Atlanta is still Atlanta, just as expected.
Although NASCAR rolled out part of its 2019 rules package last weekend, the difference was hardly a slap in the face. The 21-year-old racing surface continued to abuse tires and force drivers to wrestle their cars. Atlanta will be one of the five races (along with the two Pocono events, Darlington and Homestead) where the aero ducts will not be in play, because the track still demands heavy braking.
But back to Sunday. Even with only part of the package in play, it made for 500 miles worth of questions. Drivers stressed the importance of not looking too much into the race before forming an opinion, partly because it’s week one without all the variables, but also Atlanta is unique. I would like to reiterate this point. With more mile-and-a-half races to come, let’s gather more data before completely freaking out.
It’s hard to do though, right? Except that there really wasn’t much to learn from Atlanta. There were no glaring differences, even from the vantage point of watching over 200 laps watching from above the racetrack in the press box.
In typical Atlanta fashion, drivers were all over the racetrack searching for the lane that felt best. The fast cars were still fast, with multiple drivers leading a good chunk of the race – Kyle Larson for 142 laps, Kevin Harvick for 45, Ryan Blaney for 41, Aric Almirola for 36, and so on. Yet no lead ever felt insurmountable, even though dirty air is still the most important thing in racing.
You can again read driver reaction to that here.
If pushed to identify something that stood out… well, there would be two. The first is how obvious momentum is going to be on restarts by keeping the engine wound up to power high through the corners and down the straightaways. On Sunday I watched those on the outside off a restart go through a corner so much stronger than those on the bottom lane to either gain the position, or rocket off the corner with a run down the backstretch. Restarts have always been important, and drivers are expecting that to be even more so this season.
The second was that through the field, the gap appeared closer than normal early in runs. Sure, the field still got strung out, but again, maybe not as spaced apart as year’s past.
Is the package the reason? Only time will tell because Atlanta was the same old, and that was still entertaining.
“You have to remember, this is a one-off race,” said Clint Bowyer. “There is no track that we go to any more that is as slick as this and as hard on tires. It will be interesting to see what Las Vegas brings.”