Many of the questions competitors, NASCAR executives, and even fans, had coming into the new Atlanta Motor Speedway have now been answered.
The 1.5-mile track was sorely in need of a repave. Despite the protestations of drivers who loved the old worn-out surface that chewed up tires track owner Speedway Motorsports announced last year that it was time. The asphalt was over 20 years old and ready for a new surface.
Speedway Motorsports, however, took it a bit further. Not only would the track get repaved but the banking in the turns was increased from 24 to 28 degrees; the backstretch was narrowed from 55 to 42 feet while the frontstretch widened from 55 feet to 61 feet 6 inches. The higher banked turns were also narrowed.
The goal was a mini-1.5-mile superspeedway like Dayona or Talladega. Despite extensive modeling and testing no one really knew what would happen when NASCAR’s fastest racers, the Cup series, would take to the track in anger. NASCAR mandated a superspeedway competition package for the first race on the new asphalt, and Sunday it finally took place.
The racing was side-by-side for much of the 500 miles, but the stats tell the story: the race produced 46 lead changes among 20 drivers—both track records.
But there were also a record number of cautions. In all 28 of the 37 cars that started the race were involved in crashes with 11 cars scored with DNFs.
Those numbers meant that there were some who loved the new Atlanta, and some he didn’t.
Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron led a race high 111 laps and scored his third career win.
“I think these fans saw one heck of a race,” Byron said while standing at the start-finish line after winning. “It was certainly long from my seat. It was mentally taxing.”
Later he was asked if it was more taxing than racing at Daytona or Talladega.
“More. More, for sure,” he said. “Daytona and Talladega, when you get single file, can you relax. Today when you were single-file, you were constantly working to stay single file, so you didn’t lose the lead. I think that was a lot different. I’m not used to that.”
Chase Elliott finished sixth. His Chevy had damage from one of the many incidents.
“Hopefully it was fun to watch because I felt like it was wild from my seat,” he said. “It was very much so like a Daytona or Talladega. Just trying to position yourself there at the right spot and hope it goes your way.”
Winning crew chief Rudy Fugle was one of those who weren’t in favor of the re-pave. Though his opinion might be biased after winning, he seems to have been swayed.
“We really enjoyed that challenge of how hard Atlanta was and how much fun it was with tire falloff making it good,” he said. “But when you have to repave tracks, this was a good product today. I thought it was really, really good.”
Chris Buescher finished seventh.
“I’m missing the old Atlanta a lot right now,” he said. “To be fair, it was my favorite mile-and-a-half before, so it was gonna be hard for this one to compare and, to me, it doesn’t right now but we’ll keep working on it and see if we can get it better for next time.”
Perhaps no driver was more opinionated after the race than Austin Cindric, who won this year’s season opening Daytona 500. Cindric was involved in a crash on lap 200 and finished the race with a DNF. He said there really wasn’t a comparison to Daytona.
“I would say it’s quite a bit different, he said. “In some ways leading into the weekend I think as an industry we probably didn’t think it was gonna be as much of a pack,” he said. “But obviously the track had a lot of grip and it didn’t take long for it to widen out, so I think after watching yesterday we kind of knew it was gonna be a pack race.
“At the same time, the track is one mile smaller (than Daytona), so the opportunity to build runs and to be able to carry them into the corner but also not be handling limited, I think that’s why we have the racing that we do at Talladega and Daytona. I feel like today if you weren’t fifth on forward, you were limited by whatever was happening in the first two or three rows. I never quite figured out a method to the madness today. We kind of hung around 10th on the edge of stage points all the time. It was interesting for sure, but narrow track and not a lot of room to have errors.”
As for what needs to change for the future:
“It’s certainly hard to say,” he said. “From a close racing standpoint, we have an entire pack, so I guess it depends on the formula you want. Not to give you a non-comital answer, but I would say if you were 10th on back today you were kind of just as passenger. You could take a run and go somewhere and then go back up and take a run and go somewhere, but you really wouldn’t make any progress unless you were putting somebody three-wide, which putting somebody three-wide was a pretty large risk and then usually lift anyway. I took advantage of that a few times and it was kind of fun, but it’s a pretty rare opportunity that you would catch somebody sleeping. Like I said, I never quite figured out a method to the madness and felt like the track was getting more grip throughout the race, so I think it’ll probably be racier with three lanes before the end.”
For team owners, superspeedways normally mean torn up racecars and that means a great deal of money. Despite the carnage Sunday, winning team owner Rick Hendrick is looking forward to the next visit to the min-superspeedway.
“We have not had very good luck at finishing plate races,” he said. “We’ve been in a great position, but we’ve seemed to get in wrecks all the time, and I don’t think this is going to be quite as bad.
“These cars are more durable, and you saw it today. Usually when you have a wreck down at Talladega, Daytona, it’s just trashed. But a lot of cars were able to finish, and also I think it’s going to be easier and better with this car and I think the speeds here at this track. I believe it’s going to be a great show.”
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