Atlanta in rear view mirror, 10 thoughts leaving the Peach State while heading to COTA

Logano’s 1st Win Not Where Most Expected It To Be

Joey Logano closed the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season with two wins in the final four races. Each track that he won at was in the first four races of the 2023 season too. That plus Fontana in Race 2 at a place to where he had five Top-5 finishes in his last six starts on the track including a fifth place run a year ago meant that if he was going to win in the first month of the season, it would be at one of these tracks.

However, a crash in Las Vegas (he won there last October) and a pedestrian day in Phoenix last week (he also won there last November), left the defending series champion winless out of the gates.

In Atlanta, his last 6 finishes there entering this past weekend had seen him finish 23rd, 10th, 15th, 19th, 9th and 26th respectively. 

However, it was the 1.54-mile track that gave him his first win of the 2023 season.

In saying that, it’s not all that surprising to see him go to victory lane in his No. 22 Ford on Sunday. He won the pole on Saturday, led the entire first stage on Sunday and paced the field for a race-high 140 laps. Logano deserved to win. It’s just that no one expected it to be here this weekend.

Same for the week prior with William Byron. Coming to Phoenix, he had never had a top five finish in 10 career Cup Series starts at the track. However, he took the win anyways. It’s not like he was undeserving though. He won the week prior and had won 3 of the last 4 stages if you could the opening Stage win that he took that day.

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – MARCH 19: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Autotrader Ford, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 19, 2023 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Top 3 In Points The Same Now As It Was At The End Of Last Year

Logano topped Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell for last year’s championship. They finished 1-2-3 in points for 2022. Five races into the 2023 season, they’re back to being 1-2-3. Logano leads Bell by one point and Chastain by five heading to COTA this weekend.

Logano four top 11 finishes in five races run this year including a win on Sunday and runner-up in the Daytona 500.

Bell has four top six finishes in the opening five races while Chastain has three stage wins and a pair of top 10’s finishes.

Chevrolet Struggles On Sunday, Ford Dominates

Ford had the top 8 starting spots. However, starting position doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot on drafting tracks. Plus, Chevrolet has won 5 of the 6 races on drafting tracks in his Next Gen era including sweeping both here a year ago.

Which gives on Sunday?

It was Ford dominating to where Chevrolet struggled.

Ford’s led 221 of the 260 laps and took home the top two spots and 3 of the top 7. That equaled the amount of laps led the first four weeks of the season too (221).

Toyota’s actually had 3 of the top 6 however which was a far better finish than we’d have expected out of them. We all figured they’d struggle this weekend, especially after qualifying on Saturday. Just one Toyota even made the final round of qualifying with them starting 10-14-16-19-29-35.

Plus, they’ve 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.

Chevrolet only had 3 cars in the top 11.

Bell and Reddick Surging

Both Toyota drivers are surging. Bell has four Top-6 finishes in five starts this season. Reddick has a pair of top 5’s in the last two weeks. Now, we go to COTA, the first road course race of the 2023 season. We know the Toyota package wasn’t great last year on road courses, however, Bell won the ROVAL and Reddick won at both Road America and Indianapolis. In fact, he was in the top three on the final lap here last year. Combined, they won 3 of the final 4 road course races in 2022.

Now, Reddick is in Toyota power. Does that cost him?

SHR Reeling, Hamlin/Truex Just Getting By

Saturday looked promising for the entire Stewart-Haas Racing camp. They qualified three of their four cars in the top 8 of the starting lineup. However, Sunday couldn’t have gone much worse. They struggled from the onus of the fifth race of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season and each went backwards.

Aric Almirola went from 5th to 11th at the end of the opening stage. Kevin Harvick from 6th to 25th, Chase Briscoe from 8th to 30th and Ryan Preece from 24th to 29th. It only got worse from there.

They were 17th (Harvick), 18th (Almirola), 23rd (Briscoe) and 36th, -10 (Preece) in Stage 2. At this point, they tried to roll the dice and make some headway. Almirola took fuel only on his stop. They all gambled in fact.

It didn’t work.

Briscoe found the wall and broke a toe link, Harvick got loose while leading in Turn 2 on Lap 189.

“I think he just caught me so quick right there in the middle of the corner, and then he kind of was up on the right rear part of the (car) and he came back down, and when he came back down it just spun the thing out,” Harvick said. “I don’t think he actually even hit me, but it started chattering the rear tires, and then I was just along for the ride.”

Almirola then blew a tire while leading on Lap 208. By being on such old tires, it was only a matter of time before something like this would happen to his No. 10 Ford.

“There was nowhere to go,” Larson said ruefully. “Nobody had been having tire issues, so I wasn’t even expecting the No. 10 (Almirola) to have a tire issue in front of me. Even if I did, I didn’t have time to react.

“It’s a bummer. Just frustrating.. I was finally up front on this style of race track and still end up with a DNF (did not finish). I don’t know—just frustrating.”

Preece though may have had the roughest days of all with two pit road penalties (crew member over the wall too soon, commitment line violation) and was down on power all day. He’s off to a disappointing start to the 2023 season in a sense that he’s finished 36th, 33rd, 23rd, 12th and 28th respectively.

4 of Briscoe’s finishes have been 20th or worse (35th, 20th, 28th, 7th, 24th), while Almirola hasn’t had a top 15 yet all year (21st, 35th, 16th, 33rd and 30th).

They sit 6th (Harvick), 23rd (Briscoe), 26th (Preece) and 27th (Almirola) in points after five weeks.

It’s not quite as bad for the Joe Gibbs Racing camp, but they’ve looked not like themselves so far. Bell is their Harvick, but Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and rookie Ty Gibbs have four combined top 10 finishes but no top fives.

Gibbs’ first top 10 came this past Sunday in Atlanta when he came home ninth. He was 25th, 16th, 22nd and 28th respectively prior.

Truex is 8th in points but he too has just one top 10 result (7th in Vegas). He was 15th (Daytona), 11th (Fontana), 17th (Phoenix) and 19th (Atlanta) in his other four starts.

Hamlin is 9th in points with a pair of top 10 finishes (6th Fontana, 6th Atlanta) but 17th in Daytona, 11th in Vegas and 23rd in Phoenix otherwise.

Wins Coming Soon For Keselowski, LaJoie

Brad Keselowski is inching closer and closer to scoring his first victory as a driver/owner. He was 7th in Fontana and runner-up in Atlanta.

“Yeah, night and day from where we were a year ago. 100%. Keep running like this, the good finishes and the wins will happen,” Keselowski said.

You can just sense that this year could be the breakout season for RFK Racing.

Same for Corey LaJoie. He’s finished in the top 20 in four of the five races run this year including a top 5 Sunday in Atlanta. In 205 career NASCAR Cup Series starts, the North Carolina native has exactly two Top-5 finishes in NASCAR’s premiere series. Both have now occurred on this 1.54-mile track.

“It feels great. It’s like this taboo, second sucks. Fourth is great,” he says. “Fourth is great for our CELSIUS Camaro and our small team. Just a great points day. We started off the year, West Coast swing, really solid. To come back here, a bit of a crapshoot. To get another career best here…

“I don’t expect to show up and instantly win a race. You have to keep putting yourself in these positions, like Joey (Logano). “That is why he wins all the time, because he’s up front all the time.

“As I get myself some more confidence, race around these guys, these guys see me up there racing with them, our day is going to come.”

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 26: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 CommScope Chevrolet, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Echopark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on March 26, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Where Was Trackhouse?

What a start it was for the 2023 season for Trackhouse Racing. They locked up both of their drivers long-term and they rewarded that stability with Dual Top 10 finishes in both Daytona and Fontana. In fact, through the first four stages run of the season, Ross Chastain had won three of them.

They were both strong in Vegas, Phoenix and Atlanta last year so I expected them to be a race winner by now. Unfortunately, they’re each sliding backwards.

Chastain’s last three finishes have been 12th, 24th and 13th respectively. He’s led six combined laps in this span. Last year in Atlanta, he finished runner-up in both races.

Suarez finished 10th, 22nd and 29th respectively in the same three races with no laps led himself in either of the three races. He was caught speeding twice in Phoenix and was caught up in a crash in Atlanta.

Can both turn this back around in COTA?

They combined to sweep the two stages last year with Suarez leading all the laps in Stage 1 and Chastain in Stage 2. Chastain earned his first career win in that race a year ago as well. Suarez won his first career race on the next road course of last season in Sonoma.

It’s time they get back on the wagon.

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – MARCH 19: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Autotrader Ford, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 19, 2023 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Much Better Race Than We Expected

Coming into Sunday’s race, I was skeptical on what we’d witness. Both races a year ago were shitshows. 11 cautions for 65 laps in the spring race and 13 cautions for 64 laps in July. Even both races on Saturday were complete farces.

The Truck Series race saw 11 cautions for 58 laps. The thing is, when there’s only 137 laps of racing, with 58 of those 137 laps (42.3%) that’s never a good thing. Especially when there’s two races in one day and the second race was just as bad, if not worse, than the first one.

In 163 laps of racing in the Xfinity Series race, 68 of the laps were under caution leaving just 95 laps of green flag action. That equated out to 41.7% of the race behind the pace car including 9 cautions in the first 79 laps of the race.

Luckily it calmed down in the final stage because in 80 laps of the first two stages, the longest green flag run was only nine laps.

On a day that saw 42% (126-for-300 laps) of both races combined running under yellow and each struggling to gain any momentum, that’s not necessarily the product you want either.

That made me seriously start thinking that Atlanta and SMI had made a costly mistake with this reconfiguration. Was this going towards Texas territory?

Sunday’s race proved otherwise.

This time around, this race was much better. The first two stages were about as clean as you can get for a race like this. It looked more like a Daytona/Talladega race at the onset to where drivers got single file and rode the high line for much of the first two stages. The only real action was the final couple of laps in each stage.

It did make me question how much this was really working still. At least the old Atlanta, you could pass. The tire fall off was so great, you had multiple lanes to pass on. This way was just a bunch of cars riding single file without any way to pass.

Which is better?

The final stage of the Cup race on Sunday showed that this way does have a chance to be something good. Instead of a crash fest, we were treated to a several laps of side by side action in the end with a green flag finish. No overtimes. No controversy. Just pure racing for the way that this package had designed it to be.

“The coolest thing about this race is two veterans showed you can run a race here side by side, bump-drafting, and not wreck the field,” Keselowski said. “It can happen if you race respectfully. I thought everybody did a great job.”

Corey LaJoie noted that with the tires degrading some, a few more years of this track aging could make it more like the Daytona of old.

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 which leads to chaos when they do run double file trying to pass.

The thing is, the finish was as good as it gets as it went clean and green with a phenomenal result. 20 lead changes among 13 drivers and just 5 cautions for 34 laps. This race lasted 2-hours, 56-minutes and 34-seconds. Much better.

No 3-Peat For Byron, Hendrick Motorsports Struggles

William Byron came into Sunday’s race the winner of each of the last two weeks. The Hendrick Motorsports driver also won this very race in Atlanta last year too. Even with HMS’ hefty penalties from this past week, Byron entered as the favorite to go for the season turkey.

Unfortunately, he was caught up in that Lap 189 melee in Turn 2 and would finish 32nd instead.

Josh Berry got some damage in that crash and limped home in 18th.

It wasn’t a great day in general for the Hendrick Motorsports organization. Kyle Larson was caught up in the Lap 208 crash with Aric Almirola when Almirola’s No. 10 Ford crashed in Turn 4 while leading when his tire went down. Larson had no where to go. He’d finish 31st.

“It looked like the No. 1 (Chastain) and the No. 4 just got connected there into Turn 1 and got the No. 4 loose,” Byron said after a mandatory visit to the infield care center. “It’s just part of racing. That’s the way it goes—not really in our control. We were up there running in the top-five and doing what we needed to do.”

Larson has never won a superspeedway race and has just 1 top 5 in 37 starts on them at that. He was also 30th and 13th here last year.

This was also the first race all season that Alex Bowman failed to score a top 10 finish as he’d come home in 14th place.

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 but failed to return to victory lane on Sunday.

HMS went 1-2-3 in both stages in Vegas and 1-2 in each at Phoenix last Sunday. They’ve also combined to had led 506 of the last 579 laps (87%) run in the last two races entering this weekend including taking home both victories. That streak ended in Atlanta with no laps led and stage finishes of 12-14-16-28 in Stage 1 and 3-5-11-14 in Stage 2.

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – MARCH 19: A general view of pit road during the NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 19, 2023 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Blaney Pushes Too Hard Pitting

Ryan Blaney considered himself conservative on pit road. Speeding penalties are rare for the Team Penske driver. However, he looked at himself this past week and felt like he could be a tick more aggressive on this aspect of the track. That mentality bit him.

Blaney was caught speeding mid race and it could have ruined his day. Instead, he rebounded for a top 10. However, he was right there with Logano and Keselowski all race and could have had a shot at the win instead of being in seventh.

Still, Blaney notes that what hurts the most is the fact that he wasn’t even speeding on pit road. It was on the apron between Turns 3 and 4 instead.

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. It became a focal point this year?

There was also no practice this weekend to try it out, so they were going to be learning this on the fly.

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