Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Did a Lack of Practice Hurt Atlanta Racing?

If last weekend’s races proved anything about the new version of Atlanta Motor Speedway, they proved that the track remains a relative unknown. Prior to the 2022 season, the venerable 1.5-mile oval was repaved and reconfigured with higher banked, narrower turns. The reconfiguration created a style of racing that more closely resembles a superspeedway than a traditional intermediate track. Yet with such a small sample size of races at the new Atlanta, it was not obvious if the racing there this year might look noticeably different from 2022.

Suffice it to say that Atlanta still races like a superspeedway, and probably will for the foreseeable future. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Superspeedways can produce some of the most thrilling races each year. Other times, superspeedway racing is a mess.

Unfortunately, last weekend’s races from all three national touring series fell into the latter category. Both the NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races on Saturday devolved into crash fests. Long caution periods sucked the energy out of both events. The NASCAR Cup Series race was mostly clean and green, but the first two stages felt like a slog as drivers rode in a single file train up next to the wall. It made for a disappointing weekend of racing, especially after the reconfigured Atlanta put on more compelling races last year.

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It almost felt like the competitors in all three series were caught off guard by the new Atlanta. After rain washed out all of Friday’s activities, the Cup Series took to the track for qualifying late on Saturday morning. Both BJ McLeod and Christopher Bell had unusual solo spins during their qualifying runs, suggesting that handling could be more of a premium than last year. But that was just a teaser of what came on Saturday afternoon.

Both the Truck Series race and the Xfinity Series race set new records for number of cautions at Atlanta. The Truck race had 11 cautions for 58 laps in a 137-lap race, meaning that 42.3% of the race was run under yellow. The caution statistics for the Xfinity race were nearly the same. There were 12 cautions for 68 laps in a 163-lap race, equating to 41.7% of the race under yellow. To put those numbers in perspective, last year’s April Xfinity race at Martinsville Speedway included 16 cautions for 100 laps in a 260-lap race. Not even that event has a higher percentage of yellow flag laps than what we saw in either race on Saturday.

By that point, it felt almost certain that Sunday’s Cup race was doomed to be another caution-filled affair. Yet the new Atlanta Motor Speedway surprised again with only five cautions for a total of 34 laps. Compare that to last season’s 400-mile Atlanta race that was bogged down by 13 cautions for 64 laps. At least the fans on Sunday got to see more green flag competition than many had predicted.

The trouble was that competition during the Cup race was often in short supply. Unlike last year’s Atlanta races that had two viable lines throughout the day, drivers really struggled to draft efficiently in the bottom lane on Sunday. This led to a single-file parade during most of the race’s first two stages. It is often a criticism of restrictor plate racing that drivers approach the early stages of the race as if the only thing that matters is surviving until the more critical closing laps. That criticism proved all too accurate for the first half of the Cup race.

If there is a silver lining to last week’s races, it is that things generally got better closer to the finish. The Xfinity race had two green flag runs of over 30 laps each in the third stage. Considering that the longest green flag run up to that point was only nine laps, the third stage salvaged the Xfinity race from being a complete embarrassment.

The third stage was easily the best part of the Cup race too. Although stage three included the two biggest accidents of the day, the bottom groove finally came in, allowing drivers to race side-by-side for longer than they could in the first two stages. The race also featured a thrilling green flag finish with Joey Logano slipping past Brad Keselowski on the final lap to score the victory. But a good finish to a bad race does not make the entire race good. Seeing the Cup Series drivers finally able to compete during the third stage made the first two feel pointless.

What might have caused such lackluster racing at Atlanta? It felt like NASCAR’s national series drivers spent all weekend either crashing or riding around not knowing how to make passes and race each other. It felt like they could have used more practice at the new Atlanta.

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Too bad that there was no practice scheduled this weekend for any of the three divisions. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began to disrupt daily life in the United States three years ago, NASCAR has been experimenting with shortening race weekends and reducing the time teams spend at the track. These efforts include cutting back on practice time. Although practice has returned for most race weekends, NASCAR has not reinstituted practice for superspeedway races.

To be fair to the sanctioning body, the policy of no practice at superspeedways has the approval of the team owners. Because superspeedway racing relies more on horsepower and aerodynamics than setup and handling, team owners were finding practice at superspeedways to be cost ineffective. Throw in the heightened chance of tearing up cars in accidents while practicing the draft, and it is easy to understand why team owners have lost their appetite for practice at superspeedways.

Yet for the sake of the racing product, NASCAR might want to rethink this policy before the return trip to Atlanta in July. Atlanta may have more resemblance to a superspeedway now, but the reconfiguration has effectively made it a new track with a unique style of racing. Teams do not have a deep notebook for Atlanta as they do for Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. Since this version of Atlanta is only in its second season, giving the teams practice time before the next race there would be the best course of action. It might not save the summer Atlanta races from being crash fests, but at least the competitors of NASCAR will be a lot better prepared the next time they hit Atlanta’s high banks.    

About the author

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Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong student of auto racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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I think it would be great if they showed up, one lap of qualifying, and then they have an hour to make adjustments. Then hit the track and run the race. One day, one race.

Make your best guess at the setup, weather, driver feedback, and go!

Bill H

Owners like no practice because they don’t trust their drivers not to crash the cars during practice. That tells you all you need to know about NASCAR. And why I watch very few races.

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