Who…should you be talking about after the race?
Brad Keselowski battled a stomach bug all weekend, giving up the No. 2 car to Team Penske’s Xfinity Series driver Austin Cindric for the majority of a Saturday practice session after qualifying 19th on Friday. Keselowski was feeling up to the task early on, in part thanks to intravenous fluids, and moved up a handful of spots after the green flag.
Keselowski didn’t place in the top 10 in either of the first two stages of the race, but in the end was able to take advantage of his own good strategy and the mistakes of others to creep closer to the front.
Keselowski ran down Joey Logano after the final restart, taking over the top spot with 33 to go on older tires than Logano’s. From there, he held off a charging Martin Truex Jr. by taking away the preferred line and using a lapped car as a pick in the final three laps to beat Truex’s faster car to the checkers. It was the type of smart, calculating race you’d expect from the veteran.
Sometimes, a driver’s finish doesn’t reflect his race. On Sunday, Daniel Hemric was poised for a top-10 finish in his Atlanta Cup debut, with a top five on the table. He easily outpaced Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon and de facto RCR driver Ty Dillon. But racing inside the top five with the final laps ticking by, Hemric had his right front tire shred underneath the No. 8. He got to pit road before the tire came apart, but the damage to his finish was done. The results sheet says Hemric finished 20th, still ahead of the other RCR cars. But he ran a much better race than history will give him credit for.
What…is the takeaway from this race?
While one race is not a complete picture of how the current package will fare at other tracks, in other weather conditions or after teams have more time to work with it, this weekend’s race was the first glimpse into intermediate track racing 2019 version.
Spotters for cars running from about fifth on back were busy early and often every time the green flag flew before things shook out a bit—much busier than in recent races on the 1.5-mile tracks.
But it didn’t take long for things to space out at the front of the field. Cars were able to stick together longer, but drivers were content to line up early and conserve their equipment. That’s a strategy move; racing door-to-door like it’s the least lap when there are 450 miles to go of a 500-mile race isn’t smart racing.
Another change people weren’t talking about was the demise of the driver-adjustable track bar, and it turned out to play a role. It was a long wait for a pit stop for drivers battling handling issues to get changes. Several drivers were fighting tight cars after a big weather swing from Saturday to Sunday, and it was easy to lose track position when there was no way to make small changes throughout a run.
So when the checkers fell, was it that much different? Not really.
There was a lot of racing through the field, which was an improvement. Up front, the pack spread out quickly. However, there was one difference and it was notable: in the closing laps, when Truex got close enough to Keselowski to catch a bit of draft, he closed to Keselowski’s bumper incredibly fast. That’s something the series hasn’t seen very often recently, and it set up a solid finish. It wasn’t a drag race, but it wasn’t a drag race because Keselowski outdrove Truex, despite Truex’s faster car, for the last three laps, not because he ran away with the lead. That’s big—the outcome was in the drivers’ hands.
The full aero package will debut next week at Las Vegas; the aero ducts that will be run at some tracks were not a part of the Atlanta setup.
Where…were the other key players at the end?
Polesitter Aric Almirola put on a display of the laws of physics early, reminding everyone that clean air is still king when it comes to racecars. Almirola had a fast car from the moment he took to the track Friday, showing second in practice before winning the pole. He jumped to about a three-second lead before the lap-35 competition caution, but lost the lead in the pits, and a later speeding penalty put him far enough back that he could never really recover, though he raced side-by-side with Kyle Busch and Erik Jones in the closing laps before settling for a solid eighth-place finish.
Defending race winner Kevin Harvick had a rough start to the weekend, when steering issues relegated him well outside the top 10 in practice on Friday and an 18th-place start. He served notice quickly that he’d be a contender, racing his way into the top 10 before the race was 15 laps old. Harvick’s strength was on display throughout the race, as he led seven times for a total of 45 laps, but he didn’t put on the clinic that many expected, finishing fourth.
Defending Cup champion Logano also started deeper in the field than might have been expected, starting 27th, but like Harvick, Logano made some big gains, running 11th at the competition caution. The consistency that carried him to the championship race last year was on display, as Logano took advantage of a fast Ford and late strategy to find himself leading with 34 laps to go.
Keselowski took it away from him a lap later, and while the No. 2 was pulling away for the win, Logano had to return to the pits for a loose wheel, taking away any chance to race his teammate for the win. Logano finished a lap down in 23rd.
Active wins leader Jimmie Johnson dropped like a stone from the moment the race began. After posting a solid 11th-place qualifying effort, Johnson looked like he had an anchor attached to the No. 48, quickly falling to 21stin the first 20 laps. He reported possible engine issues before the end of the first stage, though the team never seemed to find anything concrete. Johnson also fought handling all day with a tight racecar.
It’s hard to tell what the root cause of his 25th-place finish was: a power issue, a handling issue or a package that simply doesn’t agree with Johnson’s preference for a higher-horsepower car. The team will have to figure it out fast or be in danger of falling even further behind the competition.
Truck Series winner Kyle Busch qualified sixth, but after a practice incident, had to roll out the backup car, sending him to the rear of the field for the start. In typical Busch fashion, he was inside the top 20 inside 15 laps. From there on out, Busch was a top 10 threat, but a flat tire seemed to put that in jeopardy. Fortunately for Busch, there was enough smoke and debris from his tire for NASCAR to throw the yellow flag, minimizing the damage of a pit stop. By the end of the race, Busch was looking for a top five, and though he never led a lap, Busch had a good day, finishing sixth.
When…was the moment of truth?
Atlanta hasn’t seen new pavement in over 20 years, and that meant that tires were a big factor this weekend. It also meant that that tires played a big role in the outcome of the race for some teams, including Keselowski’s teammate Ryan Blaney. A few cars were forced to pit road late in the day for tires, and it was a game changer for Blaney and Daniel Hemric, who had been racing for top finishes before the tires went south. New tires didn’t give Keselowski the win, but they certainly took away the chance for some others.
The right front tire always takes a beating, and some of those tires were next to shredded when they came off the cars during late pit stops. Teams did a good job of getting to pit road before the tires gave out completely, and there were few major incidents.
That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work. Teams should have to take care of their tires, and they should be aware enough to pit before causing a crash and a caution. It’s a piece that puts races in the hands of teams and drivers. Goodyear did good, despite the disappointment for a few drivers.
Why…should you pay attention this week?
This coming weekend at Las Vegas will feature the third different racecar in as many weeks as the 2019 racing package features different incarnations at different venues. The Las Vegas cars will have front aero ducts, which were not used in Atlanta this week.
Does that mean the cars who were competitive this week might not be next week? It’s a possibility. Certainly some of the teams who struggled this weekend were among the fastest in an open test run at Las Vegas in the offseason.
If, as 2019 goes on, the racing is status quo—Atlanta was neither the best or worst fans have been treated to by a long shot—but the outcome is less predictable as different drivers work better with different elements of the car, will it be a success?
Not quite. But, that would be a step in the right direction after a 2018 season that was so predictable that a driver who was consistently strong all year surprised people when he won the title because he wasn’t one of the “Big Three.”
How…important is the good of the emblem?
It’s become more and more noticeable that Chevrolet still hasn’t made the gains they need to to be a weekly contender. Kyle Larson led the most laps but couldn’t close the deal. Teammate Kurt Busch led one circuit and finished third and Richard Childress Racing’s Hemric had a top-10 run going before cutting a tire, but when it counted, the bowties were nowhere to be found. That’s become troublesome over the last year or so.
There’s one notable difference between the Chevy camp and the Ford and Toyota outfits recently: teamwork, or a lack thereof. And it starts at the top. Toyota only has one contending team, Joe Gibbs Racing and perhaps satellite Leavine Family Racing will move up. The manufacturer would do well to make sure LFR has a chance to gain ground, because it’s in their best interest.
Ford, though, has two big players in Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing, as well as Roush-Fenway Racing just a step below. Wood Brothers Racing is also in the top mix. And Ford makes sure they all stay at the top of their game, providing resources that include a top-of-the-line simulator available to all its drivers and a war room for analyzing every Ford in a race.
Chevrolet’s factory-supported teams seem, at least to the naked eye, to be less cohesive. Hendrick Motorsports (and to an extent satellite JTG Daugherty Racing), Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing (and satellite-slash-extra-team Germain Racing) appear to be on their own little islands. They all get factory support, but it doesn’t appear to be past of a concerted effort on anyone’s part.
While they are competitors, it seems as though the best way for the Chevy stable to make gains would be comparing of notes. They don’t need to give away all their secrets, but is lack of cohesion hampering them all? On the surface, it looks as though there is much to gain from both teams and manufacturer getting onto the same page going into race weekends. As the gap continues to grow, something needs to change for Chevrolet, while something is definitely working for Ford and Toyota.