Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – HAMPTON, GA – On Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, William Byron will attempt to put his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in Victory Lane in a third straight race when he takes the green flag in the Ambetter Health 400 (3 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The No. 24 Chevy hasn’t won three consecutive races since Jeff Gordon accomplished the feat in 1998, on the way to his third NASCAR Cup Series championship. In fact, Gordon won four straight events that year—at Pocono, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen and Michigan.
The last driver to win three straight races in the Cup Series is Byron’s teammate Kyle Larson, who strung together a pair of three-race winning streaks on the way to his first series title in 2021.
Byron comes to Atlanta as the defending race winner, having taken the checkered flag last year in the first race at the repaved track using NASCAR’s superspeedway competition package. Byron beat Ross Chastain to the finish line by .145 seconds.
The only negatives overhanging Byron’s bid for a second straight Atlanta win are the penalties levied against all four Hendrick teams for the unauthorized modification of the hood louvers in their cars.
Byron’s crew chief, Rudy Fugle was fined $100,000 and suspended for four races. Though Hendrick is appealing the penalties, Fugle will sit out Sunday’s race at Atlanta.
In addition, Byron lost 100 championship points and 10 of the 13 Playoff points he earned in his victories at Las Vegas and Phoenix. As stiff as those penalties are, they shouldn’t affect Byron’s ability to win in the microcosm of Sunday’s race.
Byron is used to early-season victories. Last year, he won his only two races of the Cup season at Atlanta in March and Martinsville in April in the debut year of NASCAR’s Next Gen car. This season, Byron feels he has a much better handle on the Next Gen.
“Yeah, I mean, I think last year, even though we won early, we didn’t really know the car or understand the car,” Byron said. “We were kind of just adapting to what we had. We were just making the most of an unpredictable situation with the entire field. There was a lot of attrition in the races, a lot of just weird things that were happening.
“I feel like now it’s strength on strength. It feels different. It feels like we’re more consistently towards the front, and we’re leading laps.”
Chevrolet drivers have won the first four races of 2023. Led by Byron and Chastain, Chevrolets took five of the top six positions in last year’s spring Atlanta event. The exception was Kurt Busch, who finished third in a Toyota.
Austin Hill takes torrid starts to Atlanta “superspeedway”
Austin Hill won the NASCAR Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway.
Two weeks later, Hill triumphed on 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
On Saturday, the series leader will try for his third victory of the season on a 1.5-mile track that thinks it’s a superspeedway in the nightcap of a NASCAR doubleheader, the Raptor King of Tough 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (5 p.m. on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Fresh pavement applied before last year’s races radically changed the character of the Atlanta track, transforming it from a slip-and-slide 1.5-miler to a venue that behaves more like a superspeedway, where cars draft in precariously close quarters.
That’s a bonus for Hill, the defending race winner who has claimed three of his four career Xfinity victories on tracks that feature a superspeedway competition package.
The driver of the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet will have some stiff competition. Full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver Justin Haley, a four-time Xfinity winner on superspeedways, is moonlighting in the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet this Saturday.
“It’s probably my favorite race track right now on the schedule,” Haley said. “It’s just something so different than any other track we go to, with the high speeds and it being an in-between track.”
Driving the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, John Hunter Nemechek also should be a contender on Saturday. He has started the season with four straight finishes of sixth or better, including a victory at Fontana and a second at Daytona.
Zane Smith looks to continue CRAFTSMAN Truck Series dominance
NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series champion Zane Smith couldn’t have asked for a better start to his title defense.
For the second straight year, Smith won the season opener at Daytona. The driver of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford finished second at Las Vegas—to Truck Series career victory leader Kyle Busch, no less—to claim the series lead.
Now Smith comes to a track where his drafting skills should stand him in good stead in Saturday’s Fr8 208 (2 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Smith, however, will have to beat defending race winner Corey Heim and TRICON Garage Toyota teammate John Hunter Nemechek, who is running both Saturday races.
Take it with a grain of salt, given the recent changes to the track, but Toyota drivers have won five of the last six Atlanta races, including last year’s on the repaved surface.
The exception to the recent Toyota dominance is Grant Enfinger, who won in a Ford in 2020—the only time a Ford driver has triumphed in 21 Truck Series races at Atlanta. Enfinger is behind the wheel of the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet this year.
“Atlanta is a lot different since the reconfiguration,” Enfinger said. “It races more like a superspeedway, rather than a conventional mile-and-a-half track. With the banking and newer asphalt, we will all have a lot of grip, which provides for tight racing. We will have to be aggressive on the track and pit road to position ourselves to be up front for the end.”