By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
That was certainly a race weekend, wasn’t it?
Atlanta Motor Speedway
Whatever you want to call it nowadays, the Ambetter Health 400 weekend certainly produced no shortage of topics:
The Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski superspeedway duel
The racing product prior to the final green flag run
The crashing product on Saturday during a Trucks, Xfinity doubleheader
The Josh Williams situation
That is to say nothing of the lingering effects in the aftermath of the historic penalties doled out to Hendrick Motorsports and Kaulig Racing PLUS the Denny Hamlin actions detrimental penalty stemming from his comments on Action Detrimental.
It was certainly a race week, indeed.
HOW FORD WINS RIGHT NOW
It’s no secret that Ford Performance is third on the manufacturer pecking order right now and has been for the better part of a calendar year once teams started to figure out the Next Gen platform.
And yet, Joey Logano is the reigning Cup Series champion and now the most recent winner and it comes down to Blue Oval teams maximizing their performance at the tracks where they either have an advantage (superspeedways) or are largely on a level (short tracks and road courses) playing field.
Chevrolet has a well-documented aerodynamic advantage.
For a team like Penske to continue having chances, it comes down to maximizing tracks where horsepower matters (superspeedways) and a mechanical grip (short track, roads) advantage, according to team vice chairman Walt Czarnecki.
“I think (winning Atlanta was) clearly very, very important, particularly when the Chevrolets have been running, starting with Daytona,” Czarnecki said.
“We had an opportunity at Daytona. Came up a little bit short there. I won’t say ‘struggled,’ that’s too strong a word, but the Chevrolets clearly have had an advantage.
“To come back and perform the way we did, not just Joey, but all the Fords, is a real plus, a real bonus for us. Again, a testimony to the people at Ford we work with, Doug Yates particularly. When I saw him a minute ago, I said, That was a Doug Yates power move that Joey made. Thanks to them.”
Logano knows his organizational strengths too and that’s what made this such an important race.
“I think the whole garage knows what direction we’ve gone at this point, where our strengths are going to be, where our weaknesses are going to be,” Logano said. “Our strengths definitely obviously when you see a top eight qualifying is Fords, you pretty much know what the strengths are at that point, right? It’s pretty easy to see it.
“Yeah, we knew we needed to come here and maximize our day. Stage win, a pole, leading a bunch of laps, almost had a second stage win if I didn’t make a mistake there. Ultimately at least I didn’t make a mistake on the last lap.”
That’s not to say Ford teams can’t win under any other circumstances, because they absolutely can, but these are the rare races they expect to be top of the charts and pecking order.
IT IS WHAT IT IS
In a stark comparison to what Atlanta Motor Speedway used to represent, the new high-banked intermediate-superspeedway hybrid in Hampton, Georgia is not for the racing purists amongst us. It’s the dream personified of every NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports executive who spent years in the pursuit of 550 package style racing at intermediate tracks across the country.
NA18D was absolutely the intended bridge to the kind of show put on the past three race weekends at Atlanta.
And while entirely unscientific, the near 50-50 vote balance on the Jeff Gluck Race Poll, is pretty indicative of what this represents to the fanbase on the whole. There have also been two fan bases, those who enjoy the sport and those who enjoy the show, and New Atlanta is very much about the show.
It certainly produced a finish, a legitimately compelling side-by-side duel between two of the best plate racers of their generation in Logano and Keselowski, with the equally great at this Denny Hamlin and Corey Lajoie mixed into the finish too.
No one crashed, which was a refreshing breath of fresh air compared to what Daytona and Talladega has become, an endless rash of overtime finishes that produce a bit of a random number generated winner.
And to that point, Lajoie says Atlanta right now is kind of the idealized form of superspeedway racing, giving drivers a lot of input towards the results.
“You have to drive these things,” Lajoie said. “They’re sliding around and it’s easy to put yourself in a bad aero spot. You always have to be on your toes. You can’t get lazy because someone will put you three-wide. You obviously have to execute your pit stops, and you have to put a complete day together.
“To me, and to each their own, but this takes a 30th place team on paper like ours and allows us to run top-5 so I like Atlanta.”
Logano agreed with that to a point as well.
“Handling comes into play a lot,” said the two-time champion. “You got to think of it in a different light than what you do at those type racetracks, Daytona or Talladega. It’s kind of a mix in between it. Confused on what it wants to be.
I’d say it’s going through puberty, it’s in an awkward stage. It doesn’t know what it wants to be. If it’s a mile-and-a-half, superspeedway, at times in the race it feels like it’s going back to a regular mile-and-a-half as tires wear out, but then you put tires on, it’s easy wide open, changes the game. You just have to be evolving and changing a lot as you go along with it.
“Yeah, mentally you’re exhausted. Maybe not physically the most demanding racetrack, but mentally, I’m shot.”
With all of that said, the first half of the race was entirely uneventful, three laps of racing off the restarts and then resorting to single file until the final lap of the stage.
“Pretty boring to be honest,” said Noah Gragson. “Just running single file in the middle lane and I don’t know if that’s what this place was intended for. I mean, I’m okay with it, I guess.”
And after the crashfests on Saturday for Trucks and Xfinity, nearly 40 percent of the day contested under caution, NASCAR veteran Justin Allgaier was ready to tear the place down.
“It’s just not fun., this style of racing,” Allgaier said. “After the reconfiguration of the track, to me, it’s completely ruined this place. I hope we can figure something out, because the fans here, this market for us, this is such a great place, and it’s always been unbelievable racing.”
“And, to do what we’re doing right now, I think we ran, what, maybe 20 green flag laps, and before halfway. That’s unrealistic for what we should be doing. And we definitely need to go back to the drawing board and figure something out before we come back here in the fall.”
But there is no drawing board to go back to. The banking has been raised, there’s no increasing the horsepower and lowering the downforce, because that’s probably an extremely dangerous proposition.
Ultimately, this new Atlanta, even as it continues to lose grip with age, is what it is.
ABOUT JOSH WILLIAMS
Surely the industry would have loved a more compelling story to come out of Saturday night, but Josh Williams was the best the Raptor 250 could muster between all the crashes.
But it’s important to understand exactly why it played out that way.
Yes, NASCAR had a legitimate ruling precedence for ordering Williams to park his car in the garage after he brought out a caution for debris following his involvement in one of the many crashes. Specifically, it was for a piece of Bear Bond that had come loose.
NASCAR leaned on this rule:
“At the discretion of the Series Managing Director, if a damaged vehicle elects not to enter pit road on the first opportunity or if a damage vehicle exits pit road before sufficient repairs had been made and thereafter causes or extends a caution flag (e.g. leaking fluid, debris, etc.), then said vehicle may icur a lap(s) or time penalty or may not be permitted to return to the Race.”
It was a very cold day and Bear Bond, which is basically a giant sheet of electrical tape, needs heat to become adhesive.
Instead of parking his car in the garage, Williams parked in on the frontstretch, bringing out another caution, and left the car to walk to pit road.
He feels, and he is right, that NASCAR does not always automatically go to straight parking a car for an instance like that. This was yet another caution on a day in which NASCAR had exceeded its allotted TV window for the race by halfway.
Williams felt race control was being unfair, and frankly, showed his ass about it.
“I didn’t do it to be spiteful and create a huge scene,” Williams said. “I just wanted to voice my opinion that it wasn’t right. But it’s in the rulebook.”
It was spiteful and a huge scene, and NASCAR Xfinity Series director Wayne Auton immediately ordered him to the series hauler to wait out the remainder of the race for a meeting. He wasn’t allowed to leave the hauler. It was effectively time out.
Williams was effectively in the hauler for two and a half hours until Auton met with him for 20 minutes to discuss it.
“We’re a small team,” Williams said of Mario Gosselin’s DGM Racing. “We work really hard. We have to make our sponsors happy, right? It doesn’t do you any good sitting in the garage. It is what it is. We’ll learn from it and move on.
“I just said I was a little bit frustrated, but it’s in the rulebook. It’s up to them (on the penalty). It’s their sandbox and we play in it. I enjoy the Xfinity Series and respect Wayne and everybody and we just move on and go to the next one.”
He could be penalized for any number of infractions from ignoring a directive from race control to walking on a hot track.
It could even be terms for a suspension.
“It’s up to Wayne and everybody at NASCAR,” Williams said. “If that’s what the rule is and that’s what they decide to do, every action has a reaction. It is what it is. It’s racing. You have bad days and good days.”