Though only the second race of the season, Atlanta Motor Speedway was thought to be the initial race where we would see what the new (or at least new for 2016) low-downforce package would mean for the racing this season. After rave reviews from competitors and fans alike at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington Raceway with a sort of mid-season “test” for the new package last season, NASCAR announced that the 2016 base package would include the smaller spoiler – among other changes – that many felt put the race back in the driver’s hands.
Fast forward to the second race of the year at Atlanta Motor Speedway – the first intermediate race of the year where the changes should be most noticeable – and the new package once again included high praise from the drivers.
“I loved it,” said runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. “We were sliding around and driving the hell out of the car. I had a blast. I had some good races there on the track with the No. 2 [Brad Keselowski] and the No. 18 [Kyle Busch] and a bunch of guys. Man, it was so much fun. And I post old pictures online all the time of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s and that’s when racing was racing. That’s when it was good. That’s what they saw today. “
Carl Edwards, who is one of the sport’s most vocal advocates of the new low-downforce package last season, unsurprisingly echoed Earnhardt’s comments.
“They just need to keep taking more,” Edwards said after finishing fifth at Atlanta. “This is real racing. We’re driving hard. You can see the guys out here just digging for everything they’re worth. I’m worn out. That’s a tough race and just a lot of fun. I just can’t thank NASCAR enough and Atlanta – don’t ever pave this place – it’s a perfect race track. I hope the fans enjoyed the show. The thing is, just know that in that car we’re driving as hard as we can.”
Even drivers who were disappointed after the race enjoyed the challenge of the slick racetrack that Atlanta Motor Speedway is known for, though had been noticeably absent in many races in recent years.
“Out of control all day long, so it was a lot of fun to race like that,” said Martin Truex Jr., who finished seventh after leading 34 laps. “I don’t think it’ll be quite that slick at most tracks. We always know this is the slickest track on the circuit and it’s always going to be handful and then you add less downforce, the tires burn out like they did – it was pretty wild. Sideways on the straightaways is pretty much how you can sum it up.”
Joey Logano, who had a pass-through penalty earlier in the race for a commitment line violation, was pleased with his ability to move up through the field, when with the previous package he may not have been able to do so.
“It was fun,” said Logano, who finished 12th. “We were sideways, sliding around, the cars were moving. I think the real test is next week when you get to a race track that there’s not much tire wear, but I thought a faster car can pass the car in front of them, no doubt. We started 27th and we drove up into the top-5 without a caution, so you could show how fast our car was by how we were all capable of passing out there.”
Of course, not everyone was so thrilled with how the day went or how the rules package affected their car. Pole-sitter Kurt Busch led 62 laps, but had a hard time keeping up with eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson and sixth-place finisher Kevin Harvick, who led the most laps at 131.
“It was hard driving with the lower downforce,” Busch said. “We had a really good car short run speed; we just didn’t have it on the long run speed. That is sometimes what happens to a pole-sitting car. You are feeling confident like ‘hey alright’, but we were just too aggressive on the tires. No biggie. It exemplified itself because we were great on short run speeds on that green-white-checkered. We gained from eighth to fourth. So, a long day, but I’m really happy with the Monster Energy/Haas Automation Chevy the effort, the guys, everybody.”
Aric Almirola, who was involved in a last lap wreck that ultimately helped seal the win for Johnson, didn’t quite enjoy the slipping and sliding around that many other drivers did. In fact, it was what led to a disappointing 15th-place finish besides being involved in a last-lap accident that set his car on fire.
“This was certainly not the finish that we had hoped for,” Almirola said. “This race was a game in tire management. The tire fall off caused our tires to slide all over the track and made it incredibly difficult to keep the car on the bottom. Once we fell a lap down, it was so hard to get back on the lead lap with how challenging it was to pass in a loose car. But we ran in the Top-20 all afternoon, and we had a competitive car. It was disappointing to have a wreck on the last lap, especially with how hard our team worked, but I know that we’ll be able to bounce back next week in Las Vegas.”
Back to Harvick, his response to the low-downforce package in Atlanta may have been warmer if his dominance would have led to a victory. A botched final restart when Harvick spun his tires meant he had to settle for sixth, a far cry from the win it looked like he was well on his way towards.
When asked what he learned today about the low-downforce package, Harvick responded with: “Don’t worry about how fast you are in practice. Make sure it drives good.”
For what it’s worth, Harvick was 22nd in the first practice session and 15th in Happy Hour.
Perhaps Harvick’s comments are the most telling. In past seasons (including last year), speed and track position were key, while things like tire wear and maneuverability were either secondary or non-existent. Races were won and lost on pit road, but more because of where the drivers came out on the racetrack in the running order and less to do with strategy calls. Now, it appears like the pendulum is moving in the other direction where races are won and lost because of calls made on pit road, and less because of track position.
Additionally, Harvick’s comments seem to focus more on car handling. Again, past seasons have shown more of an emphasis on raw speed rather than the driver’s ability to manhandle the car and out-drive their competitors.
In Atlanta, drivers’ comments seemed to indicate a nearly across-the-board attitude that car handling, pit strategy, and speed were all important and they felt like their own ability to catch and pass their competitors was a factor that had been previously absent, a trend that goes along the same lines as the comments in Kentucky and Darlington in 2015.
Now, granted, comments from fans were mixed. Despite the tire wear and maneuverability that were showcased in Atlanta, there were only three cautions during the race and the first yellow flag wasn’t thrown until Lap 211. Though cars were able to catch and pass one another, there still tended to be a gap between cars, especially as the race went on. This caused some fans to label the race as dull and boring on social media.
However, there were also plenty of comments on the opposite end of the spectrum where fans enjoyed the fact that tire strategy and pit strategy is what won the race, drivers were able to catch and pass one another if they had a faster car, and that the cars were moving around and sliding through the corners.
While no race is ever going to be perfect, it was interesting that the lack of cautions seemed to cause equally negative and positive comments (at least on my observations, perhaps others saw it differently).
With that said, it’s interesting that – generally speaking – fans and competitors seem to think the sport is heading in the right direction when it comes to the move toward lower downforce, whereas it has been difficult for the sanctioning body, competitors and fans to agree on anything.
Oh … and there’s one more thing. The competition might have reason to be slightly concerned after hearing this comment from Johnson:
“I think that ’14 and ’15 the rules package didn’t suit my style as much,” Johnson said. “We still found ways to win, but I think I had a hard time sensing the grip level of the car and knowing how to get that last tenth or two out of it. My background in racing on the dirt, I think really lends to this package, and certainly at a track like Atlanta today and how much tire wear we have lends to my background. For me directionally I love the direction things are going in and would love to see more.”
Elimination-style Chase format aside, remember that Johnson matched Dale Earnhardt’s win total (76) with Sunday’s win. Perhaps this return to a low-downforce package will allow Johnson to match another one of Earnhardt’s totals – a seventh Sprint Cup Series title.