Atlanta 500 Preview
February 20, 2018
By Micah Roberts
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Everything you saw during Daytona Speedweeks has absolutely nothing to do with what we're going to see in this Sunday's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The set-ups are night and day between the four restrictor-plate races and what we'll see in the 11 races on 1.5-mile track this season. At Daytona and Talladega, any driver can win, but tracks like Atlanta show the real divide between the elite and cheap teams.
The perfect example of the differences is looking at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook's odds to at Daytona on Darrell Wallace Jr. at 50/1 compared to his 300/1 odds offered at Atlanta. The No. 43 may have made the switch to Chevrolet this season using ECR engines, but they're still light years away from winning on an intermediate track.
Not much has changed on the cars in 2018, with the exception of the new Chevrolet Camaro body. So we're likely going to see a lot of what we saw in the last third of the 2017 season, which means more Martin Truex Jr.
“After how we ran in Daytona, we are definitely looking forward to going to a downforce track,” said Truex, who finished eighth last week. “While Daytona is the biggest and most prestigious race to win, the season actually starts – at least in our case – at a downforce track. Atlanta should give us a good indication how we fare against the competition.”
Last season Truex won seven of the 11 races on 1.5s on his way to the championship. In the four races he didn't win on these tracks, he finished second at Texas and led the most laps, third at Charlotte and led the most laps and while coming in eighth place at Texas in the spring and Atlanta.
“We not only had one of the fastest cars all the time, we executed well, qualified well and got those stage points early,” explained Truex. “I just feel like across the board, from our whole team’s perspective, we executed really well. We didn’t make many mistakes. We didn’t give anybody an opportunity to pounce. There were times where guys were as fast as us and there were times when guys were faster, but they weren’t more consistent.”
While acknowledging that Truex is the best on 1.5s, also keep in mind that he's never won at Atlanta in 19 career starts. He's got two top-five finishes with an 18th-place average finish over that span. Still, he's the well-deserved 9/2 favorite (Bet $100 to win $450) to win the race.
Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, is also looking forward to Atlanta.
“Obviously Atlanta is the first real test to know where you’re at and where you stack up with everybody so it’s a pretty important race,” said Pearn. “It’s a cool track, and at the same time, really different. It has super low grip with old worn out pavement.”
Perhaps it's that old pavement that every driver seems to love that has been the issue for Truex compared to other similar tracks.
Brad Keselowski won this race last season, but Team Penske's 1.5-mile program dramatically fell off after the May race at Kansas. Keselowski didn't have a top-five finish in his final seven starts on 1.5s. Neither did his teammate Joey Logano, who went eight straight. This will be a huge indicator to see if Ford and Penske got its stuff together. New teammate Ryan Blaney falls into the same category of waiting to see what happens in practice this weekend. Be skeptical of Penske until then. Note: There is only one practice session on Saturday.
Jimmie Johnson is the active leader with five Atlanta wins over 26 starts where he's averaged an 11th-place finish. However, Johnson's performances on 1.5s fell off following his Texas win in April -- no top-5 finishes in his last eight starts on 1.5s. However, the worn surface is something he handles well and has an edge with over all the youngsters.
"The track is such a challenge for both the drivers and the teams," said Johnson. "I’m stoked they decided not to repave it just yet – that was a popular decision among the drivers. The surface is so abrasive that the tire falloff is so great, you will see us pitting halfway through a fuel run just to gain four or five seconds. I can’t wait to get there and slide around on the track.”
His 12/1 odds are very attractive.
Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports' teammate Chase Elliott hails from Georgia and he's been outstanding in his first two Cup starts on his home track.
"Atlanta will always be a special place for me," said Elliott who is 8/1 to win. "I remember watching the races from the playground as a kid in the driver/owner lot. Haven’t raced a ton here, but I was able to get the pole in 2014 in the Xfinity Series. I would love to make some more memories to go down in the book at Atlanta."
Elliott was fifth last season and eighth during his rookie year. He had top-five finishes in five of his last six starts on 1.5s. No wins yet, but it's going to happen soon. It's just a matter of time, and being at home would make it so appropriate to happen this week.
In Kevin Harvick's third career Cup start in 2001, he won at Atlanta for his first win. It was only three weeks after he took over the No. 3 when Dale Earnhardt passed away at Daytona and changed the car number to No. 29. Last season Harvick finished the season on a tear on these tracks with top-five finishes in four of his final five attempts, including a Texas win. He also dominated this Atlanta race last season leading 292 laps before getting a pit road speeding penalty on his last pit stop.
Something to also consider into handicapping this week is checking out the testing speeds from three weeks at Las Vegas Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile layout. Kyle Larson was fastest in three of the sessions and Hendrick Motorsports rookie William Byron was fastest in another. Each team had a driver represented and they will share the information gained with their teammates.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #4 Kevin Harvick (9/2)
2) #9 Chase Elliott (8/1)
3) #42 Kyle Larson (9/2)
4) #78 Martin Truex Jr (9/2)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (12/1)
ALMOST TWILIGHT ZONE STUFF WITH NO. 10
As much as most of us wanted to see the No. 3 finally win at Daytona again, I couldn't help but feel some pain for Aric Almirola who was leading with half a lap to go until getting punted by Dillon. It wasn't even one of those "whoops, sorry" type of things. It was blatant, intended, on purpose and it's like he got a free pass because we all had No. 3 blinders on. What would you do to win the Daytona 500? Just about anything, right?
In that small moment with Almirola leading, I had several things immediately swirling through my head, such as Almirola's only career win being a rain shortened race at Daytona in July of 2014. I also thought about Stewart Haas Racing winning the Daytona 500 for the second consecutive year in almost the same fashion with the winner leading only one lap.
But the possible storyline that rung loudest for me with Almirola just before he got punted was that Danica Patrick drove the SHR No. 10 for the past six seasons and never had a top-five finish in 190 starts. Patrick got involved in a wreck earlier in what was her last race in NASCAR. Can you imagine her post-race emotions of her not only walking away from the sport after falling well short of everyone's expectations, but also watching her old car win the Daytona 500 in the first race without her? That would have been the cruelest goodbye in...The Twilight Zone.
BUBBA TRASH TALK TOO SOON
NASCAR’s season kicked off with a bang at Daytona they were hoping for in an era where the sport is trying its hardest to attract new fans. Rookie Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., the first full time African-American driver since Wendell Scott in 1971, ended up finishing second in Richard Petty’s famed No. 43. Denny Hamlin would finish an inch behind him in third.
But amid his celebration after the Daytona race, he managed to take a few swipes at the veteran Hamlin, who he crashed with as they crossed the finish line together. And with his new found popularity with the press, he continued his discussions through Tuesday with a series of daily texts with Hamlin.
I'm hoping for Wallace to help signal a new age for NASCAR, but at the same time he also has to show some respect to the veterans. I think the whole Elliott-Hamlin feud from last year has given Wallace a reason to suggest Hamlin is an easy target to mess with. But the runner-up at Daytona is likely going to be Wallace's last hurrah until May at Talladega when the cars are all equal again like at Daytona. Right now, Wallace still drives the No. 43, which I can't remember the last time they were competitive at a 1.5-mile track.
The real learning experience for Wallace begins this week in a car not as good as the top 30 percent entered.