OBSERVATIONS: Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway

By: Ashley McCubbin

The first two intermediate events of the year experienced utter chaos on restarts with close runs throughout. Atlanta Motor Speedway did not hit the same beat – chaos yes but in a different way, and that’s okay, because the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 was still a good race.

As pavement sits and begins to age, the quality goes away and it transitions from being smooth to a cheese grater material. When you slide rubber across that, you can already picture the chunks coming off, making fresh tires a premium at every chance you get down pit road.

Rather than focused on who had the most speed on the short run or could set-up the perfect draft on another competitor, Atlanta brings forth a different kind of strategy for each competitor. How do you balance set-up, being fast, and saving the tires all together? Do you run the high lane or the bottom lane in the name of speed, or having something when it matters?

It’s a style of racing that is often forgotten in a time where everybody wants instant drama, but is ultimately what the sport grew up upon and brings out the best in driver ability most times. It’s why the competitors and teams constantly chant the words do not repave this track until you absolutely have to. 

While there wasn’t the drama we were used to, don’t make these comments to believe it was a parade either – because there were reasons to keep your eyes peeled. Drivers utilized all the track available and were able to make passes, whether due to fresher rubber or better handling.

Fortunately, it can produce surprises of it own if you have a driver who waltz away from the field at the beginning of a run, utilizing every bit of their tires, only to fade late to someone who conserved their stuff. That’s what happened on Sunday at Atlanta, producing the surprise finish.

Kyle Larson is used to going all-out every single lap when he’s running dirt events due to the shortness in length. The other intermediates this year on fresher pavement that pays off due to the draft and runs developed on restarts with closeness of the package. He tried the same strategy on Sunday, and it worked mostly as he dominated with pacing over 200 laps. However, the last run, he ultimately ran out of tires with seven to go and gave up the victory.

Ryan Blaney, meanwhile, has been growing in maturity as a driver in having the guidance of championship crew chief Todd Gordon on his pit box. He recognized Larson fading over previous long runs, allowing him to get out to the early advantage, focused on conserving his tires. When it mattered, he laid down the best laps – and made the pass to win.

Of course, he had some help in catching Larson, thanks to his teammate Joey Logano holding him up as the last car on the lead lap. He certainly slowed up the No. 5 to a degree, but given how quickly Blaney closed the gap, it may have still occurred otherwise. Either way, something to add to the memory back – considering how much distain is already there for Logano from others in past seasons.

Past seasons we’ve seen Team Penske challenge for titles – but not Blaney, rather his teammates. Now entering his second season with Gordon, could it be another guidance to make a difference? If Sunday was a sample, then absolutely.

That said, they will certainly have to contend with Larson and Hendrick Motorsports through the rest of the year to do so with the organization having drivers within the top-10 most of the event. Chase Elliott was the only driver to fail to score one of his own, thanks to an engine failure. With only two top-10’s in six races while both Larson and William Byron have wins, there are a lot of questions surrounding the defending champion despite having speed.

The questions extend to Kevin Harvick, as well, as a lot of people expected him to bounce back from his struggles at Phoenix Raceway in knowing his past success at Atlanta. Fortunately, he went down a lap early after having to pit following the competition caution at Lap 32 with a flat tire – but wound up driving his way back to 10th at the checkered flag. Most drivers if they go 11 events without a win is not concerning – but it’s shocking considering the past champion won nine times in 2020.

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