Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – HAMPTON, GA – Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quiktrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will mark the first competitive test of NASCAR’s new rules package in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
The cars will be fitted with tapered spacers and a series of elements to increase downforce, all with the goal producing tighter racing – especially at 1.5-mile track like Atlanta. The package was successful and popular with both teams and fans when used at last year’s All-Star race at the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Teams have been testing the package this preseason and competitors seemed to be enthusiastically looking forward to its debut at Atlanta this week.
“We tested the new package at Las Vegas and [driver] Paul [Menard] and the team were pleased with how it went, but no one really knows what to expect when there are 40 cars on the track,’’ said Wood Brothers Racing team owner Eddie Wood.
It’s been a similar sentiment from last year’s Atlanta winner Kevin Harvick, who left Atlanta and embarked on a three-race winning streak. He won the All-Star race that first used this new package. And he figures it won’t take too long for teams to get a hang of it all – noting it will be real obvious whose got a handle on it early.
“It could happen in the very first race,’’ said Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. “I think as you look at the drastic change that we’ve had in horsepower and downforce and rules and all the different things that are coming into play right there, we could very well go to the first two months of the season and one organization might have an absolutely, distinct advantage and win all the races.
“. …It’s just impossible from a manufacturing standpoint and cutting bodies off and knowing whether your theory’s right or wrong. It’s only answered when we get to the racetrack and every team’s going to have a little bit of a different approach to what they think is right and wrong.”
Harvick’s primary championship rival from 2018 – and fellow eight-race winner Kyle Busch – shared the wait-and-see sentiment, but was also optimistic. He’s a two-time Atlanta winner and making his 500thCup start there this weekend.
“We’re just racecar drivers,’’ Busch said. “We just drive what we’re given to drive and what the rules are. Our team’s got to go to work and build around that – what they know about how to make speed in our cars in order to go out there and beat the rest of the competition. That’s how I look at it.’’
XFINITY SERIES REGULARS POISED FOR VICTORY
This will be a truer test of the Xfinity Series championship situation with Cup rookie Ryan Preece the only fulltime Cup driver entered in Saturday’s RINNAI 250 (2 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – a race won the past six years by a Cup regular.
Defending series champion Tyler Reddick holds a five-point edge on his championship runner-up Cole Custer heading into Atlanta. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell arrives as statistically the top-ranked Xfinity driver at the track, after a third place showing in his Atlanta debut last year – a race won by Cup driver Kevin Harvick, who led a dominating 141 of 163 laps.
The entry list this weekend features a robust slate of Xfinity title contenders from Bell to Reddick and Custer. Talented young driver Austin Cindric will campaign a full-year in the Penske Racing No. 22 Ford. And perennial championship contender Justin Allgaier returns as well. Rookie Noah Gragson begins a season of high expectations and is coming off an 11th place finish at Daytona.
KYLE BUSCH SEEKS GANDER OUTDOORS TRUCK SERIES WINS RECORD
After a thrilling, action-packed season opener on the Daytona Beach high banks last week that resulted in 11 laps of overtime, the Gander Outdoors Truck Series regulars are no doubt looking forward to Saturday’s Ultimate Tailgating 200 (4:30 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The series crowned a first-time winner in Austin Hill and may crown its all-time winner this week. A victory by Kyle Busch would give him 52 career truck series wins, breaking a tie he holds with NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. Busch boasts the most truck series wins at Atlanta (four), but this race has proven to be anybody’s to win in recent years.
There have been nine different winners in the last nine races. Last year’s eventual series champion Brett Moffitt picked up the first victory of what turned out to be a six-win season holding off rookie Noah Gragson and veteran Johnny Sauter for his second career win.
This weekend’s field is crowded with a mix of former champions such as Moffitt, Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton and Busch as well as perennial title contenders such as Stewart Friesen and Grant Enfinger along with talented young second-generation NASCAR drivers such as Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton.