Race Weekend Central

Dropping the Hammer: Atlanta’s NASCAR Future Is Here. Survey Says…?

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” – Ian Malcolm, “Jurassic Park”

Stop me if this description sounds familiar.

There’s a pack of about 15 cars streaking across the finish line, the checkered flag waving to end a NASCAR Cup race and a crash breaks out in its midst.

That crash, had there been one more lap in the race, would have caused the 12th caution of the day.

The race had six multi-car incidents, including the “Big One” on Lap 144 that collected 12 vehicles.

Amidst all that, the race saw a track record 46 lead changes among 20 drivers, including 18 lead changes in the first stage.

All in all, a pretty typical day at Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway.

What’s that, you say?

It was at Atlanta Motor Speedway?

Oh.

Sunday (March 20) was the main event in Speedway Motorsports’ unveiling of its latest concoction: converting a 1.54-mile intermediate oval into the little sibling of NASCAR’s superspeedways.

Rather than wait for a normal repave to age in a way that would allow for compelling racing, SMI CEO Marcus Smith went in the opposite direction of what many in the NASCAR world are hungry for – more short tracks – and delivered what very few, if any, were asking for vocally.

More Daytonas and Talladegas.

To give SMI some credit, except for three wrecks caused by the race leader cutting down a right-rear tire, this transformation was a successful feat.

See also
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The crowd seen in attendance at the 60-year-old track was easily one of the best Atlanta’s seen in recent memory.

Aside for a period in the final stage where William Byron led 40 consecutive laps – many of them in a single-file formation – you couldn’t look away without potentially missing something. Consider it was a 500-mile race at Atlanta, one that typically takes over three hours to run and 325 laps to complete (not counting any overtime).

At the end of the race – 3 hours and 57 minutes after the green flag (and a full 28 minutes longer than the race average) – drivers gave their early reviews.

Race-winner Byron described the new Atlanta as more “mentally taxing” than races at Daytona or Talladega.

“Daytona and Talladega, when you get single file, you can relax,” Byron said. “Today when you were single-file, you were constantly working to stay single file so you didn’t lose the lead. I think that was a lot different. I’m not used to that. … This just feels long mentally. Just all the energy that I’m spending to do all the moves that we need to make. Pretty crazy race, but definitely good to come out on top.”

Kurt Busch, who finished third Sunday, won the last Cup race on the old Atlanta configuration. When pressed multiple times for his thoughts, he responded with, “It’s pretty wild and it’s hard to digest right now.”

Busch said he hoped when the sport returned to the track in July it would be with an “unrestricted” rules package.

Busch’s response is notable, given he was one of if not the only Cup driver SMI consulted with before announcing the track reconfiguration last year.

I could note Kyle Busch‘s reaction, but that’s just Kyle being Kyle.

Ross Chastain, who finished second for his third consecutive top-three finish, was among the defenders of the new version of Atlanta.

“So, I’m not upset with it,” Chastain said. “Let’s have it here, Daytona and Talladega. Let’s not go repave every mile-and-a-half in the country. Let’s not bring Kentucky back to life. Let’s leave it six feet under. It’s done.  … We’re never going back there. I feel like this could be its own thing. … But if we go pour 28 degrees of banking into every mile-and-a-half, that’s not our future.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who led at one point before wrecking from a cut tire, wasn’t in favor of the track change, but said, “I still had a blast out there.”

Among the drivers involved in the crash on the last lap was Bubba Wallace.

The 23XI Racing driver described his driver-side hit into the outside wall as likely the hardest of his career, even more than his violent impact at Pocono Raceway in 2018. Keep in mind that Pocono crash involved Wallace losing his brakes.

Rick Ware Racing’s Cody Ware echoed that sentiment in a since deleted tweet about his backstretch crash with Todd Gilliland. 

It seems notable these are reactions to wrecks that happened at a track one mile shorter than Daytona or Pocono. But Atlanta has seen superspeedway-style wrecks before, most notably when Carl Edwards sent Brad Keselowski airborne in 2010.

Positive feedback and my own enjoyment of the race aside, I still can’t help but feel SMI is playing with fire with its revamped Atlanta. If any SMI track needed to be given a complete makeover, it was Texas Motor Speedway, which has been tinkered with numerous times in its lifetime, admittedly to its detriment.

Smith is admittedly working to get more short tracks in NASCAR, with his efforts surrounding Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and the recently announced attempt to resurrect North Wilkesboro Speedway (but likely not for Cup competition, according to Smith).

I personally thought a repave of the Atlanta’s surface was a long-time coming. I also did not want to see another superspeedway on the circuit. These races can take years off your life just from watching.

With the introduction of the Next Gen car, I would have given it a chance to compete on the historic track in its base form before going the route of the superspeedway package.

The bigger question is if Atlanta will start a trend toward further reconfiguration. Count team owner Rick Hendrick as one who would “vote to cap” the superspeedway experience at the current six races.

“I don’t think this is going to be quite as bad,” said Hendrick, comparing Atlanta to Daytona and Talladega. “These cars are more durable, and you saw it today. Usually, when you have a wreck down at Talladega, Daytona, it’s just trashed. But a lot of cars were able to finish, and also I think it’s going to be easier and better with this car and I think the speeds here at this track. I believe it’s going to be a great show.”

Like many changes NASCAR has seen in the last three years, Atlanta’s new identity appears to be one we’ll have to adapt to.

“This is a sports entertainment business, and we served up a really entertaining weekend of racing here,” Marcus Smith told The Athletic. “I had so many people remark to me about how exciting just watching practice on Saturday was, so I think that’s a big win. We’ve got a lot of positive momentum as a sport, and everybody I’m talking to is really enjoying that.”

Postscript

The numbers are in for Sunday’s race.

As far as TV, Atlanta saw a gain over the fifth race of the 2021 season (3.857 million viewers at Phoenix) and also a gain over last week’s race at Phoenix (3.991 million, 2.33 rating).

Last year’s spring Atlanta race earned an average rating of 3.72 million viewers.

And in Jeff Gluck’s “Good Race” poll, Atlanta came in as the lowest scoring race so far this year.

Though, apparently it was the result of a protest vote.

2022 is Daniel McFadin’s ninth year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his second year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can also be found at SpeedSport.com and FanBuzz.com.

About the author

Daniel McFadin is a 7-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He's currently a freelancer and lead reporter and editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR show "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" on YouTube and in podcast form.

You can email him at danielmcfadin@gmail.com.

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Sally Baker

Personally, I think 4 plate/pack racing races per year was more than enough. Touting all the ‘lead changes’ at a pack racing track is meaningless, since places change several times a lap due to the pack. I thought Atlanta was just fine before.

DoninAjax

Atlanta was fine until they changed it from an oval. And Richmond too. Probably so they could get more seats on the front stretch. Made cents to the NA$CAR CFO.

Bill B

In every major sport there is always a tug of war between entertainment and competition, it seems the entertainment side always wins in NASCAR. I fear where this may lead the sport.

Contrary to what the drivers say, I don’t think most of them like pack racing, they accept it as part of their job. The only drivers that like it are those that need the random, crapshoot nature to have a chance at winning. The Michael Waltrips of the sport, we all know who they are.

Kurt Smith

100% correct Bill.

WJW Motorsports

Yes – and silly me here I always thought legitimate competition WAS entertainment. When I was a little kid, I thought wrestling was entertaining as h3ll. Then I found out it was fake – and have never watched since.

Bill B

Legitimate competition is entertainment to those who enjoy a sport. However they have figured out that they can get more people to “like it” (thus driving up revenue) by catering to the lowest common denominator, big wrecks, which is what pack racing produces. I am sure a figure 8 track would be entertaining as hell but is that really racing or more of a spectacle?

Jeremy

Couldn’t agree more. Big Wrecks and Pack Racing in NA$CAR is like what the NFL would become if they started promoting huge end zone celebrations, taunting, blind side hits, fighting and dogpiles. Basically, it’s Jerry Springer on wheels.

Although, I have watched some figure 8 racing. The serious racers in those series have skills and a ton of guts (or a total lack of good sense, one or the other). It’s certainly entertaining. The school bus figure 8 races are more of a spectacle, but still entertaining. I’d rather watch just about anything race on a figure 8 track than NA$CAR at Daytona or Talladega (and now Atlanta).

Last edited 3 months ago by Jeremy
DoninAjax

I’ve watched wrestling since Argentina Rocca. Bruno Sammartino. Angelo Mosca. Sweet Daddy Siki. Today’s televised events aren’t close to what they were. But this is Brian’s hero Vince’s vision now and his effect on Brian’s product.

Kurt Smith

Kyle wasn’t “just being Kyle”. He was expressing an opinion probably shared by a bunch of other drivers who all want to keep their jobs and were dancing around actually saying that the racing sucked.

Last edited 3 months ago by Kurt Smith
WJW Motorsports

Agree with you. The manner of his comments was Kyle being Kyle, but not the message itself. If he had won and we got happy Kyle instead of surly Kyle, he would have said the same thing.

Jeremy

Becoming a bigger fan of Kyle every day. He’s the only authentic racer left in NA$CAR. He should wear a mask (ala Rey Mysterio) for the entire pre-race at COTA, then put it back on for any post race interviews – in which he should then over-excitedly answer questions with a big Rick Flair “WHOOO!!!” at the end of every sentence. Would be awesome if he stomped off with a 2×4 in the “shoulder carry” position when the interview was over.

DoninAjax

I think an extra seat should be put in the cars for the NA#CAR brain trust so they can be taken along for a ride during a plate event so they can see how much fun it is.

Racer919

Exciting, yes. Cringeworthy, constantly. Good racing, no.

Iceman202290

I won’t be watching Atl – can add it to the Daytona and Talladega parts of the schedule.
Sadly I’m starting to think that to the next wave of fans – “good racing”= cautions, carnage, and restarts…
It’s just not entertaining to me.

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