After just 50 minutes of practice Saturday afternoon, NASCAR Cup Series drivers were using words like “chaos” to describe the racing at the new Atlanta Motor Speedway. With a redesign and reprofile, officials accomplished turning Atlanta from a mile-and-a-half to an intermediate superspeedway.
Pack racing. Tight corners. Short straightaways. High speeds.
“I think the drivers are going to be worn out come Sunday with just how intense and on top of the car you have to be,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was fastest in practice. “But I think one mistake and you’re going to wipe out just about the whole field if it’s at the front. So it’ll be kind of crazy to watch.”
While the racing might look similar, there is a big difference in what drivers will experience at Atlanta versus Daytona and Talladega. They expect a more intense race than ever before because Atlanta is now a smaller superspeedway.
During the reprofile, the corners of Atlanta were narrowed from 55 feet to 40 feet. Steep banking and wide corners at Daytona and Talladega allow for constant two-wide and sometimes three-wide racing. Stenhouse said two-wide at Atlanta is comfortable but three-wide will be tricky with how narrow the exit of Turn 2 is and the entry of Turn 3 is.
The length of the Atlanta backstretch is 1,800 feet versus the 3,000 feet at Daytona or Talladega, where it’s 4,000 feet, leaving drivers little time to rest each lap.
“Daytona and Talladega are two of the easiest tracks we go to, physically, just because it’s really big and everything happens slow. It’s pretty low-key until the end of the race,” said Christopher Bell. “Where that practice session (Saturday) was just (50) minutes of pure chaos. I definitely agree with [Stenhouse]. I found myself holding my breath several times.”
Bell admitted he was wide-open in practice.
“It’s a full-blown speedway race for sure,” said Bell. “The cars I was around – it sure seemed like everybody felt the same. Not grip-limited, that’s for sure.”
Kyle Busch was one of the drivers in the bigger pack of 21 cars. Busch is also expecting a more intense Atlanta race than he’s experienced before.
“I think it will be just the tighter confines being a mile-and-a-half and 325 laps around here is a lot,” Busch said. “We run 188 at Talladega and 200 at Daytona, so it’s 125 more laps going through the same thing and being packed up, being in tight conditions. So you will be probably more mentally than physically, but yeah, you’re going to be tired after this one.”
One last variable for drivers to deal with is coming to pit road. At Daytona and Talladega, there is a long run-off area for drivers to slow down before getting to pit road speed. Under green, drivers will not have as much time to slow down between the exit of Turn 4 and getting to the pit road entrance.
“I’ll tell you what, that was one thing I was focused on in that practice session was getting a run to pit road and it is going to be insane,” said Bell. “I tried to do it pretty much all practice, and I never felt comfortable doing it because I was always in the pack and guys are on me. One thing that’s different about Daytona and Talladega is you’re braking on the straightaway so you can pull off the racetrack and brake. Here, you’re not going to pull off the racetrack and brake. You’re going to have to brake on the track with very narrow Turn 3 and 4…The first green-flag pit stop is going to be one to watch.”