Who … should you be talking about after the race?
Since the reconfiguration of Atlanta Motor Speedway, the races have become anyone’s game. Much like Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway, drivers can move through the pack (or get left out of it) in the draft. And because the cars are fairly equal, there’s a chance for talented drivers to shine.
Joey Logano can be hot and cold on this type of track. His aggressive style means he’ll be a contender, but it can also backfire. This time, Logano timed his move perfectly, using a push from Christopher Bell and jumping to the outside of leader Brad Keselowski quickly enough that Keselowski didn’t have room to block him.
Once he was able to clear Keselowski, Logano was able to hold off any charges from behind to take the Ambetter 400, his first win of 2023, his first at Atlanta and the 32nd of his Cup career.
And don’t forget Erik Jones. Jones struggled early on, running somewhere in the 20s and not looking like he’d be a factor. The No. 43 team continued to work on his car, though, and Jones made himself a factor with a late charge to score his first top 10 of 2023, finishing eighth. His run through the field looked more like an act of sheer determination.
What … is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
The question that’s been on everyone’s minds this week actually stems from the race a week before, as everyone keeps an eye out for the appeals from Hendrick Motorsports, Kaulig Racing and Denny Hamlin following penalties at Phoenix Raceway.
Hendrick’s four cars (along with the No. 31 of Justin Haley) were found to have possibly modified hood louvers before practice last week; the teams claim the only alterations were to make flawed parts from the single-source manufacturer fit the cars. Whether that can be proven remains to be seen; the teams think it can.
Hamlin was penalized for intentionally wrecking Ross Chastain, something he openly admitted to afterward. That’s going to be hard to win because NASCAR made it clear last year that intentional wrecking was unacceptable and what the consequences would be, issuing penalties to William Byron and Bubba Wallace as well as the team of Ty Gibbs (who wasn’t eligible for Cup points). Hamlin’s fine and points deduction are in line with those.
But Clint Bowyer brought up an interesting point discussing the matter and it’s what deserves attention going forward. Should appeals hearings allow either a livestream or video recording? NASCAR has been secretive on the Hendrick/Kaulig penalties, choosing not to disclose what it was they found in violation. The teams aren’t saying either; they don’t want to admit anything or give anything away.
Do fans really need to know? Probably not the technicalities, but the lack of transparency on both ends does raise questions with fans. NASCAR used to display confiscated parts prominently to teams during a race weekend so they could see the violations for themselves, but fans have often been largely in the dark.
Does transparency with fans help NASCAR or is it a one-way street? It could absolutely help NASCAR from a public relations standpoint; fans often accuse the sanctioning body of playing favorites and allowing fans more information could help alleviate that when a penalty is reduced or overturned if proof has been offered. Likewise, that proof can show that a violation was committed.
It seems as though there should be an opportunity for both NASCAR and race fans here, and it’s worth at least exploring avenues for more information to flow.
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Active Atlanta wins leader Kevin Harvick inherited the points lead after the penalties assessed to Hendrick Motorsports. He struggled a little early, but the No. 4 came to him as the race went on, and by the middle of stage three, he was vying for the race lead. Unfortunately for Harvick, the close racing and high closing rate bit him as Chastain took the air off his bumper trying to make a run. Chastain barely touched Harvick’s bumper – if he even touched at all – but the instability of the cars did the rest. Harvick’s day ended early in 33rd.
Defending race winner William Byron entered the day looking for his third win in a row. He was solid early and started the final stage in the mix. Unfortunately for Byron, he was swept up in the same crash that ended Harvick’s day and had to settle for 32nd and a three-week average finish of 11.33.
An under-the weather Tyler Reddick had John Hunter Nemechek waiting in the wings, but he stayed in the car and showed the same speed he’s flashed all year, finishing fourth in stage two. He narrowly avoided the crash that gathered Harvick as well as the next one triggered by Aric Almirola’s blown tire, and he showed top-three speed for much of the second half, pushing Keselowski for much of the last run and finishing fifth.
Corey LaJoie got his career-best finish in Atlanta, finishing fifth a year ago and entering with the confidence of fans behind him this time around. LaJoie didn’t disappoint, racing his way forward from a 31st-place starting position to post a new career-best finish of fourth. He raced like a driver who’s been up front before and was looking for more at the end.
When … was the moment of truth?
There was a good amount of criticism during the early part of the race, and while from the standpoint of purely watching the race, they may have been warranted. However, since Atlanta has become Daytona Lite, avoiding early risks is part of the strategy — a necessary one for drivers—because tearing up a racecar in the first half is a good way to guarantee an empty-handed trip home.
The final hundred laps were surprisingly good. The racing was close, there were comers and goers, and the fastest car won the race, but had to fight to the end to do it.
And they did it without it being a wreck-fest, without a late restart. If this becomes the norm for a Cup race at Atlanta with all the close racing of the superspeedways and a lot less of the wrecks, it could be a circle on the calendars of race fans.
However, it’s not quite time to call the new AMS a resounding success. It was designed for the Cup Series and its elite drivers, but the Xfinity and Truck series also share the surface and the different vehicles and relatively inexperienced drivers made for a much different, and much less appealing, slate of races.
If the Cup Series can continue to race well at AMS without constant wreck-fests, and if NASCAR sent the lower series to a standalone Saturday on a track better suited to them, this could become one of NASCAR’s star attractions. We just aren’t there yet.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
NASCAR heads back west to Austin, Texas and Circuit of the Americas this coming weekend for the first road-course race of 2023. Last year, Chastain displayed his aggressive, take-no-prisoners style in his first career win.
This year’s edition of the race is loaded with talent beyond the usual Cup field. Jimmie Johnson will make a rare start, but he’s not the main guest star this time around as he’s joined by former F1 stars Kimi Raikkonen and Jensen Button as well as road-course ace Jordan Taylor, who’s filling in for the injured Chase Elliott.
Will any of the ringers contend for the win? Probably not, but they lend a different angle to the race. Seven-time champion Johnson is the least-accomplished road racer among them by far, adding an extra twist to the interlopers.
How … important is practice?
At the Cup level, it’s, well, not. Team owners asked NASCAR for no practice at Atlanta because they don’t learn enough to risk drafting practice (many teams skip practice at Daytona and Talladega for the same reason).
Last weekend in Phoenix, teams got 20 minutes of extra practice for the new short-track package, and that’s fair.
But really, from a racing standpoint, we’re better off without practice.
The less time teams have to perfect their cars, the more the drivers will have to work during the race. A smaller team can hit on something off the truck and run with the big dogs. The onus is on teams to communicate and to make the correct adjustments.
If anything, have a 10-minute session each week that also serves as qualifying. Let teams make as many laps as they want during that window, under qualifying or race trim. That way, teams can opt to go for speed and a top starting position, or to work on the car for the race a little and take a hit at the start.
Trucks and Xfinity, with less-experienced drivers should absolutely have a practice session each week, and Cup drivers who have never raced in a national series on a given track could be given an extra 15 or 20 minutes before the rest of the field takes the track. After that, put the cars in the drivers’ hands and see who can make the most of what they brought.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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Can’t agree with the no practice idea. It just adds to the overall crapshoot nature of NASCAR races. Practice is where you find out if your going to have a tire problem (as in, someone’s tire is going to blow after every 25 laps). It’s where a team can find out if a part is going to fail or something isn’t working. This is supposed to be to top of the sport, you don’t want stupid stuff that can easily be remedied if you know it’s an issue to determine the outcome (at least, I don’t). The other top tier series (F1 and Indy) have practices, why does everyone feel that NASCAR shouldn’t?
Tony Stewart said that not having practice saves teams money. I thought the race was boring especially the first two stages. It was like a restrictor plate race which I hate. I like road courses especially if there isn’t stage racing.
For NASCAR, producing the best race possible should be their first concern, for teams, winning the race should be first and foremost, saving money should be a distant second at best. They should schedule a practice. If teams want to save money they can park their cars. There is no rule that says you have to practice.
Watching the end of the F1 “race” the winner crossed the finish line and the screen didn’t show a cardboard caricature of the driver or his pit crew hugging on pit road. It showed more of the field crossing the finish line and showed the SIXTEENTH and SEVENTEENTH place cars racing to the finish line. That would never ever be considered in the NA$CAR world by the networks who decide in the morning production meeting the chosen ones to concentrate on. What a concept!
I’ve been watching F1 for years and the race coverage is way ahead of what we get with FOX and NBC.
Hey Amy, just want you to know that I make a point of reading Big 6 every week and enjoy your take on racing’s many issues. Keep it up!
The new car was designed around the idea of saving the owners $$. I’m all for that.
Then the Smith bunch redesigns Atlanta with the expressed reason of wrecking cars, to raise their ratings, & fill the stands.
The skill level of the Cup drivers mostly overcame that intent.
But look at how the Xfinity demo derby turned out. These are teams that have mostly independent owners with much fewer resources. A good example is Sam Hunt Racing, a shoe string operation that fielded 2 cars, both wrecked, big repair bills, with almost no prize $$.
The product that was put out Sat, wasn’t a race, so much as a wreck fest. All involved should be ashamed of this.
We already have 4 Superspeedway, races. That’s more than enough! Atlanta needs to go back to the drawing board.
I agree. This track has been ruined by the ‘improvements’. I live in metro Atlanta and will not be going to races there anymore. Driving around in a line and then some big wrecks is not what I like to watch.
the truck and xfinity races were horrible. i know they had no practice because of the rain on friday. then old mother nature decided to throw another dose of winter at us, but i i felt sorry for all the teams of both series who went home on the wrecker. what a crazy mess. they took a track that was decent and ruined it. that long pit road is crazy.
onto cota and the jimmie johnson lovefest.
That change to pit road entry was insanely stupid, which is nothing new, but based on the fact that the brain trust never reverses a stupid decision it is here to stay.
Oh, thanks for the (yawn) update. I was at the rattler 250 @ south Alabama speedway taking in some real racing. I just check in here occasionally for the napcar goings on.