Atlanta Weekend Preview:Hendrick Motorsports goes for third straight Atlanta win

Jimmie Johnson and crew celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 28, 2016 in Hampton, Georgia. (Getty Images)

Georgia has been “peachy” to Hendrick Motorsports in recent memory.

The four-car outfit owned by Rick Hendrick has won the last three races at Atlanta Motor Speedway behind the efforts of Kasey Kahne (2014) and Jimmie Johnson (2015-16).

On Sunday, Hendrick Motorsports will go for its fourth consecutive win at the 1.54-mile track as it travels to AMS with Kahne, Johnson, Georgia native Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

Overall, Hendrick Motorsports boasts a track-record 14 wins at Atlanta, where Rick Hendrick discovered future NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon.

In addition to winning the last two races at Atlanta, Johnson has won there on three other occasions, leading active drivers with five victories.

“The racing surface, for one, and the banking. I think it’s the steepest 1.5-mile we run on,” Johnson said. “It’s always put up that short-run speed and then the age of the surface has given us the character that we all like in the track.”

Kahne hasn’t won since he took the checkered flag Labor Day weekend in the 2014 Atlanta contest. He’s started 84 races since then, but expressed confidence heading into Sunday’s race.

“You’ve got to have your car handling and driving the right way when you cross the bumps,” Kahne said. “You lose grip over a run a good bit, especially in the front-end of the car. Understanding all of those things and making them work, we’ve been able to have a lot of success over the years at intermediate tracks – especially Atlanta and Charlotte – and I want to have a lot more.”

Elliott from Dawsonville, Georgia, would love to earn his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory at his home track after coming up three laps short of winning the DAYTONA 500. The 21-year-old Chevrolet driver has logged two career runner-ups.

“Atlanta will always be special to me and hopefully we can go there for a long time and try to have some good runs along the way,” Elliott said.

Earnhardt won at Atlanta in 2004, placed runner-up at the oval last season and finished third there in 2015. He’ll try to visit Victory Lane for the first time since the fall Phoenix race in 2015. The 14-time Most Popular driver wrecked out of the DAYTONA 500, after returning from injury in his first race since July of last year.

“It’s going to be a fun season and we’ve got pretty high spirits,” Earnhardt said. “I’m ready to get to Atlanta. The worn-out track surface with its bumps and swells makes it a real challenge. It’s pretty fun.”

Byron eyes first Xfinity victory

William Byron took the NASCAR world by storm last year when he won a Sunoco Rookie-record seven NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races.

He’s hoping his debut season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series is just as successful. A week after finishing ninth at Daytona in his series debut, Byron will attempt to park his No. 9 Chevrolet in Victory Lane in Saturday’s Rinnai 250 (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

William Byron (Getty Images)

“I am really excited for the first mile-and-a-half race of the season,” Byron said. “We got to test Atlanta a few weeks back, so I think that that will help with the learning curve. Hopefully the weekend goes smooth and we can get a good finish.”

The Charlotte, North Carolina, native finished 32nd at Atlanta in the Camping World Truck Series last year after blowing an engine on the 59th lap. He started his 2016 NCWTS season off slow until a third-place finish in the third race at Martinsville jumpstarted a run of three wins in his next five races. Byron led the NCWTS standings for the majority of the season before engine trouble knocked him out of the playoffs at Phoenix when he was dominating the race.

“Hopefully the (Atlanta) weekend goes smooth and we can get a good finish,” Byron said. “My team brought me a fast Chevrolet to the track last weekend and we had a fast Chevy at the Atlanta test, so I know we will have a great weekend.”

Grala focused on Atlanta following first win

The youth movement in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series showed no signs of slowing down in the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway.

Kaz Grala, driver of the #33 KiklosGreekExtraVirginOliveOil Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway on February 24, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Getty Images)

Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Kaz Grala – 18 years, 1 month and 26 days old – navigated his way through a wreck on the backstretch on the final lap, then sped away to the finish line to become the youngest-ever NASCAR national series winner at Daytona. He’s the fifth teenage driver to win a NCWTS race since 2014.

The Westborough, Massachusetts, native will go for his second consecutive victory in Saturday’s Active Pest Control 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

“Atlanta will be my first 1.5-mile race ever, so I don’t know exactly what to expect,” Grala said. “Luckily, the win at Daytona put us in a solid position to start our season, but now our mission is to accrue as many stage wins and race wins as possible for playoff points.”

Grala made nine career NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts – all in 2016 – prior to his Daytona triumph with top finishes of seventh at New Hampshire and eighth at Gateway.

“If we have another clean race, I’m sure we will find ourselves in a great position,” Grala said. “Execution is the word for the rest of the season.”

Atlanta Race Weekend Preview

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

Race: Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway

Date and Time: Sunday, March 5 at 2:30 p.m. ET

Tune-in: FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 500.5 miles (325 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 85),

Stage 2 (Ends on lap 170), Final Stage (Ends on lap 325)

What To Watch For: The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series runs its 2,500th race. … DAYTONA 500 winner Kurt Busch goes for his fourth career win at Atlanta. … Ryan Blaney, 23, attempts to build off his second-place finish at Daytona. … The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debuts its 2017 rules package that lessens the aerodynamic forces from the cars, which emphasizes a driver’s ability to get the most out of the vehicle.

NASCAR Xfinity Series

Race: Rinnai 250

Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway

Date and Time: Saturday, March 4 at 2 p.m. ET

Tune-in: FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 251.02 miles (163 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 40),

Stage 2 (Ends on lap 80), Final Stage (Ends on lap 163)

What To Watch For: Ryan Reed attempts to visit Victory Lane again after winning the season opener at Daytona. … Kyle Busch tries to defend his 2016 Atlanta win. … Georgians Brandon Jones (Atlanta), Garrett Smithley (Peachtree City) and Ryan Sieg (Tucker) are set to compete at their home track. … Series regulars Ryan Reed (first), Brendan Gaughan (fifth), Scott Lagasse Jr. (sixth), Joey Gase (seventh), Garrett Smithley (eighth), William Byron (ninth) and Harrison Rhodes (10th) hope to build on top-10 Daytona finishes.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

Race: Active Pest Control 200

Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway

Date and Time: Saturday, March 4 at 4:30 p.m. ET

Tune-in: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 200.2 miles (130 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 40),

Stage 2 (Ends on lap 80), Final Stage (Ends on lap 130)

What To Watch For: John Hunter Nemechek returns to Atlanta to defend his 2016 victory. … Seven different drivers have won the last seven races at Atlanta Motor Speedway. … Hendrick Motorsports drivers Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman will compete in the Truck race for GMS Racing.

About Greg Engle 7420 Articles
Greg is a published award winning sportswriter who spent 23 years combined active and active reserve military service, much of that in and around the Special Operations community. Greg is the author of "The Nuts and Bolts of NASCAR: The Definitive Viewers' Guide to Big-Time Stock Car Auto Racing" and has been published in major publications across the country including the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, published in 2010, and the Christmas edition in 2016. He wrote as the NASCAR, Formula 1, Auto Reviews and National Veterans Affairs Examiner for and has appeared on Fox News. He holds a BS degree in communications, a Masters degree in psychology and is currently a PhD candidate majoring in psychology. He is currently the weekend Motorsports Editor for Autoweek.