By Cole Cusumano
The NASCAR Cup Series will have their hands full more than usual at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend.
The notoriously difficult 1.54-mile track had a longstanding reputation as the one of the most abrasive surfaces on the circuit. After nearly 62 years, the Georgia-based venue has undergone radical changes designed to promote a unique racing experience for teams and those watching at home.
Following the most composed on-track product yet with the Next Gen car at Phoenix Raceway, Cup teams are about to get bombarded with a new set of challenges. They must step up to the plate and tackle a high-speed curveball in the form of the newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“There’s a ton of new here,” Chris Buescher said. “It’s probably not even fair to go comparing to the old Atlanta at this point, there’s just so many variables in it.”
Buescher was one of three drivers fortunate enough to participate in a Goodyear tire test at Atlanta in January of 2022 along with Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain. The trio are the only competitors with any baseline to work with before hitting the 1.54-mile track, and based on their feedback, it’s going to be must-see television.
Everyone has a respect for history, but change in Atlanta was imminent. While the worn down, multi-groove surface provided lots of character, the overall product had gone stale for spectators.
As a result, the 62-year-old venue underwent a full repave, which included increasing the banking from 24-to-28 degrees, making it the steepest intermediate track on the circuit. Additionally, the typically full-length 55-feet of racing surface was narrowed to 52-feet on the frontstretch, 42 down the backstretch and 40 in the turns.
The aggressive alterations of the track were designed to generate more speed from the cars, while also emulating a style of racing specific to superspeedways.
“The corners are so much sharper, you’re going to have to have your car handling well,” Chastain said. “It’s going to be like maybe Daytona (International Speedway) before they repaved it. Guys had to have good handling cars, as well as a superspeedway car that would draft good.
“You’re going to have to have a lot of friends.”
Many believe drafting will play a huge factor at the remodeled Atlanta Motor Speedway. In fact, NASCAR has implemented the same packages (510-horsepower with seven-inch spoiler) and double-yellow line rule as used at superspeedways.
Reigning Atlanta winner Busch even said the pace picked up by over a second when drafting. Keep in mind, this was with only three drivers on track.
“I think it will be a hybrid (of Daytona) in a lot of ways,” 2022 Daytona 500 Champion Austin Cindric said. “Honestly, I don’t really know. I think we are preparing in some ways for it to be that way from a racing standpoint, but from a car standpoint and necessity for grip, I think you still need to have drivability and practice being able to handle and be able to stay close to guys.
“You are going to have drafting situations but if I am too tight to stay tucked up to somebody then that is difficult. Also, tire-wise it is a lot different than what we ran at Daytona and a lot different than what we will run at Talladega (Superspeedway) just from a stagger perspective.”
The tire combination Goodyear formulated for Atlanta is brand new and won’t be used anywhere else. Engineers are anticipating much less tire wear than you’d normally see at the old, abrasive 1.54-mile track.
Since the repave promotes more speed and grip, they created a thinner tread compound to accommodate high speeds and more grip, which will expel excessive heat buildup in the tires with low-wear.
Cup teams will get their first crack at the new Atlanta Motor Speedway on Friday, March 18 with a 50-minute practice session at 5:05 p.m. ET. For now, they’ll be hitting the simulators frequently in preparation for what’s sure to be a steep learning curve in Georgia.