Photo: Logan T. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Previewing the Quaker State 400 at Atlanta

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

The end of an era.

With the oldest track surface in NASCAR, having not been repaved since it’s 1997 reconfiguration, Atlanta Motor Speedway always gets rave reviews from drivers who enjoy slipping and sliding around on the worn-out surface.

To come home victorious in Sunday’s Quaker State 400, drivers will have a war on two fronts to battle. First, 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. Add in the scorching heat of a July sun in Georgia, and an already tough race gets even tougher.

While Atlanta’s racing surface has been held together as long as possible, the 260 laps around the 1.5-mile track on Sunday will be the last on the current surface as the track will be undergoing a repave and reconfiguration for the 2022 season.

The current 24-degree banking in the turns will be increased to 28 degrees, making the banking the highest among intermediate tracks in NASCAR. The straightaways will remain banked at five degrees. In addition, the racing surface will be narrowed from 55 feet to 40 feet in the turns, 52 feet on the front stretch, and 42 feet on the back stretch.

“As Atlanta’s racing surface has aged, we’ve challenged ourselves to reimagine what NASCAR racing at an intermediate track can be,” said Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith. “With high banks in the turns, narrower width and new pavement technology, Atlanta will be unlike any other mile-and-a-half track on the circuit. It’s all new for ’22 and this will be specifically designed for close, competitive racing.”

“Our operations staff has done everything possible to extend the life of our racing surface, and as a result fans have enjoyed some historic moments and fantastic finishes at Atlanta,” added AMS Executive Vice President and General Manager Brandon Hutchison. “While this asphalt cannot outlast Father Time, the memories of the great racing will last forever. NASCAR’s best will have one more chance to add to the legacy of this surface with a grand finale at the Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart on July 11.”

Hometown hero Chase Elliott will lead the field to the green Sunday, with two-time Atlanta winner Kyle Busch starting on the outside of the front row. The remainder of the top-10 starters include: Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, Tyler Reddick, Kurt Busch, Ross Chastain, and Joey Logano.

By the Numbers

What: Quaker State 400, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 21 of 36

Where: Atlanta Motor Speedway – Hampton, Georgia (Opened: 1960; Reconfigured: 1997)

TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network, 3:30 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: 260 laps, 400.4 miles

Stage Lengths: First two stages – 80 laps each, Final stage – 100 laps

Pit Road Speed: 45 mph

March 2021 Winner: Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Ford (Started 10th, 25 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Geoffrey Bodine (197.478 mph, 28.074 seconds – 11/15/1997)

Top-10 Driver Ratings at Atlanta:

  1. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford – 101.4
  2. Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 98.0
  3. Martin Truex Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 96.7
  4. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 95.6
  5. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – 95.4
  6. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 94.6
  7. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 94.4
  8. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 91.0
  9. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 89.9
  10. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 83.3

From the Driver’s Seat

“I would say Atlanta is probably, to me at least, the hardest place to just go around by yourself,” said Chase Briscoe. “It’s just extremely challenging to do the same thing twice.  The grip level is literally different from lap one to lap two, quite drastically truthfully, and it’s just a lot of hard work from a standpoint of the car never wants to do what you’re wanting it to do.  It’s not gonna have grip. 

“It almost feels like you’re on ice at all times and it would be like taking an exit ramp in the middle of an ice storm and you’re trying to drive it at 150 miles an hour.  It just doesn’t want to stick.  It doesn’t want to do anything you want it to do, and it just wants to slide you right off of it and it’s the same at Atlanta.

“It’s a great racetrack from a driver’s standpoint because it is so challenging and as a driver when you go to Atlanta you feel like you can make a difference, where some of these places we go you’re kind of stuck at what your car is, where Atlanta you can normally pick off a couple more spots if your car is off just by being able to kind of hang it out and find speed.  So, it’s a really challenging place.

“Obviously, in the heat it’s even tough, just a lot less grip.  From a physical side, I would say for all the ovals it’s for sure probably the hardest just because you are constantly working the wheel.  It’s back and forth and you’re countersteering almost more than you’re turning left there, so it’s just a lot of work from the steering side of things and also the pedals — how much you’re on the gas, out of the gas, on the brake.”

Last Time at Atlanta

On more than a few occasions in his NASCAR Cup Series career, Kyle Larson has dominated a race to the level he did a few months ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway only to fall short in the end.

Leading 269 laps and winning the first two stages of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, Larson seemed to be on cruise control toward his second win of the season, but as the laps wound down and tire management came into play, a confluence of events would keep Larson from capturing the victory.

Throughout the 325-lap event, the only driver that could keep pace with Larson was Ryan Blaney, and with Larson’s pace fading on worn out tires, Blaney saw his opportunity to capitalize and took it. Closing in on Larson as the laps clicked by, Blaney made his move with nine laps to go and never looked back, taking the lead away from Larson and marching on to the victory.

“Gosh, we had a great long run car all day,” said Blaney. “It took us a little bit to get going.  I was pretty free all day, so we made a really good change to tighten me up where I needed it and it looked like Kyle was getting loose and I’m happy it worked in our favor that there was a couple long runs at the end that kind of let us get there. 

“He got slowed up behind some lap traffic, but I’m really proud of this whole BodyArmor, Menards No. 12 group.  We’ve been good this year and had some bad breaks and it’s nice to close out a race like that.  That was awesome.”

Larson noted that he did his best to manage his tires as the final green flag run played out, but with Blaney closing the gap as the finish drew nearer, he ran harder to try and maintain the advantage he had over Blaney and wound up using up his tires, leaving him vulnerable to Blaney’s late race attack.

“I think he just got a lot better that last stage and it kind of changed up my flow of the race,” Larson said. “I could get out to such a big lead and I could take care of my stuff and run the bottom, where it was maybe slower, but I could take care of my tires.

“He was fast there (in the final run), and I just wanted to maintain that gap that I had, so I had to run in the faster part of the race track and just used my stuff up. He was just a lot better than me there late in the run. I hate to lead a lot of laps and lose, but we had a really good car that we brought to the track. Our (No. 5) Hendrick Cars Chevy was stupid-fast there for a long time. I don’t know if we got that much worse, or if he just got way better.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.