By Jordan McAbee
It was “all we could ask for.”
That’s what Kyle Busch said about NASCAR’s new aero package, which made it’s debut on Sunday at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Busch, who had to start at the rear of the field due to his qualifying time being disallowed, had plenty of reasons to be happy–and one in particular: he finished 3rd.
But he was right, it was all we could ask for. After the photo finish at Daytona one week ago, that makes us 2-for-2 with the new NASCAR season with great late-race action. The racing at Atlanta on Sunday, however, was top notch all day.
It was apparent within the first 20 laps that tires were going to be everything. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. passed 11 cars in the first 10 laps but ended up slipping back just as fast later on in the run because he used up his tires too early. As expected, there were many comers and goers as the day went on, but the few legitimate contenders stood tall.
A Racer’s Race
The QuikTrip Folds of Honor 500 was, to put it simply, a racer’s race. In order to be successful on Sunday, you needed your driver to take of his tires over a long green flag run–which we saw plenty of–while flawlessly executing your pit strategy and not making any mistakes.
One team rose to the occasion.
With 49 laps to go, Jimmie Johnson was ordered to pit road by crew chief Chad Knaus, who decided to throw his hail mary for the race. At that time, the #48 Chevrolet was running 3rd behind Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr., and this move was the only real shot that Jimmie had to win. And boy did it pay off.
With under ten laps to go, the #48 Chevrolet was cruising to victory with a 6-second lead when a late-race caution came out thanks to Ryan Newman wrecking in turn one. All lead lap cars pitted for four tires and fuel with Johnson getting out first and selecting the bottom lane to restart from. It was all over from there.
Atlanta is notorious for being tough on the high side when it comes to restarts, and when Kevin Harvick spun his tires, the fat lady cleared her throat. An eventual wreck caused the caution and gave Johnson the win, while his teammate, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., barely beat 3rd-place Kyle Busch to the line.
This was Johnson’s 76th career Sprint Cup victory, which ties him with the late, great Dale Earnhardt for 7th all time.
Harvick, Truex End Up Disappointed
For the fourth time in the last five years, Kevin Harvick led at least 100 laps at Atlanta, only to fall short in the closing laps. It was apparent all day on Sunday that the #4 Chevrolet was the best car on the long runs, and it was his race to lose until Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus gambled on that pit stop with almost 50 laps to go. When you pair that with the fact that the #4 team had a slow pit stop when they did come in for service soon after, it’s not all that surprising that it was someone other than Harvick in victory lane.
What was surprising, however, was the fact that both Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr. finished outside of the top 5. The #4 and #78 cars were the best in the field for most of the QuikTrip Folds of Honor 500, and as mentioned before, the last restart really put the nail in the coffin for these two drivers. Both were lined up on the outside on that last restart, and when Harvick spun his tires, Truex tried to push him instead of taking the risky option and making it 3-wide. When it was all said and done, they finished 6th and 7th.
Still, it was an impressive day for both Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr., especially the latter, who doesn’t seem to have missed a beat since moving over to Toyota from Chevrolet after the 2015 season. Truex narrowly missed winning the Daytona 500 one week ago, and was in position to win this week in Atlanta as well. He even led 34 laps on Sunday. No matter how you look at it, the #78 team looks to be a legitimate contender all around in the Sprint Cup Series once again in 2016.
- The Penske Racing Fords of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano under-performed on Sunday, which was somewhat expected. However, there were times during the race that both cars had legitimate top 5 speed. This is a situation to pay close attention to next week at Las Vegas, another intermediate track, as many people believe that Penske may be a little slow out of the gate with this low downforce package.
- Rookie Chase Elliott had a strong top 10 run at Atlanta, and another Chevy driver surprisingly did as well: Austin Dillon came home 11th in the QuikTrip Folds of Honor 500, and stayed on the lead lap for much of the racing afternoon. After a very disappointing 2015 campaign, Dillon has started out the 2016 year with a 9th-place finish at Daytona and now a career-best 11th at Atlanta.
- Roush-Fenway Racing, an organization looking to bounce back from a disastrous 2015 season, got off to a nice start here at Atlanta with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. coming home 10th. His teammate, Greg Biffle, wound up 13th. Stenhouse had three top 10 finishes during his entire 2015 campaign.