Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – ATLANTA, GA – It’s unusual for the NASCAR Cup Series to run six races to start a season without seeing a repeat winner.
Not since 2014, when Kevin Harvick became the first multiple winner in the eighth event of the season, has the series produced six different winners in the first six races.
Last year, there were two duplicate winners in the first six races—Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. That was the harbinger of a spectacular season for those two drivers, who combined to win 16 of the 36 points races.
Five different drivers have taken checkered flags to start the 2021 season, and that streak is likely to continue at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Sunday’s Folds of honor QuikTrip 500 (3 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Harvick and Keselowski have dominated Atlanta in the recent past, each winning two of the last four events. Neither driver has won a race so far this season. Neither has Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate, Joey Logano, who won two of the first four races in 2020.
And though two of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates—William Byron and Kyle Larson—already have tasted victory this year, reigning champion Chase Elliott has not. Current Cup Series leader Hamlin, a seven-time winner in 2020, likewise has yet to visit Victory Lane.
In fact, the top three drivers in the point standings—Hamlin, Keselowski and Logano—all have achieved their current ranks without winning.
Atlanta Motor Speedway hasn’t been repaved since 1997, and the old, abrasive asphalt at the 1.54-mile track favors veteran drivers who can manage their equipment and preserve tire life over the course of a fuel run.
“Atlanta is definitely a tough place,” says Elliott, who finished eighth in last year’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. “The race track has a lot of wear to it—the surface is one of the oldest that we go to—so finding grip is a challenge. The track has a lot of character and is very line-sensitive to where you can and can’t run to find that.
“You really have to hit your marks in Atlanta to have success. I think the track conditions this weekend will be pretty similar to last year in a lot of ways. The No. 9 team and I have talked a lot about last year’s event. That’s how we’re going about the setup for Sunday is from last year and taking things away from how we did—what we did good and what we can improve on.”
If form holds, Elliott will have to improve to beat Harvick, who led 151 of the 325 laps last year, including the final 55 circuits during a 108-lap green-flag run to the finish.
Given Harvick’s strength at Atlanta—not to mention the sizable group of as-yet-winless powerhouse drivers who will start Sunday’s race—it’s likely the streak of different winners will reach six this weekend.
ALLMENDINGER LOOKS TO KEEP PERFECT ATLANTA RECORD INTACT
In the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway, AJ Allmendinger is undefeated.
OK, Allmendinger has started only one race in the series at the 1.54-mile track, but the result last year was a milestone win for the driver of the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet—his first in any of NASCAR’s top three series on an oval.
Allmendinger was a part-timer last season. This year he’s full-time with Kaulig Racing, and he already has announced his championship intentions with an oval victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the fourth race of the season.
Once considered a one-trick pony on road courses, Allmendinger relishes a return to Atlanta this weekend for Saturday’s EchoPark 250 (5 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“I have always loved Atlanta,” says Allmendinger, who is fourth in the Xfinity Series standings behind Kaulig Racing teammate Jeb Burton. “It’s such a fun race track to drive because of the worn-out pavement and how much the cars slide around.
“Atlanta will always be special to me after winning my first oval race there. I can’t wait to get back to it this weekend.”
Kaulig Racing boasts an enviable record entering Saturday’s race. For 38 straight races from the start of the 2020 season, at least one Kaulig driver has finished in the top 10. The organization also has placed at least one of its cars in the top five in all five events this season.
In addition, Allmendinger is the only former Atlanta winner in the field this week.
To triumph in the second leg of a Saturday doubleheader at Atlanta, however, the Xfinity regulars will have to beat NASCAR Cup Series interloper Martin Truex Jr., fresh from his victory in last Sunday’s Cup event at Phoenix Raceway.
Plus this weekend, the Atlanta Motor Speedway Xfinity race will serve as the qualifier for the first round of the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series Dash 4 Cash program. The highest finishing four NASCAR Xfinity Series full-time competitors at Atlanta will qualify for the first round of the Dash 4 Cash at Martinsville Speedway on April 9.
ATLANTA COULD BRING ROUND 2 OF KYLE BUSCH MOTORSPORTS BATTLE
John Hunter Nemechek won in his third NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start for Kyle Busch Motorsports—holding off team owner Kyle Busch in the process to take the checkered flag March 5 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Even though Nemechek has a victory and Playoff spot in the bank, the mission hasn’t changed for the driver of the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota, as he heads for Atlanta Motor Speedway and Saturday’s Fr8Auctions 200 (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“I don’t think we’re going to change our plan of attack whatsoever,” says Nemechek, who will start from the pole in the first leg of a Saturday doubleheader with the NASCAR Xfinity Series. “We’re here to win races. #Here4Wins is the hashtag we’ve been using since the announcement of myself coming to Kyle Busch Motorsports.
“(Crew chief) Eric (Phillips) and I are on the same page. Kyle, Toyota and all of our partners want to win, and that’s why we’re here. We are going to go try and win everything we can from poles to stages to practice to races. Anything and everything that we can win, we want to.”
Nemechek, who triumphed at Atlanta in 2016 in family-owned NEMCO Motorsports equipment, is one of five former winners in the field. The list includes Matt Crafton (2015), Brett Moffitt (2018), Busch (2019) and Grant Enfinger (2020).
Busch’s presence sets up another potential showdown between the team owner and his marquee driver. And Busch would loath to lose two in a row.
“At Las Vegas, John Hunter was a little bit better than us at the end of the race, and I hate I finished second, obviously, but it’s nice to see our Tundras getting used to their full potential and running up front,” Busch says.
“I’m excited to have John Hunter racing at KBM this year and to have Eric Phillips back on board. I felt like, when we were able to m