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Tires matter at Atlanta, but talent matters more

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Carl Edwards should be strong at Atlanta. His three teammates likely will be, too. Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

It's often suggested in our sport that the second race of the season is when the real racing begins. The reference isn't meant to be a knock on Daytona. After all, it's the one race most drivers want to win more than all others.
But it's a fact: The elements -- the type of racing that exists on restrictor-plate tracks such as Daytona -- do almost nothing to prepare drivers for the primary schedule. What drivers did last week inside their race cars was quite different than what's required from them to win this week in Atlanta and the several weeks to follow.
It's back to the fundamentals of who can drive deepest into the turn, carry abundant speed through the middle of the turn, while challenging themselves to be earliest back to the accelerator, and back to full throttle, as they measure their cars' distance to the outside wall as they exit the turns.
This weekend's race in Atlanta also debuts the new reduced downforce package, making the cars more difficult to drive than last year's cars. Roughly 20 percent of the downforce has been reduced through aerodynamic adjustment to the race car, and not all drivers will adapt to the change as quickly or successfully as you might think.

Key to winning

Manage tire wear: Atlanta's abrasive racing surface will tax and abuse tires, particularly during longer green-flag runs.
Drivers can enhance or diminish that tire wear based on how carefully they operate the gas and brake pedal, as well as the ability they demonstrate toward changing lanes (moving higher up the track) as the laps increase on each set of tires.
This is a technique -- if mastered -- that allows drivers to run faster lap times longer. Not all drivers can execute this. Those who do it best significantly increase their chances of taking home the trophy.

Dark horse

For Kyle Larson -- in spite of having never won a cup race -- the planets are aligned.
This season is Larson's third year in the series, the point where drivers have had enough time to discover their strengths, improve on their weaknesses, and capitalize on their experience.
This is a perfect race track for Larson's driving style.

Who wins?

Carl Edwards. I'm very comfortable saying all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers will challenge for this win, and the driver appearing most capable during my visit to Atlanta Motor Speedway on Friday was Kyle Busch. He confirmed it later in the day by winning the pole -- or so I thought.
Shortly after leaving the track I got word the No. 18 failed post-qualifying inspection, and while we all know Busch could win coming from the back, I'm more comfortable sliding my chips from the 18 to the 19 for this race.

The bottom line

The degree of difficulty in being a successful Sprint Cup Series driver, just got higher -- dramatically higher.

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Kyle Larson, left, and Kyle Busch may both find the new aero package to their liking this season. Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

This new package will benefit talent, and drivers of greater tolerance toward a loose race car (where the rear of the car slides toward the wall).
This package also has the potential of exposing less-talented drivers in an equal and obvious fashion.
Listen carefully to the radio communication of drivers to their crew chiefs during the race.
There will be many pleas for support -- a driver needing this or needing that. Frustration in some drivers' voices will be impossible to mask as their cars leave them feeling more vulnerable than anything they have experienced in a long time.
The qualifications for being Sprint Cup Champion has changed, and we wont know for a while who the new favorites are.
I'm siding heavily with Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch, because their ability to wrestle a loose race car is above average.
Kevin Harvick will be in pure championship form again as well, and there will always be a surprise among the crowd. Perhaps Larson emerges as the next great threat.
Last week's race gave us little in the way of knowing who represents the cream of this year's crop.
Atlanta will.
Just watch, and listen!
Article by Ricky Craven.

Craven: Manage tires and show talent to win Atlanta
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