Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Who Might Steal a Playoff Spot at Atlanta?

1. Who has a chance to steal a playoff spot at Atlanta?

With the drafting and superspeedway-style racing seen at Atlanta Motor Speedway since its reconfiguration, Sunday’s (July 9) NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 is a perfect opportunity for teams struggling in points to turn their seasons around.

When looking at dark horse picks this weekend, there is one name that stands out in particular: Corey LaJoie.

LaJoie and the No. 7 Spire Motorsports team seem to have the new Atlanta figured out. LaJoie finished fifth at the track in March 2022, which marked his first top five in Cup competition. He backed that speed up in this race a year ago by leading 19 laps and contending for the win until a last-lap crash took him out of contention.

At Atlanta this spring, LaJoie scored a new career best by crossing the finish line in fourth. The No. 7 team is 47 points below the playoff cut line with eight races to go, so Atlanta is one of the biggest circles on its calendar.

Any other upsets will most likely come from the Ford camp. Chevrolet dominated Atlanta in 2022, as the Bowties won both races and led 437 of a possible 585 laps. Ford flipped the script in March, however, as Ford swept the top eight spots in qualifying, won the race with Joey Logano and combined to lead 199 of the 260 laps.

Austin Cindric finished third at Atlanta a year ago and sixth in March. With a Daytona 500 win under his belt, he seems to have a knack for superspeedway racing at this point in his Cup career. Aric Almirola is in must-win territory to make the playoffs, and he looked like one of the best cars in the spring until a flat tire took him out of the race while leading with 52 laps to go.

RFK Racing has both of its cars above the playoff cut line at the moment, but Atlanta would be an opportune time to win. Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher were among the fastest cars in February’s Daytona 500, while Keselowski was just one lap away from ending his two-year winless streak at Atlanta in March.

Then there’s Chase Briscoe and Ryan Preece of Stewart-Haas Racing, Harrison Burton with Wood Brothers Racing, and the Front Row Motorsports duo of Michael McDowell and Todd Gilliland. Superspeedway racing has been one of the lone bright spots in a disappointing year for Ford, so any of them have a realistic chance of taking the checkered flag.

2. Is Andretti Autosport priming itself for a future in NASCAR?

The biggest midweek news dropped on July 5, as it was announced that Gainbridge will enter a multi-year sponsorship agreement to sponsor Spire’s Nos. 7 and 77 cars.

See also
Marco Andretti Running Mid-Ohio Truck Race, Spire Adds Gainbridge Sponsor

Simultaneously, it was announced that Marco Andretti will attempt his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series debut in Spire’s No. 7 truck at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Saturday, July 8.

The connection with Andretti? Gainbridge currently sponsors Colton Herta‘s No. 26 Andretti Autosport car full time in the NTT IndyCar Series, and Gainbridge’s CEO, Dan Towriss, was recently revealed as a co-owner of the team.

After Andretti’s failed bid to enter the Formula 1 garage last offseason, it’s not a surprise to see the team get its feet wet in stock car racing.

This isn’t Gainbridge’s first foray into NASCAR either, as it currently sponsors Nick Sanchez‘s Rev Racing No. 2 truck full time. And with all the connections between Spire, Gainbridge and Andretti in the deal, Wednesday’s announcement only looks to be the beginning of something greater.

3. Should single-file restarts on road courses be implemented everywhere?

In Sunday’s inaugural Cup race at the Chicago street course, NASCAR elected to use single-file restarts, an executive decision that hadn’t been implemented since the inaugural race at the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track in 2021.

When faced with late-race, double-file restarts on road courses in 2022 and 2023, the closing laps have often devolved into a game of bumper cars. This was well on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL last year, along with Circuit of the Americas this year. Drivers would full send their cars into turn 1, and the aggressive driving often led to multi-car pileups and additional restarts.

And how did the single file restarts work? Pretty well, actually.

The street course had sharp and narrow turns, and there were pools of standing water left over in the desperate attempt to finish the race on Sunday; the decision for single file was a no brainer.

With the field lined up in one row, there wasn’t a single wreck caused by overaggressive driving heading into a turn on a restart. The racing didn’t suffer, either, as the drivers were still close enough to challenge their competitors in the ensuing turns.

They also restarted in between turns 11 and 12, so the drivers had to tackle a corner before heading full speed into turn 1. All of the implementations worked to perfection. NASCAR hasn’t shied away at making tweaks, as there are no stage cautions on road courses for the first time since they were implemented.

It doesn’t have to be permanent change, but using single-file restarts at road courses — COTA, Indy and the ROVAL in particular — would certainly be worth a try.

4. Will Shane van Gisbergen’s win drive further international interest in NASCAR?

The TV ratings for Chicago — the best for an NBC race since 2017 — were a home run. What’s also a home run is the ripple effect that Shane van Gisbergen‘s win will have for NASCAR on an international stage.

See also
Happy Hour: Artie Kempner of FOX Sports Dishes on Chicago Street Race

At the start of the year, Justin Marks said that Trackhouse Racing Team planned to run between six to eight races with the Project 91 car. The team fielded a car for Kimi Raikkonen at COTA in addition to van Gisbergen’s win on Sunday, but the team doesn’t have any additional races set at the moment.

It may not happen again this year, but Project 91 was just the beginning of NASCAR on an international stage.

The win was featured in the New Zealand Morning Herald. Two-time Formula 1 world champion Max Verstappen tuned in to watch. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s COO, remarked that the Chicago street race was something that could be held anywhere in the world and embraced by an audience.

That’s not even mentioning van Gisbergen himself.

He’s hinted at racing full time in NASCAR down the road, and Triple Eight Engineering’s Jamie Whincup said that he would negotiate an early exit from SVG’s contract if that’s what it came down to.

It’s a slim chance, but there’s a possibility that he’d be in NASCAR full time just a few months down the road. And after van Gisbergen pulled off a stunning debut win, there’s no doubt that plenty of other drivers around the world that are wondering and wanting to know if they can do the same.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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Iceman202290

Single file restarts imo only worked at Chicago as there was no run off or way to cut a corner. If drivers were too aggressive, they were met with a cement wall.

DoninAjax

See! NA$CAR can allow single file restarts. They won’t do it because it curs down on the carnage.

JT

I think the super speedways should go back to single-file restarts. This might be a way to ease up on the idiotic car carnage caused by multiple double-file GWCs at those tracks.

However, while single-car lineups would help things at COTA, Indy Road Course and the Charlotte Roval, I don’t think single-file is needed at Sonoma or Watkins Glen.

RCFX1

Remember when they had single-file restarts everywhere when it was 10 laps or less to go? Chicago was narrow. That’s the only reason that it needed to be done. Sonoma and Watkins Glen don’t need it. That dive into one at Sonoma is one of the best things about restarts at that track.

DoninAjax

Double file should only happen once.

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