Atlanta Motor Speedway has become iconic in its own way. No, it doesn’t hold the prestige of a Daytona 500. It doesn’t test the same amount of endurance as the Coca-Cola 600 does. Kissing the bricks is not seen there. And it doesn’t serve hot dogs as good as Martinsville Speedway’s. The place known as the “fastest track in the south” is unique in its own way. The track has not seen a repave since 1997 and is one of the highest-banked tracks on the circuit. For drivers like this week’s top underdog, Bubba Wallace, it presents the challenge they crave to show off their skills.
Last week, Atlanta announced it would undergo a repave and renovation of its configuration. Many drivers have voiced their opinion, with several criticizing the move. However, the argument for a repave was strengthened when a large chunk of the asphalt came off the track in the final stage.
While opinions are mixed throughout the garage, it was the end of an era on Sunday, July 11 in the Quaker State 400. At the same time, it was a renewal of excitement for Georgia race fans as Atlanta hosted its second Cup race in a season for the first time in a decade. And once again, the slick, rough track proved its character that nearly everyone will remember its current form for.
Top Dog: Bubba Wallace
Bubba Wallace’s 2021 season perfectly defines a roller coaster year. While he has only recorded one top 10, Wallace has shown speed at times this year. Execution and late-race decisions have plagued the team, whether it’s on Wallace, the crew or another driver’s mess. Entering Atlanta, the No. 23 DoorDash team sought to improve on a 16th-place finish in the first Atlanta race in March, and that’s exactly what happened.
After starting from the 24th position, Wallace was able to enter the top 20 early on. As he searched for grip, he got mired in mid-pack and capped off stage one in 20th. A strong stop during the stage break put Wallace in 14th for the start of stage two. The Mobile, Ala. driver was able to get inside the top 10 for a bit before settling in 13th at the stage end.
Wallace remained between 12th and 15th during the final stage before crossing the stripe in 14th. It was Wallace’s sixth top 15 of the year and fifth in the last seven races.
Finishes like these continue to be the benchmark for 23XI, and while it’s obvious the organization would prefer being in victory lane, expectations have to be tempered. Settling into a groove and meeting goals each week is certainly the prize the team can focus on for the time being.
Wallace is certainly in a must-win scenario for the five remaining regular season races if he’s going to make the playoffs. But sitting 20th in the standings is not something to hang their head about. For a team many were questioning whether it would get a top 15 two months ago, the steady improvement is starting to show. Discipline and execution must be on hand the rest of 2021.
Corey LaJoie continues to be a consistent presence inside the top 25. While that may not seem that impressive, it is for a team who considered a top 30 a win the past couple of seasons. Lajoie earned a 22nd-place result on the day, his third straight top 25. It was also his seventh in the last eight races, broken up only by a 36th-place run at Pocono Raceway. The consistency is there for the team to take the next step with the ushering in of the Next Gen car. It’s also an improvement on a 29th-place showing at Atlanta in March.
Up-and-down may be an understatement if you ask Erik Jones about his season. After breaking into the top 20 for the first time in three starts at Road America, the lack of equipment strength was on display at Atlanta. Jones was not a mainstay in the top 20, and it resulted in a 24th-place finish. It has been stated before that Richard Petty Motorsports was going to be under a microscope this season, despite Wallace’s departure. After grabbing one of the top free agents in the 2020 class, RPM continues to face the same struggles that have plagued it for years.
While Ryan Preece’s 25th-place finish won’t be what he was looking for, it may have overlooked what almost was. Nearing the halfway point of the 260-lap race, drivers began the green flag pit stop cycle. Aric Almirola and Preece stayed out as long as possible, as weather was in the area. The downpour never came, and the pair was forced to pit. Still, it was a moment that will be overlooked, but nearly changed the whole complexion of the season for bubble teams and Preece.
Even before Kurt Busch won at Atlanta to give Tyler Reddick a stranglehold on the playoff field, Daniel Suarez’s hopes had already taken a hit. After a restart for the competition caution on lap 25, Suarez was on the outside of Cody Ware, Anthony Alfredo and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. coming off of turn 2. Ware slid up the track, tagging Stenhouse, who got into Suarez’s No. 99 Good Sam Chevrolet. Suarez slid down the track, and despite a valiant attempt to save it, made contact with the inside wall with the rear of his car. The crash relegated Suarez to a 37th-place result, dropping him to 22nd in points. Like many bubble teams now, Suarez is in a must-win situation going forward.
It was a strong day for Our Motorsports in Saturday’s Xfinity race in Atlanta. In his first Xfinity race since Charlotte in May, Ty Dillon powered his No. 23 Chevrolet to a fifth-place result. That is Dillon’s best finish in six series starts, even besting the results he accumulated in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54 Toyota.
For his teammate Brett Moffitt, it was a nearly an upset that would shake the playoff picture. Late in the race, Moffitt pitted for four tires and restarted in the fourth position with six laps remaining. A chaotic restart that saw Kyle Busch turn teammate Daniel Hemric put Moffitt on the front row for the final restart. Moffitt was unable to power past Busch but still earned a strong sixth-place finish.
Speaking of points, Jeremy Clements was able to make up for the points he lost at Road America. Entering only 33 markers above Brandon Brown, Clements ran a strong race, staying inside the top 10 or 15 for most of the race. He too benefited from the late-race mess, earning him an eighth-place run to add to his career year. Clements moved past Riley Herbst in the standings and now sits 56 points ahead of Brown. Despite being involved in a late-race crash and finishing 31st, Brown only sits two points behind Herbst for the final playoff spot.
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series made history on Friday, July 9 by running at the famed Knoxville Raceway. The second race on dirt this season for the series was an eventful one, ending with one underdog earning his first top 10 of the season. Danny Bohn had a 10th-place showing, easily besting his season-high result of 17th.
Small Team Scheme of the Week
Lajoie carried a special paint scheme on his No. 7 Peacock Chevrolet this week. Lajoie’s car promoted the new movie The Boss Baby: Family Business. And family business was taken into account by Lajoie this week.
He’s been the boss since March 11th at 2:23am. https://t.co/QvK8ygy1P3
— Corey LaJoie (@CoreyLaJoie) July 9, 2021
What to Expect Next
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will return on August 7 at Watkins Glen, while both the Cup and Xfinity series head to New England to vie for the lobster at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Preece led the underdogs a year ago, finishing in 16th. The Xfinity playoff battle will be compelling to tune into once again, as Brown looks to pull off a massive upset by besting Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 98 car with Herbst.
What They’re Saying
Going home with a Top 15.
Solid day for the 23. New Hampshire next. pic.twitter.com/NDIKs5kAUp
— 23XI Racing (@23XIRacing) July 11, 2021
— Corey LaJoie (@CoreyLaJoie) July 12, 2021
Trouble for Daniel Suarez, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Cody Ware!
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 11, 2021
— Our Motorsports (@OurMotorsports) July 11, 2021
— On Point Motorsports (@OnPMotorsports) July 10, 2021