NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions at Atlanta: New Rules & Standout Substitutes

The 2015 Daytona 500 is finally in the books, and with its conclusion comes the real start of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The superspeedway-style racing inherent to Daytona is a unique style of racing with unique challenges that simply are not shared by the bulk of tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit. The rest of this season will be contested on tracks similar to the Atlanta Motor Speedway, the site of this Sunday’s round of Sprint Cup action. With a vastly different race track comes vastly different questions, and if you scroll down just a bit, you can find four such questions that you’re probably asking heading into this weekend’s festivities.

1. How will the new 2015 intermediate track rules package affect the racing?

Without question, the number one topic on everyone’s minds heading into Sunday’s race revolves around the new 2015 rules package that will be debuting this weekend. As part of a multi-year incremental plan to increase the quality of the on-track product, NASCAR intends to roll out a new rules package each year for at least the next two to three years in hopes of perfecting the racing in the Sprint Cup Series. This year’s round of changes features a major 125-horsepower output reduction along with a reduction in both front and rear downforce. The goal of these changes was to put a greater emphasis on mechanical grip as opposed to aerodynamic grip, which in theory should put the racing more into the hands of the drivers as opposed to the engineers.

As with any rules package, we have absolutely no idea how it is going to work until we see it on the track. And even after this weekend, we probably still won’t completely know how the changes will affect the racing in the series. It won’t be until at least week five or six of the season that we have a truly complete idea of how this package will affect the on-track product.

With that being said, this Sunday’s race should at least give us an idea of how the package changed the behavior of the cars to some degree. The teams had an extra testing day available to them yesterday along with all day today and tomorrow to get these new 2015-spec cars dialed in. So by Sunday, the hope is that the team’s have a decent enough understanding of the package to put on a good show.

My prediction? I’m expecting a bizarre race. Given the novelty of the new package, some teams are going to hit the setup right off the bat and others will struggle mightily. Some drivers will experiment with new ways to find speed on track, others will be lost. Combine that with the rough, tire-chewing Atlanta track surface, and you probably have the recipe for a strange and topsy-turvy day on Sunday.

 2. Will David Ragan make the most of his opportunity in the No. 18?

2014 Watkins Glen CUP David Ragan CIA
David Ragan is looking to make the most of his opportunity with Joe Gibbs Racing. (Credit: CIA)

David Ragan’s career in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series got a big jolt this week, as the Unadilla, Ga., native was named as Kyle Busch’s replacement in the  No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, presumably until Busch returns.

Ragan is widely regarded as the top talent in underfunded Sprint Cup equipment, so the general consensus is that a move like this was imminent if a ride were to open up. And with Busch’s injury, the stars aligned perfectly for Ragan to get his much-awaited second chance at driving a top car in this series.

Of course, the question on everyone’s minds is whether or not he can actually do it. Ragan did not exactly light the world on fire at Roush outside of superspeedway races, a style of racing at which he is considered to be among the best in the series. On unrestricted tracks, Ragan occasionally showed flashes of brilliance, especially in 2008 and 2011, but his inconsistency ultimately sunk his chance of keeping his ride.

JGR’s hope is that those flashes of brilliance were truly emblematic of a driver with real potential. With three more years in the series under his belt, Ragan is presumably a faster and more consistent driver than he was when he left Roush. The jury is still out on that, and these next few weeks will thus serve as an excellent test as to whether or not he truly has what it takes to be an elite driver in this series.

 3. Will rain wreak havoc with the race?

I hate the r-word more than anyone, but when there is rain in the forecast on the day of a Sprint Cup race, it’s pretty hard to brush it off when analyzing what is going to happen on raceday. The latest forecast is calling for at least a 50 percent chance of rain on Sunday. Certainly, that is a high enough probability to warrant some concern.

After last year’s spate of rain-afflicted races, the teams have some recent experience in terms of what to expect when a race features a threat of rain. Generally speaking, when there’s a threat of imminent rain, which is likely what the case will be on Sunday, the race becomes a battle to the halfway point. You can fully expect that the drivers will be racing harder and creating more fireworks than they usually would in a mad rush to gain all that they can get by halfway. On the team side of things, this usually leads to unusual and risky strategy calls in an effort to game the race. My guess is that this will all come into play on Sunday.

Long story short, keep your eyes peeled throughout the weekend for weather updates. Even a little bit of rain could completely re-shape the complexion of the entire race weekend.

4. How will tires fare under the new package?

The 2015 rules package is probably the most radically altered rules package in recent memory when compared to the rules package used the year prior. Whenever a new package is introduced, tires become a bit of an unknown as both Goodyear and the teams are faced with the prospect of adjusting to the new aero regulations.

One of the key functions of this new package is that it is supposed to promote more tire wear, mostly due to a laundry list of technical factors that I won’t get into in this space. Atlanta, being a bumpy and abrasive track, is known for its penchant for chewing up tires. With all of this in mind, it will be very important to see how tires hold up with this new aero package. If you all will recall, the Auto Club race last year was contested on a similarly abrasive track with a similarly new aero package. The result was a bunch of tire failures.

A race like that is unquestionably the last thing NASCAR needs on the first race that it rolls out its new science project. Knowing this, I believe that tires will be a key item to look out for all weekend long, one rash of tire failures could be a death sentence for this new aero package in terms of PR for the sport.

Matt Stallknecht’s Fantasy Picks for the 2015 Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500:

This year on Four Burning Questions, I will share my fantasy picks from the Frontstretch Fantasy NASCAR League, located here on NASCAR.com. Here are my picks from this week. Join the league and see if you can beat me!

  • Kyle Larson ($26.25) – He’s probably still a wee-bit overvalued at the moment given the fact that he hasn’t won a Cup race yet, but Atlanta is a track that is almost perfectly suited to him. A win certainly feels like its right around the corner with young Larson, and this could be the week.
  • Brad Keselowski ($27.25) – He had a horrendous Speedweeks and will be looking for redemption with a bounce back win at AMS, one of his best tracks that he hasn’t won at. Spend the cash and reap the rewards.
  • Carl Edwards ($22.50) – If my hunch about Edwards having a career year at his new home at JGR is correct, now would probably be a great time to pick him up at a value price. Oh, he happens to be pretty good at Atlanta too.
  • Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. ($13.00) – It’s put up or shut up time for Mr. Stenhouse this year, and I am one of a select few who believe he will actually put up in year three. Stenhouse was a monster at tracks like Atlanta in the XFINITY Series, so if he’s going to show strength this year, tracks like Atlanta are where he’ll best show it. For the value, he’s a low price, medium risk pick with a lot of upside. That’ about as good as I can hope for as a fantasy owner.
  • David Ragan ($9.00) – There’s no better value under $10 in the series. He’s got JGR equipment underneath him now, so even if he runs 15th every week, he’ll be a hell of a lot more expensive just a few weeks from now. It’s not often that you can pick up a JGR driver at such a cheap rate. Is it a risk? Sure it is, but that’s why we play the game.

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GinaV24

Hopefully David Ragan will do well. Certainly Stenhouse in the 17 car hasn’t set the world on fire with his performance in a Rousch car. It will be interesting to see if Ragan can do better in a JGR car instead.

Ugh, rain is never fun on a race weekend, but really who is the idiot who looks at the schedules and says oh let’s move the Atlanta date to the first weekend in March? I’m not a weather man by any stretch but I can look at the normal trends & temperatures for March in the SE and make a pretty good guess that it won’t be warm & sunny. It’s the same way they ruined Martinsville’s spring date by moving it from after Easter weekend like it used to be to a date in March. We suffered thru more than a few cold drizzly events there and that just isn’t any fun for the fans.

Of course knowing NASCAR they are probably trying to screw up the tracks where the racing is usually fun to watch.

MJR in Springfield

“…..which in theory should put the racing more into the hands of the drivers as opposed to the engineers” So wait, let me see if I understand that statement. Who exactly “engineered” the new package… a bunch of monkeys? Wait – I think I just answered my own question.

russ

Good point. And if a significant horsepower reduction doesn’t slow the cars down what does that tell you? F1’s been fighting this for years. And I predict the results will be the same.

john

Quite frankly, I find it hard to fathom “last place Joe” got a ride over Ryan Truex. Ryan raced in 2014 in very poor equipment and was replaced with no metter results.
Ryan has shown he can drive and people close to the Truex family say Ryan has more talent than his bigger brother Martin.
There are major politics in NASCAR but sometimes things don;t make sense from a financial point of view.. So go Joe N. and race to your 40th place average…. heck… take a lap and park it.. the 100% rule isn’t enforced by NASCAR anyway.

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