Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – HAMPTON, GA – It’s crunch time for the Playoffs as the NASCAR Cup Series heads to a free-for-all at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the form of Sunday’s Quaker State 400 Available at Walmart (7 p.m. ET on USA, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Eleven drivers are all but assured of qualifying for the postseason based on victories in the first 18 races of the regular season.
Kevin Harvick (151 points above the Playoff cut line), Chris Buescher (+104) and Brad Keselowski (+91)—currently 12th, 13th and 14th, respectively in the Playoff standings—all seem comfortably situated, barring a spate of new winners in the next eight races.
Beyond that, however, the field is tightly packed. Bubba Wallace is 15 points to the good in 15th, and Ty Gibbs is six points above the cut line in 16th, the last Playoff-eligible position. Gibbs gained 16 points and moved up two spots on the Playoff grid with his ninth-place finish in the inaugural Chicago Street Race last Sunday.
Drivers in the 17th through 25th positions all are within striking distance, with 24th-place Chase Elliott 55 points out of a Playoff spot and 25th-place Ryan Preece 66 points in arrears.
Given the superspeedway competition package in use for Sunday’s race on recently repaved Atlanta Motor Speedway, the universe of potential winners—and hence, potential Playoff qualifiers—is expanded, at least according to conventional wisdom.
Wallace, for example, expressed confidence in his No. 23 team, despite four straight finishes of 15th or worse following his fourth-place run in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May.
“These last few races haven’t gone really well, and it wasn’t because we were looking at points,” said Wallace, who has three career second-place finishes at Daytona to his credit. “We just haven’t executed. We know the situation that we’re in, and we know we’re right there on the cusp of our first win of the season.
“We’ve just got to put it all together… We’ve just got to regroup. Our team can do it. I believe one thousand percent in this group, and it’s just a matter of time. We’ll be there.”
Elliott is the defending winner of the race, but the 2020 Cup Series champion didn’t compete at Atlanta in March because of a broken leg suffer in a snowboarding accident.
The first 18 races of the season have highlighted the importance of stage racing. Harvick is 151 points above the Playoff cut line in part because he has accumulated 106 stage points, most among currently winless drivers. AJ Allmendinger, on the other hand is 24 points below the line in 19th place in part because he has scored a mere 33 stage points in the first half of the season.
One interesting aspect of the Quaker State 400 is a first for NASCAR—a variable pit road speed. Under green, drivers will be able to run up to 90 mph in the first two sectors of pit road, entering from Turn 3. From the third sector on, pit road speed drops to 45 mph.
Under caution, pit road speed is a constant 45 mph. In addition, one minute will be added to the Damaged Vehicle Policy clock for both the Cup and Xfinity Series. Cup teams will now have eight minutes to effect repairs. Xfinity teams will have seven minutes.
Austin Hill Looks for third straight NASCAR Xfinity win at Atlanta
When contemplating NASCAR Xfinity Series racing at repaved Atlanta Motor Speedway, one name springs to mind—that of Austin Hill.
After all, the driver of the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet will be seeking his third straight victory at the “intermediate superspeedway” in Saturday’s Alsco Uniforms 250 (8 p.m. ET on USA, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Hill already has three wins to his credit this season, two on tracks where drafting and close-quarters racing are the norm—Daytona and Atlanta. The Georgia-born driver also will compete in Sunday’s Quaker State 400 NASCAR Cup Series race in the No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet.
“It’s special to be able to race against the best in the Cup Series, but especially at home,” Hill said. “My expectation for Sunday is a little less than my expectation for the Xfinity side, where I expect nothing short of winning.
“On the Cup side, the goal is to race our way forward from wherever we start, make all the laps, contend, and be there at the end. If we can get inside the top-20 and get experience to see how Cup drivers race, it will go a long way.”
In the Xfinity race, Hill will have to contend with full-time Cup driver Ty Gibbs, who won last year’s spring race at Atlanta before Hill rattled off two straight victories at the track.
There’s a short list of NASCAR Truck Series road course winners at Mid-Ohio
When the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series heads to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Saturday, the list of former road course winners in the field will be exactly two names long.
Reigning Series champion Zane Smith and 2021 title winner Ben Rhodes will try to add to their road course victory totals in Saturday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 150 (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Rhodes won the Daytona Road Course race from the pole in 2021. Smith has scored back-to-back victories at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.
Smith also finished second to Parker Kligerman in last year’s race at Mid-Ohio. Kligerman is not defending his win.
“I love road course racing,” Smith said. “Winning COTA two years in a row was cool, and racing Parker last year for the win (at Mid-Ohio) was fun. I expect another great truck this weekend, and hopefully this time we get the win.”
Another short list is the number of CRAFTSMAN Truck Series races left before the Playoff field is set—three.
Six drivers already have clinched berths with victories: Smith, Rhodes, Christian Eckes, Carson Hocevar, series leader Corey Heim and Grant Enfinger.
That leaves four spots available. Ty Majeski, 86 points above the cutoff, is well-positioned, but eighth-place Matt DiBenedetto is just 14 points to the good, with Matt Crafton 10 points above the line and Nick Sanchez holding a six-point edge over Stewart Friesen for the final Playoff-eligible position.