HAMPTON, GA – The first race of the new 2019 rules package was completed on Sunday at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. While a majority of the race fans may be wondering if this switch was really worth it, NASCAR officials says R-E-L-A-X.
See, NASCAR was pleased with how the racing went. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer, talked to the media following Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 and spoke on how entertaining of a race that he saw in his views.
“I saw a fairly entertaining race,” O’Donnell said. “I think like we said going into this race, we didn’t know what to expect either. We thought that this package would showcase itself more as we got to the West Coast, but with some really long green-flag runs, I think you saw the ability to get back up to the leader and make a pass, which was encouraging. So all in all, we’re satisfied with the outcome. A lot of work to do to go back and review it, though.”
O’Donnell indicated that Atlanta’s characteristics increased the pre-race uncertainty levels, especially with the track’s well-worn surface, which was last repaved in 1997.
“I think this one was more of an unknown,” O’Donnell said. “When you looked at this race going in, I think for us, this was the biggest question mark as to how it would play out, so hard to say this is exactly how we predicted. Ultimately, we wanted cars to run closer together, we wanted a battle to play out for the lead at times, which we saw during the race. Some things certainly to work on, but ultimately I think it was the direction where we wanted to go.”
The naked eye and stats tell a different story though. We saw eight different leaders on Sunday. That’s the exact same amount that we saw last year as well as 2016 too. We saw 25 lead changes, only one more than last year but three fewer than 2015 and 2016.
There were nearly 300 less passes than last year and almost 800 fewer on track passes than 2017. 2015 and 2016 had over 3,100 on track passes compared to 2,036 this past weekend. Quality passes grew from 847 to 864 from last year to this, but there were 930 or more in the three years prior to that.
Plus, dirty air was still too large to overcome on Sunday too. We saw plenty of examples of that. That’s the biggest key here.
Kyle Larson was speeding on pit lane on Lap 223, he fell down to the end of the lead lap. He would never be able to come back through the field.
“I had a good day going until I sped (on pit road),” said Larson. “My car handled really good and then once I got where I had to restart in the back, I was just really tight. Yeah, I mean, clean air is even more important nowadays than in the past I think, at least at a track like this. That was a little disappointing, but more so just upset at myself for making a big mistake like that.”
Larson, led a race high 142 laps, 97 more than any other driver. If he can’t come through the field, who can?
Kevin Harvick led 45 laps and had led 100 or more laps in six of the last seven Atlanta races, but said clean air was too good on Sunday too.
What about the next fastest car? Pole sitter Aric Almirola made a mistake on pit road for speeding too and like Larson, struggled to get to the front after.
“Clean air was a big deal,” said Almirola. “Early in the race our car was really fast out front and when we got behind in second it still felt like we were a second or third-place car. Then I made a terrible mistake getting onto pit road and was three-tenths mph too fast and that is too fast. I had to go to the tail and then my goodness was it a challenge. Traffic, cars make so much downforce and we are all going so fast that it is really hard to make passes until late, late, late in the run. So, that is my fault. We had a really fast Smithfield Ford Mustang and it was driver error that made the mistake and that hurt the rest of our day.”
The best example of all is Kyle Busch. He started in the back and made it through the field but once he got to the back again after cutting a tire on Lap 221, he struggled to make it through again.
“We had a hell of a day,” said Busch. “We had a hell of a weekend. On the Cup side, we just had no fun this weekend, so it was really unfortunate for us. Guys worked hard and persevered and we battled through and took probably a 16th, 14th-place finish in our Camry and ended up sixth with it, so not too bad I guess.”
On Saturday, Busch went to the back in the Truck Series race but quickly found his way back up front. Granted, that’s a much different series and he’s the best ever in there with 52 truck wins, most all-time, but if he can’t do it in the Cup race, how can anyone else?
Plus, the only reason to why Larson, Almirola and Busch even finished with respectable days is because of mistakes from others. Ryan Preece crashed on pit lane. Daniel Hemric, Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano all had tire problems with 21 laps left or fewer. That’s four spots further down the field all three of them would have finished.
Time To Shorten The Race
I can make a valid case that maybe Atlanta should be 400 miles in length instead of 500. The races seem drawn out. Instead of 325 laps, maybe we go 65 fewer circuits around the 1.54-mile oval and run 260 laps (400.4 miles). While I get the theory that longer races could have more happen over the course of it, all the mistakes that we saw in the end, would have still happened.
Kyle Busch’s tire, Kyle Larson’s speeding penalty and all the other pit stop problems occurred before Lap 260.
The only things that wouldn’t have happened was the two Penske tire problems, Daniel Hemric and Ryan Preece’s issues. But, we could have lived without those anyways.
400 miles is the length that Atlanta needs to be in the future.
Vegas Will Be The True Test
The drivers all warned on Friday that we wouldn’t see the true extent of this new package until the third race of the year in Las Vegas. See, with Atlanta’s aged surface and so much tire fall off, it’s a hard track to get right. Vegas, is newly paved and will have the entire new package with aero ducts and the tapered spacer. We should see much closer racing than we saw in Atlanta.
So, don’t base the the 2019 package fully off of Atlanta. This was more of a one off event.