Top takeaways from Atlanta and a look ahead to Bristol dirt

Kyle Larson had Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 won. A mixture of tires falling off worse than Ryan Blaney’s and Blaney’s Team Penske teammate of Joey Logano holding Larson up for just long enough, allowed Blaney to pass Larson late and cruise to his fifth career NASCAR Cup Series triumph.

With this weekend’s race being on the Bristol dirt, here’s a look back on my thoughts from Sunday’s race and where things stand going into such an unpredictable race on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN).

Larson looks like a championship favorite

We all figured Kyle Larson would make a jump with his stats in 2021. The only question was, just how much would he improve? The car (Hendrick Motorsports) is obviously better than what he drove (Chip Ganassi Racing) prior. Nothing against CGR either. This isn’t meant for a slight on them. It’s just that there’s a reason HMS is just a few wins shy of tying Petty for most victories in the history of the Cup Series and Ganassi has 14 of them in total. The equipment at HMS is just better than CGR. The thing is, after sitting out the final 32 races of 2020 and with a car that’s lacking funding with HMS, just how much improvement would Larson actually show and how long would it eventually take for it to really come out?

Well, six races in, I think we can say that it’s here now.

Larson, has already won a race (Las Vegas). That came in just his fourth start with HMS. If you take all six races into account though, the California native is looking like a legitimate championship favorite. He’s had five top 10 results in six tries including what should have been two wins at this point.

Larson, swept both stages and led 269 of 325 laps in Atlanta. He just didn’t have the car nor the luck in the end to top Blaney.

“I mean, we’ve had the fastest car most weekends,” Larson said. “If we can continue to evolve and continue to get better, yeah, I mean, we can do great things.

“Our pit crew has been really good. Our car has been really fast. I feel like for the most part I’ve been doing a good job. With all that Cliff and all the guys making good decisions on the box, yeah, we can definitely go out there and keep contending. If we can contend as much as we are, yeah, I mean, we can win a lot of races.

“2017 we were really strong. Probably not this strong. But, yeah, I mean, 2017 also I was a little bit like surprised that we were that good early in the season because normally we weren’t. But once I realized we were a top-two car, the 78 at that time, yeah, I felt like I could win every time.

“I didn’t really, from what I remember, dominate races like I did today. Yeah, I was confident like I am now.”

Now, we head to Bristol dirt to where Larson has to enter as the favorite.

Blaney keeps a couple of impressive streaks going

Six races in and we’ve already had six different winners. But, if you go back to the Richmond playoff race of last year and you’d see that out of the last 15 races run, we’ve had 13 different drivers reach victory lane during this span including seven straight dating back to Chase Elliott’s win at Phoenix last November.

Brad Keselowski (Richmond), Kevin Harvick (Bristol), Kurt Busch (Las Vegas), Denny Hamlin (Talladega) Elliott (ROVAL), Joey Logano (Kansas), Kyle Busch (Texas) and Elliott (Phoenix) closed out the final nine races of last season.

This year, you get Michael McDowell (Daytona 500), Christopher Bell (Daytona road course), William Byron (Homestead), Kyle Larson (Las Vegas), Martin Truex Jr. (Phoenix) and Ryan Blaney (Atlanta) this year so far.

So, how far does this streak keep going? For the season, I can see this continuing on for a little while longer. Bell and Larson should be the favorites for the dirt race this weekend, but this will also be so predictable. Then, I can envision Keselowski or Logano finding a win in the Martinsville-Richmond stretch with maybe Hamlin-Elliott getting a win in that span too.

From there, it’s to Talladega where anything is possible. I can see this streak going to nine and maybe even 10 races with a different winner in each to start 2021. That would get us through the month of April.

There’s also this streak too – the 1.5-mile different winner streak. Blaney becomes the 12th straight different winner on them as this streak dates back to the second Charlotte race after the ‘600 last May. Elliott won that day. Kevin Harvick
(Atlanta), Denny Hamlin (Homestead), Cole Custer (Kentucky), Austin Dillon (Texas), Brad Keselowski (Kansas), Kurt Busch (Las Vegas), Joey Logano (Kansas), Kyle Busch (Texas), William Byron (Homestead), Kyle Larson (Las Vegas) and now Blaney (Atlanta).

Kansas is the first race of May which is on a 1.5-mile track. That streak could extend to 13.

Penske struggling on aged surface tracks so far, a couple of other teams exceling

Team Penske has to be happy that Fontana was canceled for the 2021 season because if it wasn’t, there’s a good chance that they would have struggled there too. The reason? They’d not been very good on older racing surfaces so far this year.

Yes, Blaney won in Atlanta, but Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have been terrible on them overall.

In Homestead, Penske went 16-25-29. In Atlanta, Logano was 15th and Keselowski 28th. Homestead and Atlanta looked very similar for Keselowski and Logano as they were non factors all race in them. If you take those races out, these two are race winning contenders every where else.

They were 1-2 when they crashed together on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Logano, has two runner-ups still and three total top 10’s in the other three races not mentioned. Keselowski, has three top five’s in those same races.

It’s just aged surfaces to where they’re lacking right now.

For JTG Daugherty Racing and Roush Fenway Racing, they’re actually gaining on aged surfaces. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has a top 15 in both races including a streak of four top 13’s in-a-row right now in general.

RFR saw Chris Buescher win a stage in Homestead and be in the top 10 in the other but he faded in the end. That didn’t happen on Sunday in Atlanta. He’d finish seventh.

Ryan Newman was seventh in Homestead and 13th in Atlanta.

Harvick/Keselowski trend ends

Ford won their fifth straight race in Atlanta on Sunday, but Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick’s new trend ended. They’ve alternated wins in each of the last four years on the 1.54-mile Georgia race track with this past weekend supposed to be Keselowski’s turn.

Instead, these two were non factors all day.

Keselowski, finished 28th while Harvick faded for most of the afternoon before rebounding to finish 10th in the end.

Is it panic time for Harvick?

Kevin Harvick may have five top 10 finishes in six tries this season, but he’s been a non factor in a majority of them. In fact, he’s led just 17 laps all season. What’s puzzling is, Harvick had nine Phoenix wins to his credit over the course of his career, but despite a top 10 a couple of weeks ago, he led no laps.

Last Sunday in Atlanta, Harvick led no laps again. He’s led 116 or more laps in six of his last seven Atlanta starts prior. In fact, he led 45 laps in 2019 which is the only time since 2014 that he’s failed to lead at least that many circuits around the 1.54-mile track. He led 151 laps in his win last year. He led 181 laps in the 2018 win. He led 292 laps a year prior to that and 131 before that. Then came consecutive 195 and 116 laps led in two straight Atlanta races.

So, while he finished in the top 10 on Sunday, to come out of Phoenix and Atlanta with a combined zero laps led could make it time to ring the alarm for Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing.

Repave yet?

Atlanta was supposed to be repaved a few years ago. The drivers and teams begged that not to happen. The track wisely listened.

They’ve been adding seams and patching it since. How long can you keep doing so?

“I enjoy surfaces that are wore out,” said Kyle Larson who led 269 laps on Sunday. “You can move around. I hope this place doesn’t ever get repaved. I feel like each year we talk about it more and more. We’ll see what they do.

“I enjoy it how it is. I mean, if it’s not repaved, it’s a totally different style of race. It’s kind of whatever you’re into. For me, as a driver, I’m into this style.”

His teammate, Alex Bowman, agrees.

“I feel like the surface, you’re going slower so it’s a little more forgiving just because of the raciness of the racetrack,” he said. “You have some huge corrections and still catch the race car. That’s probably why it gets as strung out as it does.

“There’s really no mechanical grip once the tires are worn out. That’s another reason I feel it gets strung out. Aero grip is super important. It’s hard to follow somebody closely.”

Race winner Ryan Blaney is obviously in the keep the track as is corner too.

“I know people have been having talks about the repave, but I hope it doesn’t happen any time soon. I think you talk to anybody, they really like this place the way it is.

“Yeah, it’s rough. I mean, the bumps getting out of one and two is rough, three and four you have the wavy set of bumps there. Makes it hard to hold the line. Yeah, it’s just a big challenge.

“I talked to (crew chief) Todd (Gordon) a lot today about our car hitting the racetrack pretty hard. As the race went on, it got a little bit better. So, yeah, it’s just the challenges of Atlanta. Sometimes you can do your best to try to get over them, get over those bumps. A lot of the time you just have to drive through them and work on your car around those bumps.”

With a new car coming out in 2022, would it be wiser to just repave following the July race?

“As far as repaving it, I haven’t driven the new car yet so it’s really hard for me to say,” Bowman continued. “I hope they never repave this place. I think the slick racetracks are so much fun. We’ve repaved some places and not had the races that we used to at those racetracks.

“I love the fact that you can run from the bottom all the way to the outside wall here. You can move around. It’s got so much character. I understand the need to repave it, right? From a race car driver’s perspective, I hope they never do. I love these places with character.”

Blaney’s crew chief said the same. He’s afraid it would lose the character.

“This place, you got a lot of these old, wore-out racetracks. You have this place, California, Homestead come to mind for me. Darlington has come back into it.

“When you look at it, like today, you saw cars running the wall, you saw cars splitting that last seam up top, you saw cars running around the bottom.

“The older these surfaces get, the less grip they got in them, we can put a softer tire on it, you get cars that can run all over the place.

“When we repave, get all the grip back in the asphalt, there’s a balance there. The tires have to be harder to keep us in a box that we’ve got to be in. You lose that ability to race all of the racetrack.

“I would keep this surface as long as we can until it starts coming up. When you get to that, it becomes a safety issue, then you have to address it. But until you get to that point, I’d love to race a NextGen car here on this surface. I’m glad we get to race it again later this year. Great to have two events here at Atlanta.”

Hamlin joins Larson as a title contender, who else is with them?

Kyle Larson should have two wins right now. He has five top 10’s in six races. But, the quiet one is Denny Hamlin with five top fives in six races. His worst finish all year is 11th right now. While he’s lacking the speed that it takes to win, it’s scary to think that it could soon come. Once they make some adjustments to gain the speed, he could be dominant.

I think Penske is there with them right after. Ryan Blaney has a win and is coming off of three straight top 10 results, two of which being in the top five now. As I said above, on non aged surfaces, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have top five cars.

That’s to me the top five right now.

Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch are right behind them. Truex, has a win at Phoenix, to go along with four straight top 10’s in-a-row. Three of those were in the top five.

Busch, has three top 10’s in his last four races and what’s scary there is, he and Ben Beshore are still learning this all together. What happens if they become like Penske did last year and figure it out late in the season?

The biggest sleeper is William Byron with four straight top eight results including a win in Homestead. His teammate Chase Elliott has had good race cars, but they’ve not capitalized.

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