For NASCAR’s new aero package Atlanta was the ‘best of times, the worst of times’

HAMPTON, GA - FEBRUARY 24: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Autotrader Ford, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 24, 2019 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Whether you liked the new higher downforce, lower horsepower package raced in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series for the first time Sunday, may depend on if you are a glass half full, or half empty person.

Used for the first time in actual points paying competition, there seemed little difference on the track to actual observers.

And that is probably by design.

Sunday’s race was on the very abrasive old-as-dirt pavement at the 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway.  There were much higher spoilers, much bigger splitters, fewer horses under the hood and more downforce.  Speeds were slower (about 3 miles an hour in qualifying), and the restarts were borderline insane at times. But on social media there seemed to be some fans who seemed disappointed, while others loved it.

As for the drivers:

“Well, I was up front for most of it battling for the lead and stuff,” Kyle Larson who had a speeding penalty send him to the back of the field and with a 12th place finish. “It felt really similar to a Xfinity race until I got to the back. Once I got in the back it was just really hard to find clean air and your balance was way different toward the back of the pack.”

“I mean the big spoiler just punches such a big hole and you lose downforce behind people,” he added. “I lost a lot of front grip once I went to the back. I felt like I could run really good through (Turns) 1 and 2 for a long time. I could never do that once I got in the traffic.”

Kyle Busch spent a lot of his race in traffic. After crashing his primary car in practice Saturday, he was forced to start at the rear of the field in a backup. He finished 6th.

“Traffic is really bad aero-wise,” Busch said. “You get behind somebody and they take your air away and you’re junk. You’re going to go some of these tighter places that have less of a groove. Here you had a white line all the way to the wall and it was still hard to pass. You can make runs on people and have somebody mess up on a corner exit and get a good run. If you got a good run, you could by him on the straightaway or something like that.”

“It’s not really a lot different honestly than what I thought old Atlanta was a lot like,” Erik Jones who finished just behind Busch said. “I don’t think there was any more passing, I don’t think there was any less passing. I think it was kind of the same. It’s just different. Just a different way of going about it.”

“Clean air was a big deal,” polesitter Aric Almirola said. “Early in the race our car was really fast out front and when we got behind in second it still felt like we were a second or third place car. Then I made a terrible mistake getting onto pit road and was three-tenths of mile an hour too fast and that is too fast. I had to go to the tail and then my goodness was it a challenge. Traffic, cars make so much downforce and we are all going so fast that it is really hard to make passes until late, late, late in the run.”

Comparing stats from last year’s race doesn’t really show a huge difference.  Last year in this race there were 24 lead changes; Sunday there were 26. There did seem to be closer racing however, and that showed in the margin of victory; Kevin Harvick dominated last season and won by over 2 seconds.  Sunday winner Brad Keselowski took the lead late in the going and won by .128 seconds.

“Trying to figure out the right scenario for this is going to be interesting,” fifth place finisher Clint Bowyer said. “You have to remember, this is a one-off race. There is no track that we go to anymore that is as slick as this and as hard on tires. It will be interesting to see what Las Vegas brings.”

And there in lies the key.  Each of track will have slight changes to the package. At Las Vegas next week aero ducts will be added for the 1.5-mile track.  So while the Atlanta race may not have seemed remarkably different, it in fact was. There was closer race, a closer finish and next week will be an entirely new day for this new package to show drivers and fans what the racing will be moving deeper into the season.

Greg Engle