Looking at the box score after Sunday’s Atlanta Cup race one might think it was a case of Déjà vu all over again. Jimmie Johnson won this race last year and won again on Sunday. Last year Johnson had to overcome having his qualifying effort tossed out for a technical infraction on Friday relegating him to starting at the back of the field Sunday. This year the same fate befell Kyle Busch, (Who rallied back to finish 3rd.) While the official margin of victory in Sunday’s race is listed as “Under Caution” the gap between Johnson and Earnhardt looked about the same as Johnson’s margin of victory over Kevin Harvick last year, And get this; there were 28 lead changes in both races.
Truth be told, the two races were hardly mirror images of each other. Those who endured last year’s race in the grandstands probably remember the weather last year as being nasty, damp, gloomy and downright chilly. Sunday’s race featured bright sunshine and pleasant temperatures in the mid-60s not just in Atlanta, but up and down the eastern seaboard. (Mother Nature’s benevolent payback for this winter’s blizzard and a Valentine’s Day weekend where temperatures were in single digits.) That was a Godsend for track management after their race date bounced all over the calendar before returning to the second race of the season last year and Sunday. I was surprised to see that there were 28 official (at the line) lead changes this year, but such is the nature of races that feature green flag stretches longer than the pit window. As a leader peels off to the pits, another driver passes him until that new leader also heads to the pit handing the lead to another driver. Officially those count as lead changes even if there not as much fun to watch as two drivers locked in heated battle banging fenders as they fight over the top spot. Sunday’s race featured just three caution flags; one for an errant Styrofoam coffee cup (as in a fake debris caution), one for Ryan Newman’s spin that sent the race to overtime and one on the final lap of OT. In 2015, there were ten cautions during the race, though the first of them was a “competition caution” owing to the previous night’s rain. Like this year, last year’s Atlanta race featured the debut of a new aero package that that was intended to make for better racing. Unfortunately that rules package didn’t work out and if anything it made the racing worse for much of the season. (Unless your name was Kevin Harvick or Joey Logano that is.) That led to an almost unprecedented state of affairs where the drivers banded together to make their thoughts known to NASCAR, and ask that a new reduced-downforce package be tried instead in hopes of making for better racing.
That package was tried last year at Kentucky and Darlington and was overwhelmingly approved of by both the drivers and fans. That setup was similar to what was used at Atlanta Sunday and will be used for most races this season again with the intended effect being making for better racing. It’s hoped that the phrase “dreaded aero push” (which is right up there with “oozing butt boils” in my book) can be banished from the racing lexicon.
Given the new rules package and the old track surface I genuinely thought there were going to be a lot of cautions at Atlanta this year, caused by drivers’ unfamiliarity with the new package, years’ worth of crew chiefs notebooks being tossed in the trash, and possibly tire failures. As it turned out the first caution Sunday didn’t fly until lap 211. By that stage of the race, two thirds of the field was a lap or more down. Had there been more frequent cautions earlier it would have given teams with cars that weren’t handling well more opportunities to adjust on them in hopes of having their driver return to the track more competitively. To me the twenty-minute clock used this year in the Truck Series (and triggered twice during Saturday’s truck event) is an abomination. I prefer to watch races unfold naturally without outside manipulation to spice up the action. If you think the twenty-minute clock is stupid and Sunday’s race was boring, you can’t have it both ways. I’ve read on social media where some fans complained there was no passing. Considering the top 3 finishers started 19th, 16th and 39th respectively, that’s hardly the case.
No, Sunday’s race isn’t going to make many fan’s lists of all-time great races. At times, though, there was reason for optimism. At one point Harvick, who dominated the race in its middle stages, and Martin Truex, Jr. swapped the lead back and forth between them, Later in the race there were good side by side battles within the top 10 including some three wide racing involving Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. (In a Chevy, a Toyota and a Ford, no less. No single manufacturer seemed to have a decided advantage with the new rules package Sunday.) Other drivers took a more cautious approach to the race. I’m thinking here of Chase Elliott, who found himself a place to ride near the back of the top 10 with a couple second gap behind the car ahead of him and no one on his tail as he sorted out what the car was doing during a full tire run and how best to exploit it. I’d also venture a guess that had Matt Kenseth not lost two laps to a pit road penalty he’d likely have been up there with Johnson and Harvick battling to keep things interesting towards the end. Had he pitted after Johnson but before Harvick he might indeed have had a chance at the win. (As an aside, I might not be the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but arguing a penalty to the point where your driver loses two laps rather than probably coming out at the rear of the lead lap cars after serving a drive through penalty is just plain stupid.)
So as expected, some drivers and teams figured out the new package better than others running the with it at Atlanta for the first time. Things were a bit dicey at first with both Harvick and Johnson cording tires badly on the first run. Both drivers adjusted the lines they were taking and paced themselves to make the tires last over a longer period of time rather than charging from the get-go and risking catastrophic tire failure later in a run. What surprised me wasn’t the difference in how various teams figured things out but the differences within some teams. Johnson, Earnhardt and Elliott all had fast cars while their HMS stablemate Kasey Kahne was off-song all day and went a lap down before the halfway point. Kyle Busch,Carl Edwards and Kenseth (prior to that pit road debacle) all had strong cars while Hamlin, who had a fast car in practice, fell rapidly to the back of the pack with the least common denominators. Perhaps as I predicted last week with his Daytona 500 win having all but locked him in the Chase already, Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 car served as a Guinea pig this week with an experimental package that clearly didn’t work. Such is life in the Chase era where accumulating points week to week is no longer important. Just stay in the top 30 and win one race and you’re in the playoffs.
Truthfully, I was impressed by how most of the drivers seemed to get a handle on things pretty quickly and that as such there were so few wrecks. Goodyear bought a tire that seemed up to the challenge, a tire that would wear out if abused and which dropped off dramatically in speed over the course of a full run without any surprise failures. Based on Sunday’s race, I remain cautiously optimistic that better racing lays ahead as more drivers and teams figure the new package out. These guys don’t get paid the big bucks because they can’t adapt to new challenges quickly. If nothing else this is a noble experiment and a fundamental shift in NASCAR’s thinking to their top tiers of racing. For too long the powers that be have been trying to market an “entertainment product” rather than presenting a sporting event. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, sports by their nature can be entertaining, Entertainment is seldom sporting.
At the risk of being accused of living in the past again, I’m really put off by the contrived excitement of Jimmie Johnson matching Dale Earnhardt the Original’s marque of 76 career victories; Earnhardt didn’t land a full time career Cup ride until he was 28 years old and even then it wasn’t with a team that was setting the Cup circuit on fire. By the time he was 28 years old had already amassed 14 wins. Johnson got his full time Cup ride with HMS when he was 26. Yep, it sounds a bit bizarre that a driver did not get a shot at the bigs in top equipment until their mid to late 20s in this modern era where teenagers are at the wheel of some potent rides. In fact, Harry Gant was pushing 40 before he landed a full time Cup ride. Gant’s most successful year was in 1991 when he scored five wins at the age of 51.
John Hunter Nemechek’s win in the truck series Saturday at Atlanta leads to an awkward situation. By winning the race, Nemechek is all but guaranteed a spot in the Chase this season but as of this writing the team has no primary sponsorship and is running on a shoestring budget. In order to be Chase eligible (absent a waiver) Nemechek would have to at least attempt to make every truck race prior to the Chase. Some corporate entity needs to step up to the plate to back the No. 8 team and their talented young driver.