Byron looks to continue his winning streak as NASCAR heads to the new high banks

HAMPTON, GEORGIA - JULY 10: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and Brad Keselowski, driver of the #6 Solomon Plumbing Ford, lead the field 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)

William Byron is on a hot streak, having won the last two races. And he’s got extra momentum heading into the Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), having won the Spring Atlanta race last year.

But all told, momentum has taken a dive for every Hendrick Motorsports team this week. NASCAR penalized Byron and his teammates heavily for unapproved modifications, so Byron will be without crew chief Rudy Fugle at Atlanta, and three additional races besides. He also incurred a 100 point and 10 Playoff point penalty.

Hendrick is in the process of appealing the penalties, but a ruling has not been made heading into the weekend. Rather than focusing on that, though, Byron highlighted the positives: a greater understanding of the Next-Gen car that’s let him find victory lane twice, compared to last year when it was still new.

“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,” he countered, “it’s strength on strength. It feels different. It feels like we’re more consistently towards the front, and we’re leading laps.”

Extra momentum for Byron: he’s in a Chevrolet, and the manufacturer has won all the points-paying races so far this season.

Chevrolet’s best driver in the points right now is Ross Chastain, who sits second to Kevin Harvick. He’s familiar with second place at Atlanta, finishing there both times since the repave last year.

“My goal is to finish one spot better and win the race,” he clarified. “Finishing second is great, but I want to win for my team and all of our partners.”

“Racing at Atlanta now is more superspeedway-like and we had two strong finishes last year,” Chastain added. “Of course, it’ll be a little bit different this time since we’ve had more time with this car, but if you’re anywhere close to the front and there’s a late race restart, I’d say you have a good chance at winning.”

As for Harvick himself, Atlanta is where his first win came, although he acknowledges that the racetrack has changed quite a bit since then.

“It’s just a superspeedway race on a mile-and-a-half racetrack,” Harvick said. “Things just happen a lot faster, so the decisions have to happen faster, the cars move around a lot more, the corners come up a lot quicker. A lot more seat-of-your-pants, just, ‘Go here, go there, do this, do that.’ And I think that the way the lines formed and moved and everything happened, you just had to get used to a different style of race than we’ve had before.”

As Harvick said, the pack-style racing injects an extra layer of unpredictability that will pose a challenge to Byron as he hopes to continue his winning streak.

Austin Hill looks to continue superspeedway success at Atlanta

Austin Hill won the NASCAR Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

Two weeks later, Hill triumphed on 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

On Saturday, the series leader will try for his third victory of the season on a 1.5-mile track that thinks it’s a superspeedway in the nightcap of a NASCAR doubleheader, the Raptor King of Tough 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (5 p.m. on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Fresh pavement applied before last year’s races radically changed the character of the Atlanta track, transforming it from a slip-and-slide 1.5-miler to a venue that behaves more like a superspeedway, where cars draft in precariously close quarters.

That’s a bonus for Hill, the defending race winner who has claimed three of his four career Xfinity victories on tracks that feature a superspeedway competition package.

The driver of the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet will have some stiff competition. Full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver Justin Haley, a four-time Xfinity winner on superspeedways, is moonlighting in the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet this Saturday.

“It’s probably my favorite race track right now on the schedule,” Haley said. “It’s just something so different than any other track we go to, with the high speeds and it being an in-between track.”

Driving the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, John Hunter Nemechek also should be a contender on Saturday. He has started the season with four straight finishes of sixth or better, including a victory at Fontana and a second at Daytona.

Zane Smith looks to continue Truck Series dominance 

Truck Series champion Zane Smith couldn’t have asked for a better start to his title defense.

For the second straight year, Smith won the season opener at Daytona. The driver of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford finished second at Las Vegas—to Truck Series career victory leader Kyle Busch, no less—to claim the series lead.

Now Smith comes to a track where his drafting skills should stand him in good stead in Saturday’s Fr8 208 (2 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Smith, however, will have to beat defending race winner Corey Heim and TRICON Garage Toyota teammate John Hunter Nemechek, who is running both Saturday races.

Take it with a grain of salt, given the recent changes to the track, but Toyota drivers have won five of the last six Atlanta races, including last year’s on the repaved surface.

The exception to the recent Toyota dominance is Grant Enfinger, who won in a Ford in 2020—the only time a Ford driver has triumphed in 21 Truck Series races at Atlanta. Enfinger is behind the wheel of the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet this year.

“Atlanta is a lot different since the reconfiguration,” Enfinger said. “It races more like a superspeedway, rather than a conventional mile-and-a-half track. With the banking and newer asphalt, we will all have a lot of grip, which provides for tight racing. We will have to be aggressive on the track and pit road to position ourselves to be up front for the end.”

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – JULY 10: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem Toyota, spins after an on-track incident 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)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Ambetter Health 400
The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, March 19
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,725,965
TV: FOX, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400 miles (260 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 160), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 260)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: RAPTOR King of Tough 250
The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, March 18
The Time: 5 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,274,624
TV: FS1, 4 p.m. ET
Radio: 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)

Next Race: Fr8 208
The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, March 18
The Time: 2 p.m. ET
The Purse: $673,693
TV: FS1, 1 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 207.9 miles (135 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 135)

Owen Johnson