Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, GA — March 19, 2023
Atlanta’s NASCAR weekend started with non-stop rain on Friday, Craftsman Truck and Xfinity qualifying were washed away. Both series lined up according to the NASCAR rulebook, and with no idea of what to expect on the track cooled by unseasonably cold weather.
When racing started Saturday afternoon with the FR8 Auctions 208 Truck race, it did not take long for drivers to mix it up on the track. The first of 11 cautions happened when Layne Riggs and Tanner Gray got together on the front stretch.
The race ended after another caution pushed the finish into NASCAR overtime, and Christian Eckes took the yellow and checkered flag simultaneously after a wild final lap that saw trucks slamming the wall and trading paint everywhere around the speedway.
The action continued unabated in the nightcap of the doubleheader as the Xfinity drivers set a new record for cautions at Atlanta with 12 more yellow flags.
In a bizarre incident, Josh Williams was involved in an early crash and suffered significant damage to the front of his car. His crew attempted to repair the vehicle with multiple applications of Bear Bond tape to hold damaged body panels together. Blame it on the weather. Some applications of the repair tape did not stick and flew off the car when it returned to the track.
According to the NASCAR rule book, loss of components after an attempted repair on a race car results in the disqualification of the car and driver. Williams disagreed, and when issued the black flag, he parked his car at the start/finish line, exited the vehicle, and walked to the pits.
After wrecking, NASCAR requires a driver to be examined at the infield care center. Williams was corralled by officials and transported there. After his release, there was no word on if they performed a mental examination; officials escorted him to the Xfinity trailer to await a discussion with series management. NASCAR made no announcement after the counseling session, indicating penalties would be announced during the following week.
During the first two Stages of the race, 31 laps were contested under the green flag. The yellow flag presided over 49 of the first 80 laps run.
The race ended with a demolition derby as the leaders approached the checkered flag.
The Next-Gen Car Returns to Atlanta
Atlanta Motor Speedway’s new configuration produced some stellar racing in last season’s Cup Series event. When the NASCAR Cup Series took to the new high banks of last March, the expectations were really high, and the NASCAR Cup Series delivered.
The race was won by Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, but not before seeing a track record 46 lead changes among a track record 20 different leaders. The race also produced a series record for green flag passes for the lead on 1.5-mile tracks, with 141 green flag passes for the lead (GFPL). The previous record for green flag passes for the lead on a 1.5-mile track in the NASCAR Cup Series was held by Texas Motor Speedway with 57 GFPL.
Atlanta Motor Speedway’s 2022 spring race also produced a NASCAR Cup Series record for total green flag passes on 1.5-mile tracks, with 6,439 total green flag passes. The previous record for total green flag passes on a 1.5-mile track in the NASCAR Cup Series was held by Charlotte Motor Speedway, with 4,520 total green flag passes.
Significant Rule Change for Atlanta
One of the outcomes of the change in track configuration at Atlanta Motor Speedway was the entry to pit road become much more dangerous as drivers dropped on the high banking while trying to slow down to pit road speed. NASCAR recognized the problem and dictated changes for this year’s races at the Speedway.
The commitment line, the spot on the track that drivers must be below in order to enter the pits, was moved to the entrance of turn three. By moving the spot away from the exit of turn four, drivers can move down on the backstretch and slow down, providing a less hectic entrance to pit road.
The caveat to the change? Drivers must slow down to pit road speed once they enter the commitment zone. Slowing down to mph all the way through turns three and four is going to result in giving up a significant amount of track position under green flag stops.
Chase Briscoe, driver of the No. 14 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing, was asked: HOW WILL THE NEW PIT ROAD ENTRY AFFECT THE RACE, AND HAVE YOU RUN ANY SIMULATION WITH THE NEW LAYOUT?
“Yeah, it’s definitely a long, long pit road. I would say under green, it’s for sure gonna change the strategy. If you think about coming down early, as long as you’re gonna be on pit road now, you could easily find yourself three or four laps down, so if you come down in one of the first two packs to pit together and then the caution does come out for whatever reason, you’re gonna be stuck four laps down.”
“You might be able to wave around for one, but you’re not gonna be able to get three, so there’s gonna be a lot of strategy in that from a fuel-saving side to make sure you can be one of the last guys to pit if we do get to that situation, and then under caution. I didn’t really think about it until you asked about it.”
“It’s definitely gonna change a little because normally, if there’s a split decision, the spotter can easily call it out and tell you to stay or come, where being on the back straightaway, he’s not really gonna have a very good visual of that, so it’s gonna kind of be up to the driver. That will change a little bit, even from the yellow side of things, so it’ll be interesting for sure to have it in turn three. It’s gonna make it more challenging and add a lot more complexion to it, so it’ll be fun to watch.”
A pit road speeding penalty today will be catastrophic, likely taking the driver out of contention for the win.
Ford Performance dominated Cup qualifying Saturday morning; the first eight cars to take the green flag are Ford Mustangs. Team Penske swept the top three spots with Joey Logano on the pole. Austin Cindric lines up next to Logano, and Ryan Blaney starts in the third spot.
Stages are set for 60/100/100 laps. There are six previous Atlanta winners in the field today.
|Active Atlanta Race Winners (6)||Wins||Seasons|
|Kevin Harvick||3||2020, 2018, 2001|
|Brad Keselowski||2||2019, 2017|
|Kyle Busch||2||2013, 2008|
NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt leads the NASCAR Cup Series in wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway with nine victories (1980, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2000).
The Ford freight train rolled away at the start as drivers quickly fell into a single line at the front of the field. The Penske teammates maintained the 1-2-3 alignment.
The first incident of the day occurred on lap nine as Bubba Wallace(23) got loose and spun down the backstretch making contact with the inside wall. Wallace’s car suffered three flat tires as he smoked them, sliding sideways. He required a push to make it back to the pits. Body damage was minor, but he still lost two laps while on pit road.
When the pit road opened during the caution period, only a few drivers from the back of the pack opted to come in for service.
Coming to the restart, the Penske drivers all lined up on the outside row and led the slight breakaway from the pack. Kyle Larson(5) led a run to the front on the inside line. Denny Hamlin(11) went three wide to join the fight at the front of the pack.
The move was to no avail, as the front-pack drivers quickly dissolved into a single file line. Joey Logano(22), Austin Cindric(2), Ryan Blaney(12), and Brad Keselowski(6) all led the Mustang charge.
After returning to the track, Wallace’s car showed the effects of its injuries. Bubba went another lap down during green flag racing.
Drafting is critical. If a car gets out of line without a partner to push, they quickly go to the rear. With a good run, a fast car can drop down and make a pass if there is a gap just ahead of the car they are going by.
With Stage points on the line, only Blaney would drop to the bottom in an attempt to improve his position. With no help, he sacrificed his hold on the third position to Keselowski. Logano led every lap of Stage One.
Stage One Results
|10||19||Martin Truex Jr.||1|
*Ford Mustang Drivers
Stage-ending pit stops shuffled the top five. As the leader, Logano burned more fuel than those drafting behind him. His pit stop was longer, making sure they got the tank full. Logano exited fifth, just behind teammates Cindric and Blaney.
Kyle Busch(8) was the new leader coming to the restart, with Keselowski right behind. Speculation was that Busch exited the pits before his crew got the car completely full of Sunoco racing fuel.
This time when the race went green, two-by-two was the standard for the front of the field. That is until Logano returned to the point and began to drag cars away from the pack in a single file line.
By lap 80, everyone in the top 30 drove nose-to-tail. The top five were Logano, Busch, Blaney, Keselowski, and Chris Buescher(17).
A pit stop for fuel will be necessary to complete Stage Two. If teams pit under green flag conditions, it could play havoc with the leaderboard.
With 120 laps on the board, the pack caught lapped traffic. A 12-car breakaway had formed at the front of the field. But navigating the lappers brought the entire lead pack back together.
Austin Dillon(3), Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr.(19) were the first of the leaders to hit pit road for green flag stops. They all lost two laps to the leader making their stops. A caution while stops are cycling through is going to result in complete chaos.
Logano, Blaney, and Cindric all pitted together on lap 132. They all left together and also lost two laps. Blaney committed the first major error of the day, going too fast entering pit road, and will have to serve the penalty. The drive-through penalty at pit road speed cost Blaney another two laps and likely puts him out of contention for the win.
When all stops were complete, Logano returned to the top spot, and Cindric ran second. Tyler Reddick(45), who complained of not feeling well before the race, sat in third. William Byron(24) and Buescher completed the top five. Reddick had a backup driver, John Hunter Nemechek, standing by if he was not able to make it through the entire race. You can bet he feels better now. Reddick was able to make the jump up the standings by taking fuel only on his stop.
The leaders approached lapped traffic as they came to the green and white checkered flag to end Stage Two. Making moves high and low, Cindric was able to pass Logano for the Stage win. Alex Bowman(48) managed to sneak into third, with Reddick fourth and Byron in fifth.
Stage Two Results
|7||19||Martin Truex Jr.||4|
*Ford Mustang Drivers
The Final Stage
Aric Almirola(10) took no tires during his Stage ending pit stop, and he exited pit road in the lead. Logano, Cindric, Ricky Stenhouse(47), and Bowman followed. Almirola could not hold the lead with the used tires, and a big scramble broke out at the front of the pack.
When the leaders were sorted into a single file line, Denny Hamlin(11) led, Stenhouse, Byron, Larson, and Almirola followed. Logano dropped to the 12th position during all the madness.
With everyone realizing the advantage of clean air, it will be interesting to see if the cars with superior speed are able to make up positions as the racing gets serious.
Logano’s car does not like dirty air, he dropped to 20th in the running order.
Kevin Harvick(4) dropped to the low line and led a rush to the front. As aggression began to pick up, Ross Chastain(1) closed fast on Harvick and took the air off his rear spoiler, causing the #4 car to spin in front of the pack. Several cars were involved.
Chastain may have made a new enemy on the track. But, there will not be any retaliation this week as Harvick was forced to take his car to the garage. Other drivers involved were Chris Buescher(17), BJ McLeod(78), and Byron, all sent to the garage.
Drivers with damage but still on the track included Josh Berry(9), Chastain, Kyle Busch, Reddick, Wallace, Briscoe, Austin Dillon(3), and Harrison Burton(21).
The caution allowed those remaining on the track to make a pit stop that should carry them to the end of the race. Almirola will lead the field to the restart, followed by Larson, Keselowski, Chastain, and Reddick. The leader of the most laps on the day, Joey Logano, restarted in the 13th position.
Side-by-side racing appears to be the manner in which the field will determine who gets the win today.
Almirola blew a right rear tire and spun at the front of the field. Remarkable, everyone but Larson managed to avoid the melee with minor fender scrapes. Larson’s car and Almirola’s car were towed to the garage.
After the carnage, the leaders were unwilling to give up track position to come to pit road. Keselowski sat on the point, followed by Reddick, Bowman, Christopher Bell(20), and Hamlin. Logano worked his way through the wreck to move up to sixth.
On the restart, Keselowski blocked both lanes, high and low, until the Penske cars aligned and caught him. With all the cautions, Blaney managed to make up his four laps with wave arounds and lucky dog free passes to return to contention.
Eventually, Logano got under Keselowskia as Blaney and Cindric lined up behind him to push the #22 car past his former teammate. The high side formed up behind Keselowski as Reddick and Bell pushed Brad back into the lead.
Speed usually wins out. Logano dragged the Penske cars back even with the outside line to set up a sprint to the checkered flag.
The ebb and flow of the two lines of cars continued with Keselowski and Logano each noising in front at different points on the track. With five to go, Keselowski had pulled out to a two-car advantage over the inside line. Logano got a run and closed just before the white flag. As Bell, Reddick, Blaney, and Keselowski all jockeyed for position.
Joey climbed to the top of the track and, using that Doug Yates Ford horsepower blew past the contenders and pretenders for the victory. His first at Atlanta.
Corey LaJoie had a great day with his highest finish in a Cup race. His late push helped Logano free himself from the pack. LaJoie placed fourth. The other Penske drivers that stayed near the front most of the day finished in seventh (Blaney) and 11th (Cindric). Michigan’s Erik Jones performed some late-race magic, pulling out an impressive eighth-place finish.
NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Standings
|1||William Byron||55||In Win(2)|
|2||Joey Logano||177*||In Win|
|3||Kyle Busch||153||In Win|
|4||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||124||In Win|
|10||Martin Truex Jr.||145||+43|
|NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Cut Line|
*Ford Mustang Drivers
As a result of the penalties issued by NASCAR this week, Alex Bowman dropped below the cut line into the 21st spot in the standings. Kyle Larson is 32nd.
Results of the ambetter Health from Atlanta Motor Speedway
|17||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||0.893||260|
|19||19||Martin Truex Jr.||0.975||260|