ATLANTA, Ga. — Photo Courtesy Chris Murdock — The good news from Atlanta Motor Speedway on this raceday morning is that the sun is shining brightly and there is hardly a cloud in the sky. Temperatures are expected to climb into the 60’s by the time the green flag drops on the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. This, after two days of fog, mist, rain and chilly conditions which saw NASCAR stay the course and get both the Gander Outdoors Truck Series race and the XFINITY Series race in.
Kyle Busch became the all-time wins leader in the Truck Series when he marched back from a loose wheel pit road miscue to win yesterday’s race, and fellow Toyota speedster Christopher Bell dominated the XFINITY Series event for his first win of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing. It speaks volumes about the fans who support AMS that they stayed with the day through all the lousy weather to the conclusion of the Truck race, and it also makes a statement about the new regime at NASCAR that even with less than 10 laps left they waited out one more “hard mist” to find raceable track conditions and conclude the day’s events properly.
What can we expect from today? That’s the $64,000 question. Aric Almirola put his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang No. 10 on the pole for this afternoon’s race, and the only thing we’re sure of is that there is absolutely nothing that we’re sure of. This is the first race for the new package that NASCAR has given the teams to race with for the bigger speedways this season, and the only data any of the teams have is from a recent test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That’s where the teams head next week, but for today, Atlanta provides a completely different track configuration and far more extreme tire wear.
Kyle Busch backed his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the wall yesterday in morning practice, so he’ll go to the rear of the field today in a backup car. Kevin Harvick and his team have had a weekend of frustration with steering and mechanical bugs that they are still trying to work out, but we all remember how he completely stomped the rest of the field into a mud hole last year, so you cannot count him out.
Jimmie Johnson seems to be one to quickly adapt to new packages and new situations, but he’s not only got a new package to adapt to this afternoon but a new crew chief as well. He and Kevin Meendering are just one race into their new relationship, and although they showed speed at Daytona, that restrictor plate package is now a thing of the past. Can he rise to the occasion today?
The Fords look strong so far this weekend. Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and even Michael McDowell have shown speed. Brad Kesolowski will race today after taking yesterday off with flu-like symptoms. Austin Cindric was in the XFINITY Series driver’s meeting when he was notified that he needed to fill in for Cup practice in Keselowski’s car.
The sentimental favorite here has to be Georgia-born second-generation driver Chase Elliott. Who wouldn’t like to hear the “si-reen” wail from the Dawsonville Pool Hall if he wins? Garrett Smithley, another Georgia racer, will be in the field today as well, racing for Spire Motorsports in the No. 77.
Many have wondered if the new package and the unknowns that go with it could bring us a surprise winner today. Daniel Hemric in the Also Chevrolet No. 8 for Richard Childress Racing is one that comes to mind. Those who know Daniel know that in his climb up the motorsports ladder, one of his strengths was being easy on his car and tires until it was time to go. But, this is only his second Cup start in this car, so the question will remain if the car has enough speed in it to contend.
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch and Kyle Larson could also figure into the battle to the wire today. Both have the ability to wheel ill-handling race cars, and it is expected that toward the end of each run today, the tires will deteriorate to the point where the cars become a handful to hang onto.
There will be a competition caution on lap 35 due to overnight rains. I would expect some hotly contested battles for the top 10 spots at the end of each stage, and I believe this race is going to be filled with different strategies and approaches because teams really don’t know what to expect.
Race time is 2pm Eastern on Fox. Who are you riding with today?