Superspeedway excitement continues as NASCAR heads to Atlanta

HAMPTON, GEORGIA - JULY 09: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield/IHOP Ford, and Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Wurth Ford, lead the field on a pace lap prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 Available at Walmart at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 09, 2023 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Superspeedway racing is always thrilling and unpredictable, making it popular with NASCAR fans. So it’s not much of a surprise that NASCAR added another one to its schedule in 2022 by reconfiguring the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway to add high banking.

What is a surprise, however, is heading there the week after Daytona for Sunday’s Ambetter Health 400, at 3 p.m ET on FOX, PRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

That means the first two official races of the season are at superspeedways. If racing at Daytona was any indication, that may mean plenty of carnage, which can put drivers in a bad points position to start the season based on factors wholly outside their control. It can also mean thrilling wins, with the margin of victory in the Daytona 500 when the caution came out being mere inches.

Cars will qualify at 4:30 pm on Saturday, and they’ll get a brief 10-minute pit-entry practice since Atlanta’s unique pit road layout involves a different speed on entry on the apron of turns three and four than the pit road itself.

Trial by Fire

Josh Berry, for one, didn’t feel like his 25th-place finish at Daytona was able to “represent the race we ran,” as he climbed as high as second at points in the race.

For the rookie, running his first full season in the Cup Series in the No. 4 car with Stewart-Haas Racing, another superspeedway is a valuable chance to get acclimated with the team. Bumper-to-bumper racing requires constant communication with and trust in your spotter, and Daytona proved that fuel strategy can hugely influence a superspeedway race. Berry is supported by crew chief Rodney Childers and spotter Josh Berry, both veterans of the sport.

“I think there will be a lot of similarities with the draft, the strategy, and continuing to work on the communication with Rodney and Eddie,” Berry explained. “The biggest difference at Atlanta is that it’s starting to age a little bit. Hopefully, handling becomes a little bit more of a factor this time around.”

Berry’s veteran teammate Chase Briscoe knows the new guy has his work cut out for him because Atlanta is tough.

“I think it’s the most mentally draining racetrack we have on the schedule,” Briscoe said. “Daytona and Talladega have always been mentally draining, at the end of the day, but you go to Atlanta and things happen four times the speed because you lose a mile with that racetrack. It’s an interesting track because it races like a superspeedway, but it’s still an intermediate.

“You’re manhandling the car at all times, so Atlanta is a very challenging racetrack and, by far, the most mentally draining with just how much your brain is trying to process and listen to your spotter. Actually applying what your spotter is saying is hard because things happen so fast there. It’s a tough one, for sure.”

Briscoe also addressed the “different” dynamic at the team, which has two new drivers in Berry and Noah Gragson and Ryan Preece in his second year. It makes Briscoe, who hasn’t been in Cup long himself, the senior driver on the team as the outfit rebuilds after a few years of disappointing performances.

“I feel like our teams have done a better job of working together,” Briscoe explained. “In the past, it was kind of four different teams that worked under one roof, where now it’s four teams kind of collectively working toward the same goal for one organization. All of that has been different and a good change, something that we’ve needed to do, especially in the landscape of the NextGen car.”

New Looks

New faces and changing faces are the focus in the Cup Series early in the season. Not only have new drivers entered the series but drivers have switched teams to try to get a change a change of scenery and improve their results.

Justin Haley is one of those. He made a shock move in the offseason from Kaulig Racing to Rick Ware Racing, which meant leaving a team that nearly got him a win at the Chicago Street Race in favor of a group that has struggled to reach the top twenty at most tracks.

This season, though, the No. 51 RWR Mustang looked fast, making the race at the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition and showing speed in the Daytona 500 even if external factors mean the result sheets look sparse.

“I feel like we’re doing a good job,” Haley said. “We are definitely showing that changes are happening, improvements are being made.

“After the Clash, I felt like a lot of guys that have been with RWR for awhile saw that we could do this and be competitive and run well. Then we went to Daytona and were running up front. A mistake on pit road was a little bit of a step back that took away from that, but we still did it. We were still showing that we are capable. It’s a good feeling.”

A team with plenty of new drivers is Spire Motorsports. Longtime driver Corey Lajoie is flanked by rookies Carson Hocevar in the No. 77 car and Zane Smith in the No. 71.

Smith is getting support from Trackhouse Racing, with plans to move to the Pitbull-owned team by 2025. Like Stewart-Haas, Trackhouse is working on building up teamwork amongst its cars, although unlike SHR, Trackhouse has run well the past two years including a Championship 4 appearance in 2022.

“Last year, I would say we were working together a little, not a lot,” driver Daniel Suarez explanined. “I think that right now, we’re working together a little bit more. In reality, we’ll find out as we go…I think the relationships will bring the teams more together.”

It all looks like a strong team for Smith to look forward to joining.

Veteran Perspective

The sport’s veterans are still ready to beat the new guys, and that includes Martin Truex Jr, who’s now the oldest driver on the grid.

That didn’t stop a strong season last year that netted him a Regular Season Championship, although the No. 19 car had an incredibly poor Playoff performance, wasting that extra points reward.

At this point, though, he’s equally concerned about keeping things enjoyable and his crew chief James Small helps him to do that.

“We joke and laugh about it sometimes, he’s high-strung and I get frustrated at times on the radio. I think we have a good relationship where we understand each other and we know our attitudes and how we work and the way we work together behind the scenes,” Truex explained.

“And we are always pulling in the same direction all the time despite what we say on the radio at times. We both have our moments and maybe get too wound up, and we sort of make fun of it afterward and move on. I just really enjoy James’ work ethic and how hard he works and how bad he wants it, that’s what keeps us going.”

Truex is enjoying working with a team of talented drivers. Joe Gibbs Racing’s stable ranges in age this year, from the young Ty Gibbs to the now-established Christopher Bell to Denny Hamlin who’s as much a veteran as Truex.

“We have a good mix of different guys who really add a lot and, when you mesh it all together, you really have good results,” Truex put it.

Atlanta keeps a heavily competitive Xfinity grid on their toes

The Xfinity series grid this year is a stacked field with some of the most competitive teams and drivers running full time than any season in recent years. The series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway for Saturday’s RAPTOR King of Tough 250 at 5 pm ET on FS1, PRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

That will give the pack a chance to chase down Austin Hill. The Richard Childress Racing driver proved he owns Daytona by scoring his third straight win in the season-opening event to start the season right.

Hill might be very good at the discipline, but on a superspeedway, everyone has a chance.

Cole Custer, for one, expects something a little different than Daytona.

“I think when you look at Daytona versus Atlanta, you know, Atlanta just has so much more handling come into play and you have to worry a little bit more about how well your car handles in the track or on the track,” he explained.

“At Daytona, it’s all out all the time. It’s just a different battle. At the same time, the runs can come very fast because the track is more condensed. It really makes it a fast-paced race where everyone is on their toes. It’s different, but still similar to superspeedways. It honestly makes it very exciting.”

Last year’s champion is looking to continue his success. Custer is a longtime Stewart-Haas Racing driver, having raced with the team in the Cup Series before moving back to the Xfinity side.

There, he’s provided a veteran perspective to his young teammate Riley Herbst, who had a breakout season last year, scoring his first career Xfinity Series win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in dominating fashion.

“We’ve been on a roll,” Herbst said. “Both cars in the SHR Xfinity Series program have been fast since last year, so it’s exciting to see that carry over into a new season. The competition is stacked in this series with a lot of good drivers to compete against. The fact that we’re able to consistently run in the top-five and top-10 was all we wanted several years ago.

“I’m proud of how far this team has come… Hopefully, we can keep digging and bring home our first win of the season, too. We’re here to win, and I think the competition sees that.”

The rest of the field wants to win, too. One driver who already knows what NASCAR victory lane is like despite making only his second-ever Xfinity Series start at Atlanta is Shane van Gisbergen.

He scored a breakthrough win in his first-ever race at the Chicago Street Course driving for Trackhouse Racing’s PROJECT91 program, and it was enough to tempt him to leave his Australian Supercars roots to come to the US and compete in NASCAR.

In his Xfinity Series debut, he finished 12th at Daytona, rebounding from some contact, and will be hoping to continue that strong run at Atlanta.

Truck Series drivers and NASCAR will be hoping for a little less carnage at Atlanta

Not much changed in the Craftsman Truck Series from last year to this one. The championship finale at Phoenix Raceway featured intentional wrecking, behavioral penalties, and multiple Overtime attempts to decide the finish.

At the season-opener at Daytona, the same hyper-aggressive driving was on display, including a flip at the end, turning it into a race of survival for Nick Sanchez.

As the series heads to another superspeedway at Atlanta for the Fr8 208, there are plenty who hope that the driving standards will change somewhat.

At Daytona, the trucks looked twitchier and more difficult to handle than past years, which may have contributed.

Ty Dillon, running a full time Truck Series campaign this year after several seasons in the Cup Series, knew to expect a wreck at Daytona, but was very surprised the pack was so aggressive to cause a big wreck in the opening laps.

“I’ve never seen anything look like that from behind the wheel four laps into a race,” Dillon said after exiting the infield care center.

One driver who certainly knows how to handle a loose truck will be joining the field, though. Kyle Busch will drive the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet.

He has the most wins of any driver in NASCAR history across the three national series, and he’ll be hoping to add to that total after selling his own truck team to Spire.

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – JULY 08: Chandler Smith, driver of the #16 Roofing Georgia Chevrolet, leads Josh Berry, driver of the #8 Jarrett Logistics Systems Chevrolet, Sammy Smith, driver of the #18 TMC Toyota, and John Hunter Nemechek, driver of the #20 Mobil 1 Toyota, during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco Uniforms 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 08, 2023 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Ambetter Health 400
The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, February 25
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $9,137,793
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, February 24
The Time: 5 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,328,978
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, February 24
The Time: 2 p.m. ET
The Purse: $705,481
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