Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions: What Will Atlanta Attendance Look Like Sunday?

Where to Place the Expectations on Ty Dillon?

It’s like 2013 all over again.

That year, it was a broken leg suffered by Tony Stewart that opened the No. 14 Chevrolet to Max Papis, Austin Dillon and Mark Martin.

Now, it’s a L1 burst fracture for Stewart that gave Brian Vickers his first Daytona 500 start since 2014 and allows Ty Dillon to take the ride this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Right off the bat, people will begin to place Dillon anywhere from crashing out on lap 34 to finishing top 5 after leading the most laps. But before I lay down my expectations for Saturday’s birthday boy, you have to look at what he already has on his shoulders. The rookie driver is in quite the unique circumstance in regards to his current menu in NASCAR: A full-time seat in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 3 Chevrolet on the XFINITY Series side is at or near the top of his to-do list, beginning his third season in the series on pole at Daytona last weekend.

2016 has already been a hefty season for the younger Dillon brother, and grandfather Richard Childress believes opportunities like this weekend are “learning curves.”

“I think it’s a great opportunity for him to go out and run and work for another organization,” Childress said. “Stewart-Haas is a great job. Any time you step in with a new group of guys, it’s a little bit of a learning curve but I think what he’s going to learn from working with other people is going to be very valuable toward steeping toward in the future.”

One advantage Dillon will have on Sunday is prior experience at Atlanta. Alongside a Camping World Truck Series win in 2012, Dillon made his Sprint Cup Series debut at the 1.5-mile track in 2014 with RCR. And prior experience will be pivotal to Dillon’s success this weekend. The SHR team will already have a bunch of eyeballs on them, with the Ford announcement for the 2017 season still hot on the minds of NASCAR nation.

Realistic expectations tell me to put Ty Dillon in the top 25 on Sunday – around 16th place or so at the highest, if he shows the strength he showed twice last year in the Sprint Cup Series.

Will the Aero Package Supply a Dramatic Change?

It’s been dubbed the “aero in Atlanta.” Tested twice in 2015, the new low downforce package will join NASCAR for the first of many times this year as Atlanta stands as the package’s debut 2016 race.

(Credit: Mike Neff)
Atlanta is known for some of the most difficult racing conditions in all of NASCAR. (Photo credit: Mike Neff)

Explained simply, the new package see’s changes to the spoiler, splitter and radiator pan. The tweaks will put the car more in the driver’s hands as the car will require more off-throttle time in the corners, as well as an increased level of wear off the Goodyear rubber. Each will lead to more passing opportunities and an overall different kind of race compared to 2015.

However, when it comes to the image Sunday will set for the rest of 2016, Atlanta’s uniqueness may tilt the scales a tad. Standing as one of the oldest track surfaces of the year, Atlanta is bumpy, rugged and rutted. This alone will make for a visually appealing event with or without the new package.

Some of the sport’s smartest personalities, like Ray Evernham and Ricky Craven, believe the changes will lead to noticeable changes in the show. Strategy, tire abrasion and an interesting mix of new technology will likely lead to an engaging afternoon.

Can Joe Gibbs Racing Perform a Daytona Remake?

If one race could sum up Joe Gibbs Racing since mid-2015, it would be last Sunday’s Daytona 500. The team has one another’s backs for 499 miles until it comes down to the checkered flag, a race win, a trophy and a Chase spot. That’s when we see the racer come out of the race, and rightfully so.

Supportive, yet crafty.

2015 saw a championship for the team in Kyle Busch,  and the momentum led to a highly successful Daytona 500, with all four drivers – Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth – group with technical affiliate Martin Truex, Jr. to make it nearly impossible for a non-Toyota victor on Sunday.

Despite a slow start in the beginning of 2015, I cannot look past what Gibbs did in the later half – especially at the low downforce races. Daytona is Daytona, yes. However, in terms of the new downforce package, JGR showed more promise than any other team as it swept both events at Kentucky and Darlington.

In terms of team owner Joe Gibbs, the man has been checking things off the “things I haven’t done in a while” list, including his first championship in 10 years, first Daytona 500 in 23 years and winning more races than any other season (15 in 2015).

Granted, though the team has 11 Atlanta wins with four drivers, it’s only visited victory lane twice since 2008, with both wins coming at the now-non-existent Labor Day night race. However, with a team as loyal as JGR seems to be, Atlanta can very easily be the start of another dominant season toward the championship Chase.

What will Attendance Look Like on Sunday?

Regarding a healthy crowd for Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500, Atlanta has at least four things going for it at the moment:

  1. Great weather for Sunday
  2. Georgian Chase Elliott in the field
  3. New rules package
  4. Post-500 momentum

Starting with the race day weather, Sunday looks great. In years past – as well as excuses about the race landing in hunting season or football season – the weather has been a big issue for Atlanta race fans.

Even though all of Atlanta sports with the Braves in MLB and Falcons in the NFL both struggling to fill the stands even during play-off season, NASCAR and Atlanta Motor Speedway are acting on it. A new ticket package from Atlanta showcases a new deal where the purchased ticket can be used for another date – even in 2017 – if the Sunday weather is 50 degrees or lower.

That appears to not be an issue for this weekend as the predicted air temperature will be around 65 degrees with 9-mph winds. No excuse there.

Next is Chase Elliott. The Daytona 500 pole winner will make his first Sprint Cup Series start at the track that stands as his home. His father Bill won five times at Atlanta, including two season sweeps in 1985 and 1992.

“It’s always been a special place to me,” the younger Elliott said at Daytona. “Dad and I have done a lot of racing here on the frontstretch, whether it be a bandolero or Legends car. We’re excited to be part of the show and hopefully put on a good one for the fans.”

Another plus for ATL is the returning aero package I mentioned earlier. There will only be one first in 2016. The fans in attendance will be the ones to see it first.

And lastly is the momentum off the Daytona 500. In the past, this has actually proved to be a negative, but I believe it can be a positive.

The 500 showed old school handling, close competition, the Elliott name and loyal team work all come into play. Based off the feedback I’ve gotten from people who aren’t race fans in any sense of the word, I fail to believe the exciting day wont spill over into Sunday’s round 2.

About the author

Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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Momentum off the 500? Seems that the ratings don’t show much momentum to be had. Personally since I’ve always enjoyed races at Atlanta, I hope they get a great crowd and that the race is a good one.


Does it really matter now that the schedule is essentially locked in for the next five years?

The Mad Man

Hopefully the change in race dates will help out with filling the grandstands. Pulling out seats didn’t help very much last season. I guess we’ll see if the new date helps out.


I’m trying to temper my expectations, but I am really looking forward to Sunday. Great weather, low-downforce, softer tire, rough surface should = a good show. It’s still possible that someone really hits the setup and crushes everyone, but regardless there should be more passing in the field like at Darlington and Kentucky last year.

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