With the end of the west-coast swing, teams are now heading back to the southeast where they’ll take on Atlanta Motor Speedway in Georgia.
Atlanta Motor Speedway hosted its first NASCAR Cup Series in 1960 after being constructed as a 1.5-mile oval similar to Homestead-Miami Speedway. “Fireball” Roberts the first race in a Pontiac, and from then on, Atlanta hosted two-to-three Cup Series races every year through 2010. 2021 will mark the first time in 11 years that Atlanta hosts two Cup Series races.
After the track was acquired by Speedway Motorsports Incorporated (SMI), the track underwent a huge overhaul, starting with the grandstands. The overhaul was completed in 1997 with a reconfiguration of what was the backstretch, which had a double dogleg added and now became the front of the track with the start/finish line. The new, slightly larger 1.54-mile configuration continued to produce great action into the 2000s when the track became one of NASCAR’s fastest.
The reconfiguration also marked the last time the racing surface was repaved. After its age of speed, which lasted into the early 2010s, the track surface began to wear fast. Now, the track is notorious for having a slick and abrasive surface that produces low grip levels on long runs and chews up tires in a fashion similar to Homestead-Miami Speedway and Darlington Raceway. The track was supposed to undergo a repave after its 2017 race weekend, but after fans and drivers raved about the great racing that the aged surface was producing, the repave was pushed off until after the 2018 race weekend. That repave has still not happened.
The site which hosted the Cup Series championship from 1987 until 2001 is currently preparing for another massive overhaul which could define the next generation of racetracks and even for sports and entertainment complexes. In October 2019, the speedway unveiled a plan to completely transform the area around the racetrack and possibly the track itself. The proposed complex is slated to have it all: a 700-room hotel, a casino, a convention center, timeshare apartments, an outlet mall, multiple dining options, a nightclub, a cinema, an amusement park and more, but it’s unclear how ongoing the COVID-19 pandemic may affect these plans.
This weekend, just like at Miami, tire strategy will be of utmost importance for drivers to conquer the first 500-mile race of the season after the Daytona 500. More than likely, even short runs of just a few laps will bring a majority of drivers down pit road for new Goodyear tires.
RACE AND TRACK STATS
Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway — Hampton, Georgia
Track Length: 1.54 miles
Race Length: 325 laps/500.5 miles
Pit Road Speed Limit: 45 mph
Defending Winner: Kevin Harvick
Package: 550 horsepower, high downforce
First Race: 1960
First Winner: “Fireball” Roberts
Most Wins: Dale Earnhardt, 9 wins (1980, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2000)
Stage 1: 105 laps (ends on lap 105)
Stage 2: 105 laps (ends on lap 210)
Final Stage: 115 laps (ends on lap 325)
FIVE TO KEEP YOUR EYES ON
Brad Keselowski has shown strength in the first five races of 2021 and now heads to a racetrack where he’s won twice in the past four races. In his 12 starts, Keselowski has 4 top-fives and an incredible eight top-10 finishes. The worn surface has played into Keselowski’s favor in past years, but his performance at Homestead-Miami Speedway a few weeks ago was a sign that Team Penske needed some help on the long runs. They found a lot of speed the following week at Las Vegas, so it’s not exactly clear if the poor Miami performance really had to do with speed. Keselowski knows how to get it done at Atlanta, so this weekend should be an indication of where Keselowski’s no. 2 team is at with their program for the high-tire-wear tracks.
Kevin Harvick hasn’t had as flashy of a start to this season as he’s had in some recent years, but Atlanta Motor Speedway could provide the opportunity for Harvick to get back to victory lane. Harvick’s first Cup Series win came at the track back in 2001 and has been arguably the best driver at Atlanta of the last decade. He’s scored two wins in the last three races including last year’s. He’s only got one finish outside of the top-10 in the past 10 races at the track and has led 1,212 laps in those races. Harvick is still in need of that spark to make 2021 a great season, and another dominant performance could be exactly the spark he needs.
Kyle Larson may just be the hottest driver so far this season. He only has one finish outside of the top-10 in the first five races and has finished in the top-five in both mile-and-a-half races, including his dominant Las Vegas win. Atlanta has been a pretty hit-or-miss track for Larson, who has three top-10s and two 26th-place finishes in his six Cup Series starts, but with a lot of speed and a win already in his back pocket, he and his no. 5 team can afford to roll the dice and make strategic pit decisions to better their (already very good) chance at winning in Georgia.
Tyler Reddick is still looking for his first-career NASCAR Cup Series win, and Atlanta may be one of his best chances to capture that victory. Reddick has an incredible knack for running the high line on old, worn out racing surfaces. He used those tactics to finish second at Homestead-Miami Speedway just a few weeks ago, and it’s likely that he would have won that race if there had been another five laps or so. Although he did struggle to work his way to the front until the end of that race, he was bad fast when he finally did. If his team has built a similar car and if they can run a little better throughout the middle of the race, Reddick can be there at the end, competing for the win.
The person who has maybe impressed me the most with their improvements for 2021. Outside of the two races at Daytona, Byron has consistently run well. He dominated at Homestead and finished eighth in the last two races. He’s also on a series-high streak of seven-straight top-10 stage finishes. As the winner of the most recent race on an abrasive, slick racetrack, this weekend could be a breeze, but that extra 100 miles could also make a big difference. Byron’s no shoe-in to win this race, but if he can do it and become the first driver in the Cup Series to score multiple victories, Byron may start to be considered as an early contender for the Cup Series championship.
The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 will air live on Sunday, March 21 at 3 p.m. ET on FOX and Performance Racing Network (PRN).