Playoff nod.
Interestingly, there are eight 2021 race winners – Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Aric Almirola, A.J. Allmendinger and Bubba Wallace – still looking for their first victory of 2022.
Three former series champions Truex, Keselowski and Kevin Harvick are among those without a win, as is Blaney, who is currently ranked second in the driver standings with a 112-point cushion inside the top 16.
Truex holds a 61-point advantage above the postseason cutline, but Harvick actually fell out of Playoff eligibility in the standings after Reddick’s win last week. Harvick trails Bell by 20 points for that final Playoff transfer position should he not earn an automatic berth with a win.
Kurt Busch is the winningest active driver at Atlanta with four wins. Harvick is next with three – scoring his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory at Atlanta in 2001. It was an emotional triumph in the weeks after he took over the Richard Childress Racing car for NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Keselowski and Kyle Busch, each have two wins at Atlanta with Byron, Blaney and Denny Hamlin having earned a trophy too.
Harvick, who was best in multiple statistical categories at Atlanta before the recent track modifications, said he’s still trying to get a handle on the new layout which includes higher banking, a narrower track surface and new asphalt.
“It’s just a superspeedway now on a mile-and-a-half racetrack,” said Harvick, who drives the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “Things just happen a lot faster, so the decisions have to happen faster, the cars move around a lot more, the corners come up a lot quicker. A lot more seat-of-your pants, just ‘go here, go there, do this and do that. I think the way the lines formed and moved, and everything happened, you just had to get used to a different style of race than we’ve had before.”
There won’t be any practice this week. Busch Light Pole Qualifying – two rounds of single-car runs – is scheduled for 11:35 a.m. ET on Saturday. Qualifying will air live on the NBC Sports App at 11:30 a.m. and then on the USA Network at noon ET.
Xfinity Series prepares for some high-speed action at Atlanta
The NASCAR Xfinity Series moves from a road course to the heart of the schedule with Saturday afternoon’s Alsco Uniforms 250 (5 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the high-speed Atlanta Motor Speedway 1.5-miler.
And thanks to Ty Gibbs dramatic overtime pass for victory last week at Wisconsin’s Road America, he becomes the youngest driver (19 years, eight months, four weeks) to score eight career Xfinity Series wins and his work certainly makes the Regular Season Championship standings closer than ever.
Only nine points now separate the four-race 2022 winner Gibbs from current driver standings leader and veteran A.J. Allmendinger, a two-race winner.
The two drivers played prominent roles the last time the series raced in Atlanta this Spring. Gibbs led only one lap on the day – the last lap – in a multiple-overtime finish to claim his second win of the year. Allmendinger led a race best 41 laps and finished third.
Three of the last four Atlanta race winners are fulltime Xfinity Series drivers – Allmendinger (2020), Allgaier (2021) and Gibbs (2022) – the lone exception in that time is defending race winner Kyle Busch, who is not entered this weekend.
Ten regular season races is still a lot of time to shape and re-shape the championship contention. The top three drivers – Kaulig Racing’s Allmendinger, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Gibbs, and JR Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier (-34) are still very much in the hunt for the regular season title.
Allgaier’s JRM teammate Noah Gragson was only 39 points out of the driver standings lead before receiving a 30-point, $35,000 penalty on Wednesday afternoon for “behavioral” infractions racing at Road America.
On the other end of the standings – Ryan Sieg holds the 12th and final transfer position with a solid 82-point edge on 13th place Anthony Alfredo.
The wild card in all this may be the good possibility for new winners.
Certainly, former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champions Brett Moffitt and Sheldon Creed along with former Xfinity Series race winner Myatt Snider are easily favorites to earn a trophy in 2022 and vault into Playoff contention. Seven of the current 12 Playoff contenders have wins.
Both Moffitt and Creed, however, currently have as many DNFs as top-10 finishes – four for Moffitt and six for Creed. Snider has one top-five finish, four top 10s and three DNFs.
There are no practices scheduled for this return trip to Atlanta Motor Speedway. A two-round qualifying session is slated for 10:05 a.m. on Saturday morning and will be streamed on the NBC Sports App.
Camping World Truck Series heads to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the first-time
NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series makes its Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course debut in this weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 150 at Mid-Ohio (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – the third and final road course event of the season.
Current championship leader Zane Smith won the first road course race of the year at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas (COTA) and NASCAR Cup Series regular Kyle Busch took the trophy more recently at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, with Smith finishing runner-up.
NASCAR held eight Xfinity Series races at Mid-Ohio, as recently as last season. This weekend one of those winners, Trackhouse Racing team owner Justin Marks will compete again at the 2.258-mile, 15-turn circuit in Lexington, Ohio.
Saturday’s race marks the final leg in the annual Triple Truck Challenge incentive program. Corey Heim, who is making selected 2022 starts for Kyle Busch Motorsports, can pocket an extra $150,000 should he match his win at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway back in Junes with a victory at Mid-Ohio. Any other driver to win would take an extra $50,000 as part of the popular program.
With only two races remaining to set the 10-driver Camping World Truck Series Playoff field, Smith leads all championship-eligible drivers with three race wins and 12 top 10s in 14 races – and holds a 21-point advantage on John Hunter Nemechek in the standings. The Regular Season Championship concludes July 23 at Pocono, Pa. with the top-10 drivers earning Playoff eligibility.
Only 53 points separate the top six drivers in the standings. Ben Rhodes, the 2021 series champion, is currently in third place, 30 points behind Smith.
Zane Smith, Nemechek and Rhodes all have previous road course wins. Smith has the win (COTA) and runner-up (Sonoma) this year. Nemechek was runner-up at COTA this year and won at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in 2016. And Rhodes won on the Daytona Road Course last season.
There is an hour-long practice session Friday morning followed by two rounds of Cometic Gaskets Pole Qualifying at 3:35 p.m. ET.