By David Morgan, Associate Editor
After a three-week stint out west, the NASCAR Cup Series is much closer to home this weekend as it heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the second superspeedway race of the season – Sunday’s Ambetter Health 400.
Atlanta’s aging racing surface, which had been in place since 1997, held together as long as possible, but the 260 laps around the 1.5-mile track in July 2021 were the last on that particular surface as the track underwent a repave and reconfiguration for the 2022 season.
The 24-degree banking in the turns was increased to 28 degrees, making the banking the highest among intermediate tracks in NASCAR. The straightaways remain banked at five degrees. In addition, the racing surface was narrowed from 55 feet to 40 feet in the turns, 52 feet on the front stretch, and 42 feet on the back stretch.
Two races have now been held on the superspeedway version of Atlanta, with Hendrick Motorsports sweeping both races. William Byron, who comes into the weekend having won back-to-back races, claimed the win in the spring race, while hometown hero Chase Elliott captured the victory in the summer race.
Following their massive penalty that was handed out a few days ago, Hendrick will look to keep their streak alive and start to recoup some of the points losses that they have been dealt.
On the manufacturer front, Chevrolet is undefeated through the first four races of the season, with the other manufacturers hoping to use the wild-card nature of “new Atlanta” to their advantage and break the bowtie stranglehold on the Cup Series in 2023.
As is always the case at superspeedway races, there will be no practice this weekend. The drivers and teams will show up and qualify on Saturday before heading into Sunday’s main event.
By the Numbers
What: Ambetter Health 400, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 5 of 36
Where: Atlanta Motor Speedway – Hampton, Georgia (Opened: 1960; Reconfigured: 1997/2021)
TV/Radio: FOX, 3:00 pm ET / PRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90
Track Size: 1.54-mile quad-oval
Banking: 28 degrees in turns; 5 degrees on straightaways
Race Length: 260 laps, 400.4 miles
Stage Lengths: First stage – 60 laps, Second stage and Final stage – 100 laps
March 2022 Winner: William Byron – No. 24 Chevrolet (Started 12th, 111 laps led)
July 2022 Winner: Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet (Started on pole, 96 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Geoffrey Bodine (197.478 mph, 28.074 seconds – 11/15/1997)
Top-10 Driver Ratings at Atlanta:
- Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford – 97.6
- Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 97.0
- Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 95.7
- Martin Truex Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 95.7
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 94.7
- Kyle Busch – No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet – 93.5
- Brad Keselowski – No. 6 Roush Fenway Keselowski Ford – 90.5
- Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 90.2
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 83.4
- Tyler Reddick – No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota – 80.8
From the Driver’s Seat
“I feel like Atlanta is probably the most mentally draining place that we go to now,” said Chase Briscoe. “It’s kind of a hybrid. It’s obviously a shorter track by an entire mile versus a Daytona or Talladega, but it’s the same concept of racing.
“You’re in a pack, but with it being a mile shorter, things just happen so much faster. Your reaction time has to be better. The runs develop so much faster and quicker. Your spotter has to be able to communicate to you a lot quicker and your brain has to process things a lot quicker, so I feel like mentally draining-wise last year both Mondays after the Atlanta race I was just exhausted and drained from a mental side of things.
“But from the driving side it’s a little bit of a hybrid in a sense where we are in a pack, but at a Daytona or Talladega your car is always gonna be able to run wide-open just because of how big the racetrack is and the corners are so long, where at Atlanta balance is certainly an issue. The handling of the car is very important. Hardly anybody can run wide-open unless you’re in the lead, so balance comes into place. The longer the run goes on your car starts slipping and sliding around a lot more, so it’s just a lot different than a Daytona or Talladega, so that part makes it interesting because the car is so important.
“At Daytona and Talladega it’s maybe not as important, so that side of it is fun because you do get a little bit of mix from both styles of racing, but from a mentally draining side it is extremely exhausting to run Atlanta because your mind is constantly working. At Daytona and Talladega, you can kind of get a little bit of a break or relax down the straightaways because you kind of know where the runs are gonna develop, but at Atlanta there is no time to take a breather.”
Last Time at Atlanta
Georgia native Chase Elliott finally broke through and captured a win at his home track last summer, but it was no cake walk for him to bring home the victory.
Journeyman driver Corey Lajoie had taken over the lead late in the race as he was looking for his first career Cup Series win, but a caution in the waning laps set up a restart with three laps to go to settle things.
Lajoie put up a hell of a fight, but Elliott was a man on a mission, powering into second-place with a bold three-wide move and keeping a head of steam as he swept around Lajoie on the high side to take the lead entering Turn 1 with two laps to go.
Giving it his all, Lajoie had a push from Erik Jones to try and retake the lead from Elliott on the last lap, but Elliott moved up to block and Lajoie wound up in the wall, eventually losing control of his car to bring out the final caution flag.
In the blink on an eye, Lajoie went from battling for the win to watching the No. 7 tumble down the leaderboard, ending up in 21st when all was said and done.
Since the yellow flew on the final lap, the field was frozen at the moment of caution with Elliott in the lead, making him the winner and securing a weekend sweep for Georgia born drivers.
“This one is up there for sure, man,” Elliott said. “To win at your home track is a really big deal, I think to any race car driver. I’ve watched a lot of guys do it over the years, Jimmie out in California. We haven’t really had a very good run here, so I felt like today was a great opportunity for us.
“But just so proud. This is obviously home for me, home to a lot of great fans who made a lot of noise today, home for NAPA right down the road in Atlanta. Couldn’t be more proud of our team. What a car. I mean, I’m not sure we’ve ever had a speedway car that good. If we have, I’ve probably wrecked it down at Daytona.
“But just, man, what a few weeks it’s been. I feel like I gave one away last week, and to come back and to put on a performance like that, I’m really proud of that.
“Excited to get home. It’s going to be a big one tonight. I’m looking forward to it.”
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Saturday, March 18
- NCS Qualifying (11:35 am – FOX Sports 1)
Sunday, March 19
- NCS Ambetter Health 400 (3:00 pm – 260 laps, 400.4 miles – FOX)
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