NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Quaker State 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN)

Can Ford Keep Atlanta Dominance Going?

Ford has been en fuego in Atlanta lately. They’ve won five straight. Both Brad Keselowski (2017, 2019) and Kevin Harvick (2018, 2020) had alternated victories before Ryan Blaney’s triumph this spring. Can they keep that streak going on Sunday?

Keselowski was outside the top 20 in March but had finished in the top two in three of the last four years prior. Harvick meanwhile, has seven straight top 10’s. He’s led 100 or more laps in seven of the last 10 races at that too.

Blaney stole a win away from Kyle Larson but odds are stacked against him of a sweep. Its been since 2007 (Jimmie Johnson) since someone swept both races at Atlanta in a single season.

Ford broke the longest consecutive wins streak by a manufacturer in the NASCAR Cup Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway this spring as the previous best was four victories. Both Ford and Chevrolet have accomplished the feat three times.

  • Ford(1964 sweep-1965 sweep)
    • (Nov. 1991, 1992 sweep, Mar. 1993)
    • (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021).
  • Chevrolet(1983 sweep-1984 sweep)
    • (1995 sweep-1996 sweep)
    • (2003 sweep-2004 sweep).

Chevy may have something to say though. They won Homestead with William Byron on a worn surface and saw Alex Bowman finish third in March.

Plus Hendrick Motorsports has won half of the 20 races this season including 8 of the last 9 including the all-star race. They’ve won 15 of the last 34 races overall after only scoring 14 wins in the previous 133 tries.

Larson could be the overall man to beat because of that. Coming into this year, Larson’s didn’t have a ton of Atlanta success, with a runner-up on 2017 as his lone top five finish. But, with Atlanta being an aged surface and how well Larson races on tracks he excelled this spring.

He led 269 of 325 laps but was caught and passed by Blaney in the end. I don’t expect them to allow that to happen again. Larson, has led 66% (831 of 1,259) laps on 1.5-mile tracks this season with seven stage wins and a runner-up in nine stages run. He has a top two in three of the four races as well.

On older surfaces, Larson, has four top five finishes in his last six Homestead starts. Then you factor in Darlington. He has four top three’s in his last five starts on that track and a top 10 in six of his last seven.

What about Fontana? Larson has three top two finishes including a win there in 2017. He was runner-up in 2018 too. In Xfinity competition, Larson has two wins in five tries including a top eight in each.

With being so good on aged tracks, it’s only a matter of time before a win in Atlanta.

Chase Elliott has never won in Atlanta but does have five top two finishes in his last eight starts on the season including a win last Sunday.

This may be Chevys race to lose instead. They may get some pressure in the form of JGR though, not Ford, most notably Kyle Busch.

Busch has three straight top threes including six in the last 10.

Penske is also slumping too with Keselowski not having finished 10th or worse in 8 of his last 9. Logano has one top five in his last six and three in the last 11 with Blaney having one top five since his Atlanta win.

SHR is no where near their old form either.

This could all spell and end to Fords reign in Atlanta on Sunday.

Is This Kyle Larson’s Race To Lose?

If anyone is going to stop the Ford dominance in Atlanta, it’s Kyle Larson. He should have won this past spring in sweeping both stages to go along with 269 of 325 laps led. Ryan Blaney caught him in the end and beat him. I don’t expect Larson to allow that to happen again.

Larson, has seven stage wins and a runner-up in nine stages run on 1.5-mile tracks this season. He’s led 66% (831 of 1,259) in those same four races to go along with three top two’s in four tries. It should be a sweep of all four races.

I’d say this is his race to lose.

Can Elliott Get Hometown Victory?

Chase Elliott has been NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for three years now. He’s coming off of a championship a season ago and is hoping to keep scratching items off his to do list. Obviously one of them is to win the Daytona 500. Another big one for Elliott is to win on his home track in Atlanta. That’s something his dad did five times. Elliott, is currently 0-for-6 in Cup. Can he get an Atlanta win in his seventh start on Sunday?

“I would love to have a win at Atlanta,” Elliott said of his hometrack. “I feel like anyone’s home track you want to have a win at for sure. I would love to go and have a good run in Atlanta. It’s always going to be a special place for me. I’ve spent a lot of time racing legends cars down there so for sure I’d love to go and have a good run.”

Elliott also notes though that while he’d love to get a win in his home state, he’d just like to win anywhere too.

“I’m not super picky when it comes to a win,” Elliott continued. “I’m good with wherever. A win would be great though. I would love to get that done one day and be able to have one there for sure.”

He’s had a top 10 in four of his previous six tries including an eighth place run a year ago. It’s just that he’s only had one top five finish in those six starts too. What has he been missing there? They hope that they can figure that out and put his No. 9 Chevrolet in victory lane on Sunday afternoon.

“Frankly, I really don’t know why,” Elliott said. “We’ve gone there and had some really good runs, a couple days where I thought we were capable of winning. And then, we’ve been there and been way out to lunch.

“I’m not exactly sure what that is all the time. Obviously, car configurations and rules and different packages play a role in it. Hopefully, this week, we can be more on the ‘hit’ side and execute a good race. Definitely have to have a good race to give yourself a shot to win.”

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – MARCH 21: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 21, 2021 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

HMS has been vastly improved in 2021 and appears to be back. That’s all part in how well they’re all working together with one another Elliott feels. He says it’s an exciting place to be right now with how many talented people that are there and pushing really hard, working well together.

“I do feel like everybody is – I don’t want to say sharing information, because we’ve always done that but just working together a little more from all aspects,” said Elliott. “You might have some people that work really good together and other people don’t. I feel like right now, it’s super fluid. Everybody’s open about anything and everything, and I feel like it’s showing on track.

“Beyond that, I really feel it’s just fundamental upgrades – things that are important on track being improved upon in the shop, and I think each car is benefitting from it.”

Elliott singled out Chad Knaus and says that his new role as the vice president of competition, is also a big help for HMS. Elliott notes that Knaus is working to get better cars in the hands of its crew chiefs before heading to the track.

“I think Chad has had a big impact in having that car show up in a manner that particular crew chief wants it to be in before he sees it for the first time,” he said. “That makes a big difference.”

Can Truex Jr. Get 1st Atlanta Victory

Martin Truex Jr. is bar none, one of the top drivers at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. He’s also won 30 times in his Cup career with 15 of them on intermediates, like Atlanta. The thing is, he’s not won on a 1.5-mile track though since the Fall of 2019. Does that change Sunday in Atlanta?

Despite being so good at Atlanta, Truex is actually 0-for-23 there. He was third last year though, second in 2019 and fifth in 2018 to give him three top five results on the Georgia race track in his last four tries. In fact, he has seven straight top nine finishes there and nine in his last 10 tries overall. On another aged surface race track in March at Homestead, Truex finished third.

He’s one to watch so long as he can turn his momentum around. He’s had just two top 10s in his last three starts.

So are his teammates. While Toyota has won just three total times in Atlanta and none since 2013, they’ve had a front row seat lately for Ford’s domination. They finished 2-3-5 last June, 3-5-9 this spring and we know what Truex can do, what about Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch?

Hamlin has three top five finishes in his last four Atlanta starts. Busch has had four straight top seven’s including a runner-up a year ago. He’s had a top seven in five of the last six races at that.

Hamlin is starting to get hot again with two top fives in his last three while Busch has five top fives in his last six.

Toyota are good value picks this weekend.

What’s The Winning Strategy?

Kyle Larson led a race high 269 of 325 laps in March’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. He swept both stages and was well in charge of his second win in the last three weeks.

But, Ryan Blaney caught Larson and passed his No. 5 Chevrolet with eight laps remaining. Blaney, not Larson, was celebrating instead.

On the surface, some may blame Joey Logano as to why the flip flop in the end. Larson, caught Logano and struggled to lap him. That allowed Blaney to close the gap even quicker and eventually make the winning move.

But, after hearing both drivers talk, it seems like Logano wasn’t a factor after all. Blaney, was likely going to win this race anyways.

They had two different philosophies in the end. Larson, was so good, he felt like he had to do what he’s done all race and go all out towards the checkered.

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – MARCH 21: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 21, 2021 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“I was pushing the whole time, every lap really from when I left pit road,” Larson said after a runner up result in Atlanta. “I was trying to get out to a big gap. But I never really did. I think I extended it a little bit, but not nearly enough.”

Larson said that before the other green flag stops that he could exit pit road and feel like he’d gain a few seconds over the course of like 20 laps.

“I was hoping it was going to be like that,” Larson continued. “I thought me having to race him and pass him was what used my tires up the little run before, but after the green flag stop, he was just really good. I couldn’t get out to that gap that I could earlier in the race. Ultimately just had to run my tires too hard to try to get that gap, and I didn’t have anything there at the end.”

Blaney, knew that with a 56 lap run to the end, that he had to take it easy. As weird as it sounds, he knew on pace, he never was going to catch Larson. So, he had to slow down to go faster later.

That was the winning move.

“Yeah, if I was going to stick with him… I wasn’t going to be able to stick with him, I was going to burn my stuff all the way up,” Blaney said of the final stint. “I just got to save my tires, save my right rear and we’ll see what happens.

“At that point when I said that, no one was able to touch him all day. He would straightaway you, and even more than that. Just got to ride here, see on a longer run, if he starts coming back to us.

“Just kind of the position you were in or I was in just knowing if I try to hang with him, which I wouldn’t be able to hang with him, burn my stuff up, when he started coming back to us, obviously paid dividends just being patient. Just trying to be smart about this, not have a heavy right foot. It’s cool to win here today at a place that you have to finesse it a little bit, kind of think ahead. That was good.

“It goes back to just knowing we had a good long run car. You know what you got, try to play to your strengths.”

That’s why Logano had really nothing to do with the ending. It was eventually going to happen anyways.

While Larson said that would have had a better shot had he gotten by Logano when he got to him, it still would have been hard to hold Blaney off.

“My tires were pretty much gone at that point,” Larson said. “I was sliding around. I just didn’t get through traffic good at the end.

Larson said that initially, he wanted to go green until the end because hed been so good on the long runs. But then when he realized that Blaney was better than him and was catching his car there at the end, he changed his mindset and was definitely hoping for a caution just to get some new tires on it and hopefully come out the leader, control the restart and try and win that way.

“I knew I was in trouble. But it didn’t play out that way.”

So, with seeing how that played out this spring, what’s the winning move on Sunday. It’s going to be even hotter which means the tires should degrade even quicker too. Pit strategy and how/when to pit is going to be the key.

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