By David Morgan, Associate Editor
A year after the COVID-19 pandemic threw the brakes on the 2020 season, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to the epicenter of where it all came to a screeching halt – Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The series would return to the 1.5-mile quad oval later in the year to make up the rescheduled Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, albeit without spectators. Fast forward to this Sunday and NASCAR’s best will have a limited number of fans in the stands to cheer them on as they tackle Atlanta’s challenging surface.
The aging asphalt at Atlanta, having not been repaved since its reconfiguration in 1997, always gets rave reviews from drivers who enjoy slipping and sliding around on the worn-out surface. Tire management will play a big role in the final outcome of the race with the abrasiveness that the track offers over the course of a run.
When the green flag drops on Sunday, Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. will start on the front row, followed by the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. The remainder of the top-10 starters for the 325-lap race are Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, William Byron, and Ryan Blaney.
By the Numbers
What: Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 6 of 36
Where: Atlanta Motor Speedway – Hampton, Georgia (Opened: 1960; Reconfigured: 1997)
TV/Radio: FOX, 3:00 pm ET / PRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90
Track Size: 1.54-mile quad-oval
Banking: 24 degrees in turns; 5 degrees on straightaways
Race Length: 325 laps, 500.5 miles
Stage Lengths: First two stages – 105 laps each, Final stage – 115 laps
Pit Road Speed: 45 mph
2020 Winner: Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford (Started ninth, 151 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 – 102.2
- Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 96.9
- Martin Truex Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 96.9
- Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – 96.7
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 94.7
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 94.0
- Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 93.1
- Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 90.2
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 83.6
- Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 83.6
From the Driver’s Seat
“Atlanta (Motor Speedway) is tough. It’s an old surface, for sure, which I think makes it fun for the drivers. I feel like a lot of people enjoy going there because of that,” said Chase Elliott.
“Just the pace fall-off is massive. Every lap you run, you’re pretty much losing time. If you can run two laps the same in the first 10-15 laps of a run, you’ve really done well, at least in the past. This package, you might be able to run a couple the same; maybe a little longer than you could before. But, still, the fall-off is definitely there. That’s what makes the race track so challenging; just trying to find some consistency, trying to get in a rhythm and not beat up your tires. That’s a hard thing to do when you’re trying to go really fast and trying to set a good pace at the same time. It’s always been a challenge and I’d say always will be, as long as the surface is like it is.”
Last Time at Atlanta
Atlanta Motor Speedway has held a special place in Kevin Harvick’s heart since capturing his first career win at the track back in 2001, just three weeks after the passing of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in the car he used to pilot.
Fast forward to the past three years and Harvick has been a mainstay in Victory Lane at Atlanta, winning the 2018 event and again last year for his third win at the track.
In the 2020 running of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, Martin Truex Jr. did his best to keep Harvick at bay, winning the first two stages of the race and leading 62 laps, but in the end, Harvick was just too strong, passing Truex and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch at the start of the final stage and never looked back.
By the time the checkered flag flew, Harvick had led a race-high 151 laps and crossed the finish line with a healthy 3.527-second margin of victory over Busch and Truex.
In celebration of his win, Harvick spun around and drove backwards around the track with three fingers out the window, paying tribute to Earnhardt in the same fashion as he did when he scored his first win at Atlanta 19 years earlier.
“For me, this place is pretty special just because of the fact that this is where I got my first win, so for me coming back here, it brings back a lot of memories. It brings back a lot of things that we didn’t really know how to celebrate on that particular day, and I think as you look at being able to go back and win another race here and celebrate the life of Dale Earnhardt, everything that he meant to our sport in the right way, each time we’re able to come here is obviously pretty special for me, and to be able to win at Atlanta is a lot of fun for me because it’s one of my favorite racetracks.
“It was a battle today. The car didn’t really handle like we wanted it to most of the day. They made some great adjustments at the end of the race and were able to get the car right when it counted there at the end.
“Got the track position that we needed to get to the inside lane on the restart, and the car actually turned, and we were able to take the lead from Kyle and get the track position and then just start clicking off laps.”