By Cole Cusumano
For the first time since 2010, Atlanta Motor Speedway will host two events for NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series this year, with trucks only being run this week. This will be our third look at a 1.5-mile track this season, and if the other races were any indicator for what to expect in Georgia, we could be in for a treat.
With the last repave coming in 1997, Atlanta is one of the oldest surfaces on the circuit, making it difficult for drivers to handle. Competing at speeds exceeding 170 mph over the abrasive bumps and seams gives the track character, but the competition level has diminished drastically over the last decade.
Traditionally, Atlanta is notorious for lots of green flag racing and this was the case in 2020 with only 10 cars finishing on the lead lap in Cup. This also lends itself to strategy in the form of tire and fuel conservation, which could present some semblance of excitement, but there’s no reason to believe we won’t see the same teams out front that we always do in Peach State.
NASCAR Cup Series
Kevin Harvick has been good in Atlanta. Really good. Over the last three years he has two wins and hasn’t finished lower than fourth. The No. 4 led a race-high 151 laps en route to a victory at the 1.5-mile track last season, and he’s paced the field for combined 1348 circuits — the most among active drivers by a longshot with the second-most being 803 by Kurt Busch.
Fans and media have been blowing things out or proportion saying Harvick is in a “slump” through five races, when reality is he’s only finished outside the top-10 once and placed sixth in Phoenix. Regardless of Stewart-Haas Racing’s struggles in 2021, the 2014 Champion has been on a tear thus far and should be the odds-on favorite to win the Fold of Honor QuikTrip 500.
We should also expect a decent amount of carryover from Phoenix in terms of frontrunners for Atlanta in the form of Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr.
Larson has been a contender for the win in each race this season and high speed 1.5-mile track caters to his driving style. Additionally, he’s led a combined 149 laps in Atlanta over two starts in three years, which is the second only to Harvick’s 377.
Keselowski has been the only other driver aside from Harvick to win in Georgia over the last four years and hasn’t finished lower than ninth dating back to 2015. Truex is riding high after snapping a 29-race winless streak in Phoenix and should carry momentum into Atlanta. He’s placed inside the top-5 the last three events at the track and has an average result of 3.3 in that time.
Austin Cindric will be making his second Cup start this weekend for Team Penske in the No. 33. After a strong showing in the Daytona 500 ended in flames, this 325-lap event should come as more of a learning curve starting from 39th. Don’t count the hometown hero Chase Elliott out from the Fold of Honor QuikTrip 500 either.
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NASCAR Xfinity Series
As continually proven weekly over the last few years, the Xfinity Series has produced some of the best racing and unpredictable moments across the sport. In 2020, A.J. Allmendinger picked up his first victory on an oval at age 38 and put on an impressive showing all day.
Cindric led the most laps of the day with 68, but it’s one of the few tracks where he isn’t really dominant. In four career starts he hasn’t placed higher than seventh and Team Penske has never gone to victory lane in the Xfinity Series at Atlanta.
The reigning champion has once again established himself as the driver to beat in 2021. Cindric hasn’t placed outside the top-five through five races and he’s led a combined 282 laps with two wins and a 2.6 average finish. Starting from the pole and hungrier than ever to deliver Team Penske their first win in Atlanta, Cindric will be a force in the EchoPark 250.
Phoenix Cup winner Truex will be making his first start in the Xfinity Series since 2010. The No. 54 Camry he’ll be piloting has been the only JGR car to find victory lane through five races and it placed runner-up last weekend with Ty Gibbs behind the wheel. The 2017 Cup Champion has yet to find victory lane in Georgia.
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NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Following an off week, the perfect blend of youth and experience throughout the Truck Series field should be antsy to put on a show in Atlanta. In the most recent event, John Hunter Nemechek put on a clinic in Las Vegas and was able to keep his team owner, Kyle Busch at bay.
While Nemechek won in his Truck debut at Atlanta in 2016 and should be a contender for the win in the Fr8Auctions 200, there’s a strong likelihood Busch will be a driver to beat. The two-time Cup Champion has a combined nine wins over NASCAR’s National Series at the 1.5-mile track, with his most recent coming in 2019 in Xfinity.
Everyone should be keeping an eye on Busch, but not solely for the assumed dominance he’ll display. During the Instacart 500, he and Ross Chastain had an on-going battle that resulted in the driver of the No. 42 punting the JGR Camry down the frontstretch late in the race.
The 28-year-old will be competing in the No. 44 for Niece Motorsports and will start from the rear in the 130-lap event. There’s good reason to believe this feud between Chastain and Busch will carry over into this Truck race, and it could very well be a new rivalry in the making given the competitive nature of both.
Finally, making his first start in the Truck Series since 2007 is Bill Lester. The 60-year-old will be driving the No. 17 for David Gilliland Racing. Starting 31st, he’s an ambassador for the sport and African American community after achieving feats never accomplished by drivers of his background. It should also be noted that Atlanta was the sight of his Cup Series debut in 2006.
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Heading into the weekend festivities at Atlanta Motor Speedway, you pretty much always know what you’re getting. There should be two (maybe three) established frontrunners in each event, green flag racing and conservation in the form of tires and fuel. Being the third 1.5-mile of the season, expect the picture to become more defined of which teams will be contenders in 2021.
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will start the doubleheader taking place on March 20 with the Fr8Auctions 200 at 2:30 p.m. ET on FS1. Directly after that with a tentative 5 p.m. start time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the EchoPark 250. Finally, the NASCAR Cup Series will close things out on Sunday with the Fold of Honor QuikTrip 500 at 3 p.m. ET on Fox.
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