Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Race Preview (2 p.m. ET/FOX/PRN)

Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

TRACK: Atlanta Motor Speedway (1.54-Mile, Dogleg Oval) DISTANCE: 325 Laps – STAGE 1/2 85 LAPS, FINAL STAGE 155 LAPS (500.5 MILES)
WEATHER: RAIN 20% CHANCE SATURDAY 71 and Cloudy, SUN RAIN 40% 73 DEGREES

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Brad Keselowski

The Team Penske driver has two top seven finishes in his last three starts on the season. Also, Keselowski has five straight top 10 finishes in Atlanta including three straight top two results. Two of those top two finishes are wins including last year.

Martin Truex Jr. 

He’s going to be quiet here but don’t overlook him. Truex, is winless in 21 career Atlanta starts, but does have five straight top eight finishes and seven in his last eight starts on the Georgia track overall including a runner-up last year.

If pit stops can go better, Truex will be a factor.

Kevin Harvick

Harvick is a lap leader king in Atlanta. The California native has led 101 or more laps in six of his last eight Atlanta starts including 195, 116, 131, 292, 181 and 45 respectively in his last six tries. Harvick, also has 11 top 10 finishes in his last 13 starts on the Georgia race track too. However, despite all of that dominance up front, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has only scored two victories in 29 tries. The first coming in his first start in 2001 and the last coming in 2018. Over his last five starts, he’s finished second, sixth, ninth, first and fourth respectively.

Kyle Larson

He should have won last year after leading a race high 142 laps. But, a bad pit stop cost him the victory and as a result, he finished 12th. Larson, was ninth in 2018 and runner-up in 2017. In six career starts, he’s finished in the top 12 in four of them. He’s also scored a top 10 in three of the four races run in 2020.

Kurt Busch

He too is a former winner (2009, 2010) and has had a ton of success lately in Atlanta. Busch, has four straight top eight finishes on the track and eight in his last 10 starts. His worst finish since 2010 in Atlanta is 13th. He was third a year ago. Also, Busch was third two weeks ago in Fontana and sixth last weekend in Phoenix too.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
HAMPTON, GA – FEBRUARY 25: Kevin Harvick drives the #4 Jimmy John’s Ford during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 25, 2018 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Sleepers

Clint Bowyer 

He has struggled at Atlanta in the past. But, he has been good recently there. Bowyer, was third in 2018 and fifth last year as those are his lone top two top 10 finishes in his last nine Atlanta starts. In fact, those are his only top five finishes in 19 Atlanta tries too. Also, Bowyer scored his first top five finish last weekend in Phoenix since 2008.

Aric Almirola

Almirola, was eighth last year after starting on the pole and leading 36 laps.

Jimmie Johnson 

He has five career Atlanta wins, four runner-ups, 14 top five finishes and 16 top 10’s. His average finishing position is second among active drivers. He won back-to-back races in Atlanta in 2015 and 2016. While he had 16 top 10 finishes in his first 28 Atlanta races, he’s only had five in his last eight including three finishes of 19th, 27th and 24th in each of the last three years.

Erik Jones

This could be Toyota’s lead driver on Sunday. Jones, was 14th in 2017, 11th in 2018 and seventh last year.

Aged Surface

Atlanta is a popular track on the schedule due to the aged surface. See, when the track was reconfigured for 1997 and beyond, they also repaved it then. That’s the last time the asphalt has been replaced. That stat makes this the third oldest surface in NASCAR trailing only Dover (1995) and Fontana (1996).

In turn, it’s created a bumpy and aged track that produces high tire wear and multiple lanes to race in. Because of that, Atlanta has become one of the drivers’ favorite tracks to compete on.

The track was supposed to go through a repave a few years ago, but due to the drivers’ input, they decided to patch some of the cracks and holes instead of fully repave it.

With a new package though, tire wear is still key. Just look a few weeks ago in Fontana, another aged surface, it saw high tire wear, so much so it cost Ryan Blaney a second place finish.

How much tire wear will take place on Sunday? Odds are, this will play a pivotal role.

Team will have to be creative with pit stops and pit strategy this year like they have in the past.

Not A Great Track For JGR

Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled to start 2020 off. They won a record setting 19 times in 2019 including all the big races (Daytona 500, Southern 500, Coke 600 and Bristol Night Race). Furthermore, they took three of the four spots in the Championship 4 as well.

Unfortunately for them, 2020 isn’t going like 2019. They’ve led just 15 laps over the last three weeks combined.

Denny Hamlin, the only driver to have won for JGR this year, hasn’t been at his best in Atlanta either. He has two top 10 finishes since 2012, albeit both being top fives. But, three of his last seven Atlanta finishes have been 38th. He’s finished 17th or worse in two of the last three weeks.

Kyle Busch has only led 11 laps in his last five Atlanta tries. He does have three top seven finishes in his last four tries, but neither have seen him be all that competitive.

Erik Jones has no career top fives but was was 14th in 2017, 11th in 2018 and seventh last year. He’s been 18th or worse in three of the four races run so far in 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. looks like their favorite. He’s going to be quiet there but don’t overlook him. Truex, is winless in 21 career Atlanta starts, but does have five straight top eight finishes and seven in his last eight starts on the Georgia track overall including a runner-up last year.

If pit stops can go better, Truex will be a factor.

Chip Ganassi Racing Should Contend

It wasn’t a great weekend last week for Chip Ganassi Racing at the Phoenix Raceway, but it sure was a solid one. Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch would leave last Sunday’s FanShield 500 on the 1-mile Arizona oval with a top six finish for each.

Larson, battled all day in scoring a 13th place finish in Stage 1 and ninth in Stage 2 as he scored great track position late in the race to challenge for the win in his No. 42 Chevrolet.

The California native found himself in the top five in the closing laps and would settle for a fourth place result. It was his fourth top six finish in-a-row at Phoenix as his Spring race finishes since 2015 have been – 10th, 12th, 2nd, 18th, 6th and now 4th.

Busch, didn’t have much in either of the first two stages either. He was 15th and 16th at the finish in both of those. But, he steadily inched his way closer and closer to the front and came away with a sixth place effort in his No. 1 Chevrolet.

Still, for CGR to be 4-6, it was a great day overall.

Now, it’s to Atlanta where they should compete up front again. Larson, should have won last year after leading a race high 142 laps. But, a bad pit stop cost him the victory and as a result, he finished 12th. He was ninth in 2018 and runner-up in 2017 too. In six career starts, he’s finished in the top 12 in four of them. He’s also scored a top 10 in three of the four races run in 2020.

For Busch, he is a former winner (2009, 2010) and has had a ton of success lately in Atlanta. Busch, has four straight top eight finishes on the track and eight in his last 10 starts. His worst finish since 2010 in Atlanta is 13th. He was third a year ago. Also, Busch was third two weeks ago in Fontana and sixth last weekend in Phoenix too.

Harvick Could Have A Nice Reign To Start Season Off With

Only one Cup Series driver has finished in the top 10 in every race this season – Kevin Harvick. He paced the field for 67 laps last Sunday in Phoenix en route to a second place result. He’s now led the second most laps of all drivers too (159).

Also, he was fifth in Daytona, eighth in Vegas as well as ninth in Fontana.

The move to Stewart-Haas Racing and to be paired with Rodney Childers as his crew chief should prove to why Harvick will be among the favorites to beat over the next month or so.

Harvick, has scored a top 10 finish in literally every race at Phoenix since Rodney Childers became his crew chief at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 (13 starts). Among those 13 races, Harvick’s finished first or second seven times.

Now, he heads back east to go to arguably two of his better tracks too. Next up in Atlanta where Harvick has 11 top 10 finishes in his last 13 starts including leading 100 or more laps in six of his last eight starts there. Then, it’s to Homestead, where Harvick has 12 straight top 10 finishes and 16 in his last 17 tries. He’s been in the top four in every race since Childers became his crew chief too.

Then, it’s to Texas where Harvick has won the last three Fall races to go along with 11 straight top 10 finishes there.

The next three races could see Harvick extend his top 10 streak to start 2020 off with to seven.

Back East Adjustments

It’s hard for teams to come out of the gates and adapt. See, with the Daytona 500 being the season opener, there’s not much to be learned with the way that the racing package is there. Then, for this year, it’s off to the west coast for three races on three entirely different race track configurations.

With all the cars being ready to go for the west coast swing before they leave, nothing that they’ve learned over the first four weeks of the season can be applied until now.

We went from a superspeedway in Daytona, to a 1.5-mile in Vegas, to an aged 2-mile big oval in Fontana to a 1-mile short track in Phoenix. All the while, how can you make changes to your race cars back in North Carolina when the resources and mindset is out west?

Now, you can.

Atlanta will race a lot like Fontana but have a track similar in size to Vegas. A lot can be learned from those two and the teams can’t make changes for that until this week.

Rookies Strength Last Weekend Could Be Smoke And Mirrors

This has been a rough start to the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season for the “Big 3” rookies. Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer were expected to contend for race victories early and often by some in NASCAR’s big leagues. After all, they had dominated the NASCAR Xfinity Series in each of the last two years in winning a combined 31 times in 66 tries (47%).

But, I was cautiously optimistic about them for the Cup level. What worried me was, this is an entirely different racing package at the Cup level by comparison to the Xfinity Series. In NXS competition, their package suits these three guys’ driving styles.

All three like to run a loose race car. They’ve all been known to rim ride the SAFER Barriers at the top of the banking. Well, the lower horsepower, high downforce Cup package, doesn’t allow for that.

Kyle Larson’s early season struggles last year is a prime example of that. Larson, has a similar driving style and the new Cup car rules hurt his strengths inside of the race car.

Well, through the first three weeks, my concerns for these rookies on the Cup level was merited. None of the three had even a sniff of the top 10. The closest was Reddick’s 11th place run last weekend in Fontana. He was 28th and 18th in the other two races.

Custer, was only 38th, 19th and 18th respectively at the finish himself in 2020. Bell, was 21st, 33rd and 38th.

But, last weekend was to the Phoenix Raceway, a track that’s seeing NASCAR go to a different racing package. This package was similar to the 2018 one, or very much alike how these three drove in NXS competition the last few years.

That’s why they looked vastly improved this weekend.

Reddick, was ninth in Stage 1, fourth in Stage 2 and was easily a top 10 race car before crashing out on Lap 264 when his No. 8 Chevrolet had a tire go down.

“We lost a tire there in (Turns) 1 and 2,” the Richard Childress Racing driver said. “I really don’t know what led to that. I don’t know if I just caught something on the race track or it just wasn’t meant to be. Our I Am Second Chevrolet was really, really good today. I just made a couple of mistakes there that cost us track position. I don’t know if that’s what ultimately would have kept us from cutting a tire, but we were in really good shape there and I just made a rookie mistake and fell back to the back half of the top 10 and from there we had our flat tire, and that was the end of our day unfortunately.”

Custer, was 12th and 10th in the two stages in his No. 41 Ford then capitalized on that in the end to come home in the top 10 in ninth.

“This was huge,” Custer said. “It is a huge boost in our step to have a really solid day and fast Mustang. We overcame obstacles all weekend and hopefully we can continue to carry that all through the year. I think we get better every single race, so it is just a matter of continuing that and doing that every single weekend.”

Bell, still surprisingly struggled as he came home 23rd. But, Phoenix wasn’t always one of his better tracks at the NXS level anyways. The Oklahoma native had three top four finishes in-a-row but was only 30th and 16th last year.

This weekend, it’s back to the normal package, which could see the rookies struggles yet again.

Competition Highlights

Only four races into the 2020 season and three NASCAR Cup Series teams have celebrated pole positions – JTG Daugherty in Daytona (driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.), Stewart-Haas Racing in Fontana (Clint Bowyer) and Hendrick Motorsports in Phoenix (Chase Elliott).

Three drivers from three teams have hoisted trophies in the opening four races. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin won the season-opening Daytona 500, becoming only the third driver in history to earn back-to-back titles in the legendary race. Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman earned his second career win at California’s Auto Club Speedway and Team Penske’s Joey Logano is the year’s first multi-time winner – taking the trophy at both Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The average Margin of Victory through the first four races is 4.590-seconds (twice the race has ended under caution). The average number of leaders per race is 8.75 – up from 8.25 in 2019. The average number of lead changes per race is 21.25 – the most since 2014 (24.25).

The season’s 148 Green Flag Passes for the Lead are the fifth most in the last 10 seasons. The highest total in the last decade after four races is 255 – a mark set in 2014. The total number of Green Flag Passes (2,241) at Phoenix was the highest total in the last decade and up 66 percent from a year ago.

The Phoenix race had 19 Green Flag Passes for the Lead – an increase of 46 percent from last year’s Spring race (13 Green Flag Passes).

Key Trends

Don’t count out Ford. They’ve won this race in each of the last three years and have been stout so far this season. Toyota though, hasn’t been at their best so far this season and have only sent a driver to victory lane in the Peach State just twice, the last being in 2013.

If Chevrolet is going to win though, look for it to be among the Hendrick Motorsports camp. While Atlanta hasn’t necessarily been a strong track for them lately, they have won three times since 2014 there. But, if you go back to 2011, the only Chevy team to have won in Atlanta has been HMS and if you go back to 2007, Chevy has won six times, five of which being HMS too.

Recently though, HMS has struggled. Jimmie Johnson has 16 top 10 finishes in 28 tries, but his last three finishes are 19th, 27th and 24th respectively. William Byron’s two finishes are 18th and 17th. Alex Bowman’s results with HMS are 20th and 15th. Chase Elliott, the home track hero, was eighth, fifth and 10th in his first three years but 19th in 2019.

Now though, HMS looks like a premiere team again.

Also, with this being a 1.5-mile track, we’ve seen seven different winners in the last seven races on intermediates. It all started last June 30 at the Chicagoland Speedway with Alex Bowman. Then, Kentucky Speedway (Kurt Busch), Las Vegas in the Fall (Martin Truex Jr), Kansas (Denny Hamlin), Texas (Kevin Harvick), Homestead (Kyle Busch) and Las Vegas a few weeks ago (Joey Logano). I think that this streak could come to an end on Sunday though.

Out of the last 67 races on 1.5-mile tracks, 56 of them have been won by a handful of drivers. Martin Truex Jr. (12) leads them but Kevin Harvick (10), Jimmie Johnson (10), Brad Keselowski (9), Kyle Busch (8) and Joey Logano (7) have been at their best on intermediate race tracks.

If this trend is to continue, pick Keselowski.

 

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