QuikTrip 500 Preview

The 1-2-3 Daytona 500 finish by Joe Gibbs Racing will be the last time we see restrictor-plate racing as we've become familiar with, and Sunday's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway will begin a new era of NASCAR as it debuts a new engine and new aero package aimed at bolstering competition. The combination of a smaller tapered spacer reducing horsepower from 750 horsepower down to 550 and aero ducts are expected to produce tighter races and allow for more passing.

If you thought the randomness of plate racing between the four races at Daytona and Talladega was like throwing darts or shooting craps when attempting to pick a winner, wait until we get a look at these cars during Friday and Saturday's 80-minute practice sessions. There's going to be lots of pack racing in the same way we saw Sunday, which is good.

After whining for two weeks about the Ford dominance during Speedweeks and the lack of passing, Sunday's race showed me the racing was much different with 40 cars on the tracks rather than 20 in the Clash or Duels. I enjoyed it, and now plates are gone, or kind of.

I saw several driver comments and the speeds from the Las Vegas test session three weeks ago with this new package and came away with the notion that the huge edge elite teams had has been erased. The lower level teams may get closer to teams like Penske, Stewart Haas Racing and JGR.

Another team that is expected to get back to elite status this season is Hendrick Motorsports, particularly Jimmie Johnson, who went winless for the first time in his career last season.

“Leaving Daytona, we all certainly have a little spark of energy," said Johnson won the Clash two weeks ago. "To be able to recover from the wrecks we were involved in and be there at the end is certainly a great start. This weekend in Atlanta is a completely different deal as we roll out the 2019 rules package. In my eyes, the cars are going to be faster and we are all going to be closer together, there will be more passing, and there is going to be a lot of excitement with the 2019 package. I was able to test Las Vegas and we had some drafting sessions."

Johnson was fastest in one of the test sessions at 178.885 mph which is about 10 mph slower than the pole winner at Las Vegas last fall. He's a five-time winner at Atlanta (last time in 2016) and has 14 top-five finishes which are both the most among active drivers. In 27 starts he's had an 11th-place average finish. He's 25-to-1 to win at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook which should be attractive for all NASCAR bettors considering the new package, his performance in testing, a new sponsor, and a new crew chief.

Las Vegas and Atlanta are 1.5-mile high banked sister tracks and while both tracks race differently, the Las Vegas test, where each team sent one driver as a representative to take notes, is a good barometer to how they'll run Sunday.

One of the biggest surprises from three Vegas test sessions over two days was Austin Dillon, who was second-fastest in the final two sessions and fourth fastest in the first one.

“We had a successful test," said Dillon. "I enjoyed being out there and I felt like we had some good speed. I’m looking forward to getting to Atlanta Motor Speedway to see how that race is, and then Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be the next part of the rules package. I’m pumped. I think it’s going to be interesting for sure.”

The most interesting part is that the Superbook has Dillon 50-to-1 to win Sunday. Sure, he's never had a top-10 in six Atlanta starts, but I've also never seen the No. 3 with Dillon being among the elite during practices on any 1.5-mile track. Richard Childress Racing might be in the mix weekly again which would be amazing for the sport.

Without having any kind of data other than the Vegas test, I think we all have to throw our normal betting procedures away and learn on the go and listen intently to what these drivers and crew chiefs are saying.

“I think it will take a little bit of time for everyone to adapt to the new rules package,” said Daniel Suarez who is 60-to-1 to win this week. “At the end of the day, though, it’s going to be like any other race. Whoever hits on something first and figures out how to go faster is going to be winning races sooner. I don’t want to waste too much time thinking about if the package is good or bad. What’s important is figuring out how to adapt to it and to go fast and win races.”

Suarez is another one of those guys that should get some consideration to win this week which would be his first Cup win. The SHR No. 41 finished eighth or better in its last three starts at Atlanta with Kurt Busch driving. There's also Suarez finishing second in the All-Star race last season that used a package similar to what is being used now.

The winner of that All-Star race was Suarez's new SHR teammate Kevin Harvick. He also won the Atlanta race last season to start a three-race win streak. Yeah, I remember whining about the racing then, too. The crazy thing about Harvick and Atlanta is that he's led the most laps (1,152) among all active drivers despite winning only twice, the first of which was his rookie year (2001) taking over the car three weeks after Dale Earnhardt passed. That's a large gap in between wins.

Since joining SHR in 2014, Harvick has led the most laps in all five Atlanta races since. He's led at least 116 in all five, and on one occasion in 2017 he led 292 of the 325 laps only to have some late issues and finish ninth.

Harvick wasn't at the Vegas test, but Clint Bowyer represented the SHR stable well. Despite not knowing anything about how Harvick's new car will run, his past Atlanta history and the All-Star race win is enough for the Superbook to make him the 4-to-1.

The driver that stole that 2017 Atlanta win from Harvick was Brad Keselowski and I like him to fare well this week even more because of what he did in Las Vegas during the test where he got better each session and closed out the final practice with the fastest lap at 178.436 mph. Team Penske made the most of the opportunity and ran the most laps between the final two sessions, a total of 159 laps. No other team came close to running that many. They should come in fast off the hauler, and that includes Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.

Chase Elliott should be getting some home cooking this week and he also gets to use teammate Johnson's notes from Vegas.

“Always nice to go race in Atlanta," said Elliott who hails from Dawsonville, Georgia. "It’s a special place and there's definitely a lot of fans around home so I always enjoy going back. More than that, it's a fun racetrack to drive. I've enjoyed racing there from a driver standpoint, and glad they didn't repave it. With it being the second race of the year, we can all get back to downforce racing. Big transition and an important week to see how we all stack up. I’m looking forward to getting there.”

He's had three Cup starts at Atlanta and finished in the top-10 in all three. He's 10-to-1 to win this week.

I should also mention that Bubba Wallace was fastest in the second Las Vegas session, something I haven't seen Wallace ever come close to on a 1.5-mile track. It's quite possible that the Richard Petty program may have got a major breakthrough with the new package. It would be awesome to see the famed No. 43 competitive weekly. Oh yeah, Wallace is 300-to-1 at the Superbook.

Good luck this week, folks!

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #4 Kevin Harvick (4/1)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (25/1)
3) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
4) #9 Chase Elliott (10/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)