By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
After last Sunday’s barn burner of a finish in the Daytona 500, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series packs up and heads to Georgia for this weekend’s running of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
With Atlanta being the first non-restrictor plate track on the 2017 schedule, the track will be the first to employ the new lower downforce rules package, which includes a few reductions from last season’s low downforce package, namely with a smaller rear spoiler, front splitter, as well as a tapered rear deck fin and a rear steer setting of zero.
Atlanta also has a track surface that is old and worn, having not been repaved since its reconfiguration in 1997, with the track always getting rave reviews from drivers who enjoy slipping and sliding around on the worn out asphalt. The track has been unpredictable when it comes to which driver will end the day in victory lane as seven different drivers have found victory lane in the last eight races.
Sunday’s race will be the last on this current surface as the track will be repaving the facility after the race weekend concludes and will feature a fresh coat of asphalt when the series returns in 2018
“Many of NASCAR’s greatest moments have occurred on this racing surface, and I have no doubt the world’s best drivers will give it a proper final event before the new surface comes to life. Whichever driver can take home the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 trophy in 2017 will mark the end of one era of great racing in AMS history and the beginning of another,” said AMS president Ed Clark.
By the Numbers
Opened: 1960 (Re-configured in 1997)
Track Size: 1.54 mile quad oval (Turns: 24 degrees; Straightaways: 5 degrees)
Race Length: 325 laps, 500.5 miles
Stage Lengths: Stage 1 and 2: 85 laps each; Final Stage: 155 laps
Pit Road Speed: 45 mph
Fuel Window: 50-55 laps
2016 Race Winner: Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – Started 19th, 52 laps led
Track Qualifying Record: Geoffrey Bodine (197.478 mph, 28.074 seconds – 11/15/1997)
Top-10 Driver Ratings at Atlanta:
- Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 107.1
- Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 98.3
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 95.5
- Chase Elliott – No. 24 Chevrolet – 95.5
- Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 95.4
- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet – 95.1
- Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 94.7
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 93.1
- Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 78 Toyota – 92.4
- Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 87.7
From the Driver’s Seat
“Atlanta is a real handful, no doubt about that. With tires wearing out so quickly we’re going to have a hard time making a full fuel run on a set of tires without having issues. It’s going to be a lot of fun and I am looking forward to it,” said Martin Truex, Jr.
“The key to being successful at Atlanta is to have a balance with the short and long-run speeds. You definitely need a mixture of both. If it comes down to a late race restart, you must have the ability to go fast for a short run. If it goes long green-flag runs, you can find yourself in trouble if you’re having issues with long-run speed. It will be interesting to see how short the fuel runs will be with the tire wear. Stage racing throws a new wrinkle into the strategy for pitting, fuel runs and tire wear.”
Last Season’s Results
Jimmie Johnson made it two in a row in the Peach State by winning last season’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta in much the same fashion as he had done in 2015. Johnson took over the lead on the final round of green-flag pit stops and held onto the point for the remainder of the race to take home his fifth win on the 1.5 mile quad-oval.
Along with the win being Johnson’s first of the season, it also marked another milestone as he reached 76 career wins and tied Dale Earnhardt, Sr. on the all-time wins list, a mark he would eclipse later in the 2016 season before scoring his seventh title to tie Earnhardt and Richard Petty in that long-held record.
“It was just a great team effort. The No. 4 (Kevin Harvick) car was awfully tough and it was going to take some strategy to get by him. When he told me to whip it as hard as I could there, I just felt like I was going to take too much life out of the tires. But, it worked. And I got rolling around the top and got to where I got this Lowe’s Chevy in Victory Lane. I’m so happy for Hendrick Motorsports and for everybody at Chevrolet,” Johnson said.
“It’s such an honor. With the chaos at the end and the crash and wondering about overtime and how it worked these days, I kind of lost sight of that. I remembered it on my victory lap coming down, and I had to come by and throw a ‘three’ out the window to pay my respects to the man. There’s a huge void in my career that I never had a chance to race with him, but at least I was able to tie his record.”
Following Johnson to the line was his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who beat Kyle Busch to the finish by a nose. Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex, Jr., Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. rounded out the top-10.
Who to Watch
- Chase Elliott – The second year Hendrick Motorsports driver, who hails from Georgia, will be looking to put last weekend’s heartbreak in the Daytona 500 behind him as he seeks his first career Cup Series win at his hometown track. In his first start at Atlanta last season, Elliott started 24th, but brought home an eighth place finish when the checkered flag flew.
- Jimmie Johnson – Looking to find victory lane at Atlanta for the third straight year, Johnson comes into the weekend with the most wins at the track among active drivers with five (2004, 2007 sweep, 2015, and 2016). In addition to the wins, Johnson has 14 top-five finishes, 16 top-10 finishes, 584 laps led, and an average finish of 10.7 in 25 starts.
- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – After finding an early exit in the Daytona 500, Earnhardt heads to Atlanta looking to make up the ground he lost last weekend and improve upon last season’s runner-up finish. In 29 starts, Earnhardt has one win (2004), 10 top-five finishes, 14 top-10 finishes, two poles, 633 laps led, and an average finish of 11.6.
- Matt Kenseth – Kenseth enters Atlanta looking to not only rebound from a poor finish at Daytona after getting involved in a crash, but also redeeming himself from last season’s results at Atlanta after he led 47 laps early, but had a pit road penalty and subsequent black flag take him out of contention. Kenseth has yet to win at Atlanta, but has 10 top-five finishes, 16 top-10 finishes, 363 laps led, and an average finish of 12.2 in 28 starts.
- Kyle Busch – The season may have started off on the wrong foot for Busch after crashing out at Daytona, but the 2015 series champion heads to a track where he has had some success throughout his career. Busch has two wins (2008 and 2013), five top-five finishes, six top-10 finishes, 423 laps led, and an average finish of 15.2 in 18 starts.
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
- Friday, March 3
- MENCS Practice (Noon to 1:25 pm – FOX Sports 1)
- MENCS Qualifying (5:45 pm – FOX Sports 1)
- Saturday, March 4
- MENCS Final Practice (Noon – 1:20 pm – FOX Sports 1)
- Sunday, March 5
- MENCS Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta (2:30 pm – 325 laps, 500.05 miles – FOX)