5 burning questions for Sunday’s Ambetter Health 400 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN)

Is 400 Miles The Better Race Length?

Atlanta made a wise move when they shortened the length of the spring race to be like the summer one at 400 miles in duration. In saying that, I think this is the better race length for this track. Being 500 miles on a 1.5-mile track that races like a superspeedway was too much. While it seems better for the aesthetics of things, is it truly better to have it be 100 miles shorter?

Last year’s race was nearly 4-hours in duration which produced 11 cautions for 65 laps. You’d think the summer race would clearly be better?

Not really.

The summer race, 100 miles shorter, but only40 minutes quicker. It had 13 cautions for 64 laps.

Which leads me to wonder if shortening the race is going to lead to a better event for the fans.

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – JULY 10: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Milestone Chevrolet, Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Jockey Chevrolet, and Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Wabash Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 10, 2022 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Why Is Atlanta Tougher Than Daytona and Talladega?

Some look at Atlanta and think you can use Daytona and Talladega as reference points. In theory, you can. It’s a similar package. However, Atlanta is much more challenging than their superspeedway counterparts.

The track being a mile shorter than Daytona and Talladega doesn’t lend much time to breathe. You’re constantly in traffic and in turn, it causes chaos. At least at Daytona and Talladega, you have 2-3 and even sometimes 4 lanes to work with. For Atlanta, there’s 2 lanes max and not much time to regroup.

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – JULY 10: William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #47 Kroger/Ball Park Chevrolet, and Tyler Reddick, driver of the #8 Alsco Uniforms Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 10, 2022 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Will Race Look The Same?

The question last March was if the “new Atlanta” would look like a Daytona/Talladega race or more of a hybrid between an intermediate track (1.54-miles) and one of a superspeedway. Well, those questions have since been answered.

What will this weekend’s racing look like?

Some changes were made to the track between the spring and summer races including a wall change on the dogleg (Turn 1 side not Turn 4). This was to provide a better angle since they did the same to the Turn 4 side prior to the March weekend. Also, a bump at Turn 2 exit has been smoothed too.

That will help with some minor changes. Also, you wonder about how much the temperatures will affect the race.

The high temperature at the track last March was 67. It was over 20 degrees hotter last July with highs in the upper 80s to low 90s at race time. That will add some separation in a pack because of the tires having less grip in the heat.

That’s natural. While the surface has been repaved, hot is hot and the Georgia heat will not allow for as close of racing in July as it would in March.

However, those summer changes lead to the spring race again and this race is 100 miles shorter and in much cooler temperatures again. How does that change the race?

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – MARCH 20: William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 20, 2022 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)

How Does Hendrick Motorsports Respond?

On Wednesday, Hendrick Motorsports was hit with the biggest penalty in the history of NASCAR. $400k worth of fines for the organization ($100k for each team) to go along with Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron each being docked 100 points as well as 10 playoff points too. This sets them back in a major way. I’m curious how each team responds this weekend in Atlanta.

We do know that the louvers in question didn’t help HMS in the speed department. They were quick after they were confiscated. However, their image has taken a hit as well as their pride too. You have to sense that all four teams will be walking through the Atlanta grounds this weekend with their tails tucked in. Does that ruin the morale?

Instead of coming to Atlanta boasting with confidence, they’re not brimming without. Is it going to be easy enough to push these penalties aside and pick up where you left off?

I mean think about it, this could work in reverse too and give them even more motivation to stick it to NASCAR. HMS went 1-2-3 in both stages in Vegas and 1-2 in each at Phoenix. They’ve also combined to have led 506 of the last 579 laps (87%) run the last two weeks and taking home both wins.

Bowman is the only driver in the sport with a top 10 in all four races run this season. Larson has two straight top four’s. Byron has two straight wins. Josh Berry grabbed his first top 10 while Chase Elliott was runner-up in Fontana, a week before his injury.

Then you have Atlanta as a proving ground for HMS lately too.

Starting in 2017 at Atlanta, Hendrick Motorsports started off on a dry spell. They had won 3 straight on this track prior. They went 0-for-6 after. Then with Atlanta being reconfigured, Hendrick swept both races a year ago. Can they make it three straight?

Byron won the spring race after leading 111 laps. Bowman was only 10th and 32nd respectively here last year, but he also nabbed a top 5 in the season opening Daytona 500.

Someone has to win for them in the fact that Elliott is out and Larson struggles on these tracks. Larson has never won a superspeedway race and has just 1 top 5 in 36 starts on them at that. He was 30th and 13th last year.

Maybe it’s Byron and Bowman.

This championship is a taller task now, but the best way to rectify that is to go out and win stages and races to make up ground again.

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – MARCH 20: Tyler Reddick, driver of the #8 3CHI Chevrolet, spins in front of Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, and Kurt Busch, driver of the #45 Monster Energy Toyota, as Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, is able to avoid the incident during the NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 20, 2022 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Will We See A Sleeper Winner?

Due to the nature of Atlanta being a superspeedway package now, the race could produce an unlikely winner. Most of the heavy hitters have a better than 50-50 chance of struggling. Toyota’s won just twice in the Peachtree state and have failed to reach victory lane there since 2014. They’re 2-for-the-last-17 in Talladega and 1 for the last 8 at Daytona.

Denny Hamlin was only 29th and 25th respectively in his pair of Atlanta starts a year ago. Martin Truex Jr. is 0-for-26 in Atlanta and while he does have 11 top 10’s since 2012 (13 starts) to go along with four top fives in his last seven, this race will run like a superspeedway and those are arguably Truex’s worst tracks. Each of them have finished 11th or worse in 3 of the first 4 races this season. Christopher Bell has no top fives in Atlanta in Cup action with being 23rd and 19th here last season. Ty Gibbs is a rookie.

Tyler Reddick didn’t even get a top 25 in either race last year and a crash at Daytona this year gives me pause to take him on Sunday.

Bubba Wallace is the only Toyota driver that I trust.

The Stewart-Haas Racing camp could struggle as well.

Kevin Harvick was only 21st and 12th here a year ago. This used to be his playground, but since this new configuration, Harvick could struggle once again. Chase Briscoe was just 15th and 16th here last year while Aric Almirola has 3 top 10’s in 14 Atlanta tries including 9 of which being 15th or worse.

I don’t even trust RCR. Austin Dillon was 35th in both races last season while Kyle Busch was 33rd back in March of last year and 20th in the summer race. 

Even heavy hitters like Kyle Larson and Joey Logano could struggle. Larson has never won a superspeedway race and has just 1 top 5 in 36 starts on them at that. He was 30th and 13th last year. Logano’s last 6 Atlanta starts have seen him finish 23rd, 10th, 15th, 19th, 9th and 26th respectively.

With Chase Elliott out, whom does this favor then?

Trackhouse could thrive. Ross Chastain was runner-up in both races last season while Kurt Busch won in this car in 2021. Daniel Suarez was 4th and 6th respectively a year ago in Atlanta while also finishing in the top 10 this past February at Daytona.

RFK Racing could shine too.

Chris Buescher had a top 10 last spring (7th) and driving a car capable of pulling an upset. He was in the top 10 this past February for the Daytona 500. Brad Keselowski was 12th and 18th a year ago but a vastly improved car this time around and on a drafting style track that Keselowski has 7 career wins on these types of races.

I also like drivers like Erik Jones who was 14th last spring but an impressive 4th last summer.

What about Justin Haley? He was 11th and 7th were his pair of finishes last year. 5 of Haley’s 8 career NASCAR wins have come on superspeedway’s. So watch out here.

Corey LaJoie was in the top five for much of the final stage of this race last year. He’s off to a better start this time around. Can LaJoie pull off the upset?

In saying that, both races last year were won by the bigger teams in Hendrick Motorsports. So, which wins out on Sunday?

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