NASCAR Cup Series News & Notes – Atlanta Motor Speedway

Next Race: Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, March 15
The Time: 2 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 1 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 500.5 miles (325 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 105),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 210), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 325)
2019 Race Winner: Brad Keselowski

Keselowski looking to repeat in Atlanta

Brad Keselowski has been the cream of the crop – the car on top – when it comes to Atlanta Motor Speedway’s most recent NASCAR Cup Series races. He’s won two of the last three and finished second in the other. And after a frustrating near-miss at Phoenix Raceway’s trophy last Sunday, the 2012 series champion arrives at Atlanta Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (2 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) primed and ready to celebrate that first victory of 2020.

Results have traditionally met high hopes for the Team Penske driver there.

In 11 starts at the 1.5-mile Atlanta track, Keselowski has earned four top-five and seven top-10 finishes. He’s finished in the top 10 in the last five consecutive races. And he is the defending champion of this weekend’s race.

Last year after winning at Atlanta (which was the second race on the schedule instead of the fifth, as it is now) – Keselowski earned top-3 finishes in three of the next four events. He won his second race of the year at Martinsville Speedway four weeks after celebrating in Atlanta’s Victory Lane.

The driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford could use a dose of that good energy now. After a frustrating early exit in the season-opening Daytona 500 – he finished 36th after being collected in an accident – he rallied to seventh-place (Las Vegas) and fifth-place (California)  finishes. Last week he pitted from third with only a handful of laps remaining at Phoenix, and returned to salvage an 11th-place finish. He won Stage 2 and his recovery was good enough to move him inside the top 10 in the driver points (10th place) for the first time this season.

He led 82 laps at Phoenix – a mark only bettered by Chase Elliott’s 93 laps out front – and advanced Keselowski from a 30th-place ranking after the Daytona 500 to a season high 10th place heading to Atlanta. He’s 46 points behind the leader Kevin Harvick.

And Keselowski has proven himself to be an absolute favorite at the Georgia track – where he owns two wins. Of his 30 career wins, 13 of them have come on 1.5-mile venues such as Atlanta; the largest win tally among the NASCAR Cup Series style of race tracks.

Harvick takes over points lead

No one’s been more consistent than Kevin Harvick this season… his series best four top-10 finishes in four races backs that up. And thanks to a season-best runner-up finish at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, Harvick has earned the NASCAR Cup Series points lead – by a single point over two-race winner Joey Logano.

But as great as the perch atop the standings may be, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford would like to firmly secure that championship opportunity with a victory. And soon.

Atlanta Motor Speedway has been both a productive and sentimental venue for the 44-year old Californian.

He scored his first career NASCAR Cup Series win at Atlanta in 2001 in the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet – the same car that Dale Earnhardt drove (as No. 3) when he died in that season’s Daytona 500. A then-25-year-old Harvick, in only his third career series start, earned one of the most emotional wins in the sport’s history that afternoon.

He answered it 17 years and 27 Atlanta races later with a victory in 2018. And he’s a favorite this weekend too.

Harvick has 14 career top-10 finishes at Atlanta – 11 in the last 13 races. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has led an unmatched 960 laps in just the last six races, including 181 in his 2018 victory and an impressive 292 of the 325 laps in his 2017 ninth-place run.

Harvick’s success has been indicative of the whole Stewart-Haas organization of late, as the team swept a top 10 day at the track Sunday in Phoenix. Led by Harvick’s runner-up finish, Clint Bowyer was fifth, Aric Almirola was eighth and Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Cole Custer was ninth.

Almirola is currently ranked eighth in the standings, 43 points behind his teammate Harvick. Bowyer is 13th, 59 points back, and the rookie Custer is 22nd in the standings.

Home again, home again for Chase Elliott

This week’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway is a home race for the sport’s Most Popular Driver, 24-year old Chase Elliott of Dawsonville, Georgia. There will be plenty of family and friends joining a huge fandom in the stands and Elliott would love nothing more than to earn his first victory of the season at the venue.

It would be fantastically popular and fantastically important.

Elliott, the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is in third place in the NASCAR Cup Series standings, only 20 points behind leader Kevin Harvick. He’s climbed up the standings with a pair of top-10 finishes in the last two races – fourth in California and seventh at Phoenix last week, where he also won the Busch Pole position.

Elliott has a series best three stage wins. And he’s led laps in three of the four races, including a race best 93 laps at Phoenix. His 70 laps out front at Las Vegas were second only to Harvick’s 92 laps led. Neither of the drivers, however, has won a race. Yet.

Atlanta Motor Speedway certainly is a prime prospect for Elliott to celebrate mightily in Victory Lane. He has three top-10 finishes in four NASCAR Cup Series starts at the track, including a best of fifth place in 2017. His worst showing was in 2019 when Elliott finished 19th.

Interestingly, for as good as Elliott’s results have been, he’s never led a lap at Atlanta.

Hendrick Motorsports off to a strong start

Chase Elliott’s early season success is just one of the bright spots for the Hendrick Motorsports organization in 2020. Three of its drivers are ranked among the top 10 in the standings – Elliott is third, 20 points behind leader Kevin Harvick. Alex Bowman – the Auto Club Speedway winner – is fourth, 26 points out. Jimmie Johnson is fifth, 33 points back and after a hard-knocks start to the season William Byron has broken into the top-20 and is part of a two-way tie with Bubba Wallace at 18th place in the standings

It’s the first time the team has had three drivers ranked in the top 10 after four races since 2015 (Kasey Kahne, fourth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., sixth and Johnson, seventh).

Bowman has the early season victory and the one top five in four races. Elliott and Johnson each have a pair of top 10s and one top five. And Elliott leads the whole series in stage wins (three) and laps led (186). Bowman also has topped the 100-lap mark in laps led with 113.

And the best news for the organization is the success has been spread out. Elliott’s 17th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 was the best for the team. Johnson’s fifth place at Las Vegas was tops. Bowman won at California. And Elliott (seventh) and Byron (10th) both had top-10 runs last weekend at Phoenix – the first top 10 of the year for Byron.

While more recent Atlanta races have been dominated by two-time winners Harvick and Brad Keselowski, Johnson actually leads the series in the most important statistics. His five victories in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet are most in the field – nearly double that of any other driver (Kurt Busch has three). Twice he won back-to-back races – sweeping the 2007 season and winning in 2015-16. Johnson’s 14 top-five and 16 top-10 efforts are also best among the competition. And he’s tied with Harvick for the top driver rating (100.5).

Joe Gibbs Racing bouncing back after slow West Coast swing

After a historic 19-win NASCAR Cup Series season in 2019 – including Kyle Busch’s second series championship – the Joe Gibbs Racing organization is still largely fine-tuning its winning form this year.

Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, won his second consecutive Daytona 500 to open the season in the same triumphant way JGR closed out the 2019 season. But since that race, JGR has found itself in a bit of catch-up mode – not always of its own doing.

Three JGR drivers – Busch, Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. – qualified for the Championship 4 season finale last year. But after four races this season, not a single JGR driver is ranked among the top 10 in the NASCAR Cup Series standings.

Hamlin is 11th, 53 points off the leader Kevin Harvick, who was the fourth member of the Championship 4 last year. Reigning series champ Busch is ranked 12th, also 53 points back. Truex is ranked 15th, 68 points off Harvick and Jones is 21st, 87 points off the title pace.

Only Hamlin has won a stage this year (one). His 79 laps out front – all in his Daytona win – are the most for any Gibbs driver. Truex has led only 15 laps, Busch has led only 14 laps and Jones has not been out front yet.

This is his first season for Truex without longtime crew chief Cole Pearn, so there is a natural learning curve for the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He has yet to earn a top 10 and has two DNFs in four races. But the good news is Truex has a good history at this week’s Atlanta Motor Speedway venue and was the race runner-up just last spring. He leads all drivers in laps run in the top 15 at Atlanta (80.7 percent) and quality passes (883). He’s scored top-10 finishes in nine of his 21 starts.

Busch leads the Gibbs’ contingent with two wins (2008 and 2013) at Atlanta. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has five top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 21 races there, and was sixth at Atlanta last year.

Hamlin’s victory at Atlanta came in 2012. He has four top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 20 starts there.

Jones has only three Atlanta starts, but the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has never finished worse than 14th (first start in 2017). He has one top 10 in three races and was a career best seventh there last spring.

Taking a glance at the Sunoco Rookies

Last weekend’s Phoenix Raceway event was a significant outing for several members of the NASCAR Cup Series’ talented Sunoco Rookie class.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer earned his first NASCAR Cup Series top 10 with a ninth-place finish on Sunday. The effort moved him to 22nd in the standings – best among rookies.

Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick earned points in the first two Stages and ran among the top five for a portion of the race before a late accident cost him a fitting finish. The two-time and defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion was ultimately 33rd in the finishing order, but earned a lot of positive praise for his work Sunday. The up-and-down day dropped him to 25th in the standings heading into Atlanta.

Christopher Bell had his best outing of the four-race season, finishing 24th in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota, one position ahead of Front Row Motorsports’ driver John Hunter Nemechek.

Custer is tops among the rookies in the standings, followed by Reddick and Nemechek, who sit in 25th and 26th position, respectively.

Bell is currently 32nd  in the NASCAR Cup Series standings, but he does have two wins at this week’s Atlanta Motor Speedway venue. He won the 2017 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race from pole position and answered it with a victory in last year’s Xfinity Series race at Atlanta.

“Atlanta is statistically one of my best race tracks,’’ Bell said. “Every race I’ve ran there, I’ve been able to lead laps at some point. I was able to win once in the truck and once in the Xfinity car.

“Atlanta is definitely another race I have circled, and I love that race track. It’s going to be different in the Cup car, but I’m ready to get there this weekend see what happens’’

Nemechek is the only other rookie to have celebrated in Atlanta’s Victory Lane – earning the 2016 Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race win.

Custer’s best showing was a runner-up to Bell in last year’s Xfinity race. Reddick was fifth in that race.

Competition Highlights

Only four races into the 2020 season and three NASCAR Cup Series teams have celebrated pole positions – JTG Daugherty in Daytona (driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.), Stewart-Haas Racing in Fontana (Clint Bowyer) and Hendrick Motorsports in Phoenix (Chase Elliott).

Three drivers from three teams have hoisted trophies in the opening four races. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin won the season-opening Daytona 500, becoming only the third driver in history to earn back-to-back titles in the legendary race. Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman earned his second career win at California’s Auto Club Speedway and Team Penske’s Joey Logano is the year’s first multi-time winner – taking the trophy at both Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The average Margin of Victory through the first four races is 4.590-seconds (twice the race has ended under caution). The average number of leaders per race is 8.75 – up from 8.25 in 2019. The average number of lead changes per race is 21.25 – the most since 2014 (24.25).

The season’s 148 Green Flag Passes for the Lead are the fifth most in the last 10 seasons. The highest total in the last decade after four races is 255 – a mark set in 2014. The total number of Green Flag Passes (2,241) at Phoenix was the highest total in the last decade and up 66 percent from a year ago.

The Phoenix race had 19 Green Flag Passes for the Lead – an increase of 46 percent from last year’s Spring race (13 Green Flag Passes for the Lead) and an increase of 90 percent from the 2019 Playoff race (10 Green Flag Passes for the Lead).

Parade Laps: Insights ahead of this week’s driver media rotations

Four drivers from the NASCAR Cup Series –Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola, GOFAS Racing’s Corey LaJoie, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney will be participating in group press conferences at Atlanta Motor Speedway in advance of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series’ Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (2 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Aric Almirola, 35, of Tampa, has scored top-10 finishes in the last two races – eighth-place runs at both the Fontana and Phoenix tracks. It’s helped elevate the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to eighth place in the NASCAR Cup Series standings, 43 points behind the leader, his SHR teammate Kevin Harvick. He shows up at Atlanta as the defending pole-winner. He finished a career-best at Atlanta last year of eighth and led his first-ever laps at the track (36 laps). He also has a pair of top-five runs in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series races at Atlanta – third in 2010 and fifth in 2012. (Best Atlanta Finish: Eighth, 2019)

Corey LaJoie, 28, of Concord, N.C., earned his first top 10 of the season – an eighth place showing – in the season-opening Daytona 500. A 16th-place effort in Las Vegas the next week has also helped put LaJoie 23rd in the NASCAR Cup Series standings heading into Atlanta. In two previous starts at the 1.5-miler, the driver of the No. 32 GOFAS Racing Ford has finishes of 34th and 29th. LaJoie is a previous ARCA Menards Series East championship runner-up, finishing second to fellow NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Larson in the 2012 standings. (Best Atlanta Finish: 29th, 2019)

Erik Jones, 23, of Byron, Mich., is looking to get his 2020 season on track after an uncharacteristically slow start. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has only one top-10 finish through the opening four races – a 10th-place showing at Auto Club Speedway. He’s ranked 21st in the standings and has yet to lead a lap. Although Jones has not won at this week’s Atlanta venue previously, he has three NASCAR Cup Series finishes of 14th or better, including a career-best seventh-place effort last year. He finished third at the track in the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series race and has another top 10 (seventh) in a NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race there in 2015. (Best Atlanta Finish: Seventh, 2019)

 

Ryan Blaney, 26, of High Point, N.C., is enjoying his best career season start. He finished runner-up in the season-opening Daytona 500 then led the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings for the first time in his career for the next two weeks. A tough-luck accident early in last week’s Phoenix race resulted in a 37th-place finish for the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, however, dropping him from first in the standings to sixth, 41 points behind new leader Kevin Harvick. Blaney is looking for his first career top-10 finish at Atlanta. His best work was a 12th-place result in 2018. He led 41 laps last year in the race but finished 22nd.  He has only one start in either of NASCAR’s other two major series – starting 12th and finishing 11th in a 2012 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race. (Best Atlanta Finish: 12th, 2018)

Related posts

Leave a Comment