It can be said that the real NASCAR season starts at Atlanta. The Intermediate track season kicked off last weekend and the results were fairly predictable of the small teams this week. In general at a 1.5 to 2-mile track, these teams struggle to keep up. You might see a couple of teams hit on it and get more, but a top-25 is a decent day for most of these teams, and they shook down at what seems to be a fair assessment of each team’s ability level this weekend.
Intermediates are difficult because they put the race in the driver’s hands the least of the tracks on the circuit. Horsepower and equipment rule the day, and for most of these teams, those departments are where things are leanest. The 2017 race package reduces downforce over 2016, but it’s not the equalizer that the superspeedways and short tracks tend to be.
Unfortunately for this group, so much of the NASCAR season hinges on the intermediate tracks that they don’t get many opportunities to shine. Fans should appreciate the feat that a top 15 is at one of these venues, and a top 20 is impressive given the overall level of competition in the sport today. A top 25 is a very solid day at these tracks, so that’s something to keep in mind when considering these teams’ performance.
Top of the Class: Atlanta
Three of the drivers on our list scored top 20 runs Sunday. Ty Dillon finished 15th, his best run in his last 10 Cup starts and improving on his 2016 Atlanta finish (Dillon filled in for Tony Stewart in the No. 14 last year) by a couple of spots, which is in line with where the No. 13 finished in this race a year ago as well (14th). Ryan Blaney also improved on his 2016 run (25th) with his 18th-place run. The No. 21 team is capable of this type of top-20 run on a consistent basis, but the reason they’re on this list is
because they have yet to actually do that. If they can kick off this season with some solid runs in this range, the second visit to some tracks this summer could provide an opportunity to squeak into the playoffs. The surprise in this group is Cole Whitt, who drove the No. 72 Tri-Star Motorsports car to a 20th-place finish in the team’s first intermediate track race since 2013. Tri-Star has just one top-5 finish in over 800 XFINITY Series starts and Whitt’s finish was owner Mark Smith’s best non-restrictor-plate finish since Bristol in 1996. Whitt is currently 17th in points. There’s nothing on paper to suggest that this team should be running as well as they did Sunday, so they’re worth watching to see what unfolds.
Front Row Motorsports teammates Landon Cassill and David Ragan had a solid day Sunday, finishing 22nd and 23rd. One thing to look for when watching multicar teams is how close the teams are finishing to each other. I like to see them run close like this; it’s a good indication of what the cars are capable of and that the drivers are getting the most out of them. Chris Buescher and AJ Allmendinger had similar results for JTG Daugherty Racing as well, finishing 24th and 26th. Aric Almirola (27th), Matt DiBenedetto (28th) and Michael McDowell (29th) also had top-30 runs. That may not sound like much, but the competition in this class is fairly tight. DiBenedetto’s run, in particular, was a step in the right direction for Go FAS Racing.
Atlanta was actually a good indication of how most of the smaller teams should be expected to run this year. Germain Racing perhaps finished a little high and the No 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports a bit low, but for the most part, it played out about as it should have. Premium Motorsports’ two teams, with Reed Sorenson in the No. 15 and Derrike Cope in the No, 55 this week, topped out at 31st and 36th. Circle Sport’s Jeffrey Earnhardt was 33rd in the unsponsored No. 33. BK Racing, a team which has backslid the last couple of years, finished 34th with Corey Lajoie and 37th with Gray Gaulding. Rick Ware Racing (say that ten times fast) and driver Cody Ware completed just 74 laps before mechanical problems set in, and finished 40th this week.
Sunday’s finish didn’t come without a price for JTG Daugherty Racing and the No. 47 of AJ Allmendinger. After the team was found to have three loose lugnuts following the race, there will likely be a hefty price to pay when penalties are handed down on Wednesday. The infraction could mean a 35-point deduction for both driver and team as well as a 3-race suspension and $65,000 fine for crew chief Randall Burnett. The point penalty would drop Allmendinger from 11th in points to 35th.
BK Racing will sport the colors of Schluter Systems on the No. 23 of Gray Gaulding this weekend in Las Vegas. The team will also have JAS Expedited Trucking on board the No. 83 of Corey Lajoie.
Timmy Hill will be in the seat of the No. 51 this weekend for Rick Ware Racing. The team has not announced a sponsor for Hill.
Cole Whitt will sport the Florida Lottery colors on the No. 72 this weekend, and LEavine Family Racing will have WRL General Contractors on Michael MacDowell’s No. 95.
Not happy with the finish but for a small team that ran without a sponsor and half the amount of tires, im proud of the @CSTMG3330 guys P33
— Jeffrey Earnhardt (@JEarnhardt1) March 6, 2017
— Haley Dillon (@HaleyKDillon) March 5, 2017
— BK Racing (@BKRacing_2383) March 5, 2017
— Mr. Tickles (@tickles_thecat) March 5, 2017
Lol my max heart rate yesterday was on lap 1 when I was dead sideways off of turn 2. That was almost a short day pic.twitter.com/9Yt1MbTDJA
— landon cassill (@landoncassill) March 6, 2017