5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s Ambetter Health 400 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN)

Pit Entry/Restart Zone

I’m watching two zones of the track this weekend to see how much of an impact that they will have on the future rule book. The first zone is the restart one. This season, NASCAR expanded the zone 50% at each track. They’re 25% longer on each end of it.

We saw in Fontana on how much this was a factor.

Per the rulebook, the leader of the race must get on the throttle inside of the zone. No one else can do so until the leader first does. If however, the leader doesn’t push the gas before the end of the restart zone, then everyone can then go.

For Fontana, most blamed Joey Logano (the leader at the time) for playing games. Kyle Busch was the most vocal about it saying that all the restart zone did was crash a lot of cars in California. He notes that expanding the zone is only negative and outweighs any possible positive to it.

The common consensus is the fact that everyone agrees that games are being played on the restarts. Extending the zone only creates more room for more games.

I get the notion that the leader should have the advantage, but those behind try to time it for when the leader goes. They lag back and try to time it out by if they’re far enough behind the row in front, they can get in the gas earlier and have a better run on everyone in front of them. If the leader, as in Logano’s case in Fontana, waits to go until deeper in the zone, it can create bottlenecks behind of drivers trying to go then having to slam the brakes again if they mistime it. Those behind them may think the leader went and storms off too when in reality, the leader didn’t do anything differently.

So, if you shorten the zone back up, you have less time for those games. But, you’re also taking away an advantage of the leader too.

NASCAR is expected to make a decision after the Cup race next week at Atlanta on whether to continue using the expanded zone. There are mixed feelings about it.

“Logano was just maintaining his speed and everyone was gaining, gaining, gaining, gaining and closing up their gaps because they were all trying to lay back and then time the run. So he just waited for everybody to run into everybody and then went at the end of the zone,” Busch said.

NASCAR has rules in place to penalize drivers for lagging behind to get a good run, but can they police it enough in a longer restart zone?

NASCAR is looking closely at this on Sunday and will make a decision after this weekend’s race on whether to shorten the zone back up again or to keep it.

Another zone to watch is the pit entry point. NASCAR has moved the pit road commitment line to Turn 3 this week. That came at the recommendation of the drivers who were concerned about diving to pit road at Turn 4 exit could potentially be dangerous.

At least at the other two drafting tracks in Talladega and Daytona, you have plenty of room between Turn 4 and the tri-oval to get slowed down and to pit road. You don’t have that luxury in Atlanta.

However, it was a moot point last season with no green flag pit stops occurring in either Atlanta race. Does it become a focal point this year?

There’s also no practice this weekend to try it out, so they’re going to be learning this on the fly. How many drivers will forget to hit the commitment line in Turn 3 and miss pit road all together?

This is something to watch as well.

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – JULY 10: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 10, 2022 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

The Chase Elliott Affect

Chase Elliott has long been trying to win at his hometrack. Last July, he finally did. It was a massive win for this fan base and this home crowd. Now, the 5-time defending Most Popular Driver won’t be racing. How much of an effect does this have on the atmosphere at this Georgia track?

When Elliott joined the field on a full-time basis in 2016, it helped Atlanta’s crowd come back in a big way. With him out, what does this do to the attendance?

We can speculate that it’s made a mark on the TV numbers. Each race has been down in the ratings department this season, however, the ones he’s been out, they’re down double digits.

The Daytona 500 was down almost 8% in viewership, a week later in Fontana, it was down 5.6%. However, he was listed as out for Las Vegas and Phoenix and the viewership tumbled to being down 12% in Vegas and 15% at Phoenix.

What happens for Sunday’s race?

NASCAR is in discussions for a new TV package deal. Prior to this season, one could say they were in for a hefty raise. Now, do these numbers bring the number they were after down?

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 12: William Byron, driver of the #24 Valvoline Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 12, 2023 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Can Byron Score The Hat Trick?

William Byron may have lucked into his last wins, but it’s not like he wasn’t a deserving winner in each race either. Byron led a race-high 176 of 271 laps in Las Vegas including sweeping both stages to score his first win of the season. This week in Phoenix, he led 64 of 317 laps and won the first stage while being second in Stage 2.

Yes, the last two races were only won by late race cautions. However, someone had to win and Byron capitalized. He’s finding ways to win.

Now, can he keep this up?

“Yeah, just a little bit of everything,” Rudy Fugle (Byron’s crew chief) said on why the 24 team is clicking so well already. “Specifically 24 team is focused in the simulation program all off-season. We worked really hard, especially on Las Vegas and Phoenix ’cause they’re super important in the Playoffs.

“We had fresh information. Run Vegas with four to go, Phoenix obviously the last race of the year, you race them early in the year. Makes sense to work on those. Most of our focus to start with. Hope to take notes from these two races to propel ourselves to the first third, half of the year.”

Jeff Gordon says that this whole 24 team is deserving of this success.

“First let me say how proud I am of this guy, this team,” said the four-time series champion. “Nobody works harder. All these guys work hard.

“Over the off-season I came in one day, was it right after Christmas. I came to the office, this guy (Rudy Fugle) was there all by himself. I’m so proud of this guy and the efforts they’re putting in, see the results.”

Now, can the 24 team continue this early season success the rest of the way forward?

“Yeah, I think you got to get the wins while you’re hot. You got to capitalize,” Fugle says. “Super good. Our focus is nothing different now. Hit the reset button and how do we do it again.

“Put the hard work in every single day, keep grinding. That’s our focus.”

The 25-year-old hasn’t won in bunches before and now is. This is the first time of his Cup career that he’s won back-to-back races. His first victory came in the 2020 Coke Zero Sugar 400. He had just a pair of top five finishes in the 10 races after. 4 of those 10 races he finished outside the top 20.

His next win came in the third race of the 2021 season at Homestead. He’d not win the rest of the year. In fact, Byron had just 11 more top five finishes in the remaining 33 races.

Last season, Byron won the 5th race of the season in Atlanta. He’d back that up with another win three races later in Martinsville. It was starting to look like Byron was going to be the guy that we all expected him to be. However, that was his final win of the 2022 season.

He had one top five finish the rest of the way. In fact, he went the next 18 races with just one top 10 result in total.

Now, he’s back to victory lane in the third and fourth races of the 2023 season. Last year, he won the 5th race at Atlanta, which just so happens to be the site of next weekend’s race again. Can he use this for more consistency moving forward or is he peaking too soon?

He’s looking to become the 53rd driver to win three straight races in a season.

“Yeah, I mean, I think last year, even though we won early, we didn’t really know the car or understand the car,” Byron said. “We were kind of just adapting to what we had. We were just making the most of an unpredictable situation with the entire field. There was a lot of attrition in the races, a lot of just weird things that were happening.

“I feel like now it’s strength on strength. It feels different. It feels like we’re more consistently towards the front and we’re leading laps.

“We just want to focus on our processes during the week. I think our processes this week were kind of frustrating because we didn’t really get to do the things we wanted to do. Everyone was a little tired. We did that Charlotte test. There was a lot going on on the outside. It was a little frustrating going into today, but it’s cool to see that we can overcome those things and still get a win.”

Also, you have to consider that Byron is still so young at this. He’s only 25 years old and didn’t honestly start racing inside of a race car until 10 years ago. So, while some may say that he should be doing this in his sixth season at Hendrick, others have to realize that he’s only been doing this a decade in total. He just came though the ranks that quickly. It takes time to fully grasp it.

“Yeah, I think people around me have always kind of helped me understand that I’m young,” Byron noted. “Max and my dad, just everyone, my dad especially, he’s a big stats guy. He’s like, Man, you’re young. Just give it some time.

“I’m very impatient, so I like things to happen quick. That’s how it happened for me coming up through.

“This level is so different. Took a lot of homework, a lot of details. I think the fact that I started later than most driving was a little bit — it took some time to bridge that gap at this level. Now that gap is bridged obviously.

“Yeah, I just feel like it’s a constant evolution, just trying to continue to get better.”

Gordon agreed.

“I see a progression with William ever since he came to Hendrick,” he says. “Got to remember how young he was coming into the Cup Series, so much to learn. Young in racing in so many ways.

“When Rudy came to Hendrick, the instant connection and chemistry between these two was so obvious. It just took the whole team up to another notch. I think now they’re just building on that.

“It’s a lot of fun to watch and see.”

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)

Hendrick Motorsports

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: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, race 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)

Who Needs A Good Finish

We’ve just wrapped up the west coast swing and while it’s far too early to panic, we are getting to a breaking point for some in the reason that their seasons could spiral out of control. We’ve had 4races in 4 different states with 4 different types of tracks this season. From the superspeedway at Daytona, to the 2-mile aged surface in Fontana to a 1.5-mile track in Vegas to a 1-mile oval in the Arizona desert last Sunday.

However, as we head back east, some drivers still need some work to do.

Joe Gibbs Racing may have 3 cars in the top 10 in points, they’re also not doing so well either. Both Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin have finished 11th or worse in 3 of the 1st four weeks. Ty Gibbs has been 16th or worse in all four races himself.

The Toyota’s have 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.

Another driver I’m watching is rookie Noah Gragson. He’s marred back in 32nd in points after finishing 24th, 22nd, 30th and 29th respectively.

So does second year drivers Harrison Burton (26th, 15th, 26th and 35th) and Austin Cindric (23rd, 28th, 6th and 25th). Cindric a year ago, had his Daytona 500 win to fall back on. So far this season, he’s struggled out the gates. Burton is 30th in the standings. Justin Haley in a contract year was 32nd and 21st in the first two weeks then eighth in Vegas and 27th in Phoenix.

Ryan Preece is 27th in points with finishes of 36th, 33rd, 23rd and 12th respectively. I’m also looking at Erik Jones who’s 28th in points after finishes of 37th, 19th, 19th and 21st respectively.

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