Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Is Atlanta Worthy of 2 Cup Dates?

1. Is Nick Sanchez poised for a breakout season?

After winning the ARCA Menards Series championship in 2022, Nick Sanchez’s rookie season in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series wasn’t one without growing pains, heartbreak and near misses.

He impressed in qualifying to the tune of five poles and nine front-row starts, but he only finished in the top five twice and was unable to visit victory lane despite leading 309 laps in his first season. The races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway were particularly crushing, as he was passed by Christian Eckes in the final set of corners at the former, and he crashed out on the final lap at the latter after leading 168 of the 172 laps.

Sanchez did make the playoffs last year, but he missed advancing to the Championship 4 by just one point. He won Rookie of the Year honors and showed flashes of brilliance, but overall, it was a year of close but no cigar.

Fast forward to 2024, and it only took one race for him to find victory lane after leading the most laps in Friday’s (Feb. 16) season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

With a year of experience under his belt, Sanchez won’t be the championship favorite (that honor goes to Corey Heim), but he will continue to improve on putting complete races together. The speed of Sanchez and the No. 2 team was well on display last year, and now, it’s just a matter of having it carry over from start to finish.

With a win already under his belt, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Sanchez win multiple races in 2024 and race for a championship at Phoenix Raceway in November.

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2. Will Austin Hill go back-to-back to start the NASCAR Xfinity Series season?

Dread it, run from it, but Austin Hill arrives all the same at Daytona.

He scored back-to-back victories in the 2022 and 2023 Xfinity season openers, and he asserted himself to the lead with three laps to go on Monday (Feb. 19) to complete the hat trick, all while his No. 21 had significant nose damage from an earlier incident.

Richard Childress Racing has been the team to beat on superspeedways, and last week was no different. Hill now has five Xfinity wins on drafting tracks, split between three at Daytona and two at Atlanta. New teammate Jesse Love also impressed in his Xfinity debut, as he won the pole and led the most laps before succumbing to a last lap crash and a 20th-place finish.

Up next on the Xfinity schedule is Atlanta, Hill’s home track and one where — like Daytona — he has that magical aura of excellence. He led 103 of the 163 laps in his win at Atlanta last March, and he has finishes of second, first, first and 12th in four Xfinity starts at the 1.54-mile oval.

Hill will also look to join rare company on Saturday (Feb. 24), as a win would make him the first driver to win the first two Xfinity races of a season since Tony Stewart in 2008, and the first Xfinity regular to do it since Chad Little in 1995.

And let’s be real, it’s going to happen. RCR hasn’t missed a beat in its superspeedway program, and Hill still managed to get the job done at Daytona despite heavy damage. The only way he doesn’t win next week is if he gets taken out in an early or mid-race crash.

3. Will Atlanta’s Cup race end with an upset winner or a decorated superspeedway racer in victory lane?

Unlike years past, 2024 will be the first Cup season where the schedule starts off with two drafting races. The drafting seen at Daytona and Atlanta are far from identical, of course, but the same principles apply: Drivers who are great at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway will also run up front at Atlanta.

But Atlanta, unlike Daytona and Talladega, has not seen the underdog winners commonly seen at its larger contemporaries. Three of the four Cup races on the new Atlanta surface have been won by the driver that led the most laps, and Hendrick Motorsports has been the winning team in all but one of them.

Atlanta does rely on the draft, but the narrow racing groove and an increased emphasis on handling make it difficult for smaller teams to aim for the top of the scoring pylon.

Indeed, the first four races at new Atlanta have produced three winners, all of whom are decorated superspeedway racers on elite teams: William Byron (two times), Chase Elliott and Joey Logano. Byron has two wins at Daytona and is fresh off his first win in the Daytona 500, while Hendrick teammate Elliott has two Cup victories at Talladega. Logano has the most decorated resume of the three — but also the most experience — with three Talladega wins and the 2015 Daytona 500 crown to his name.

Chevrolet and Ford have dominated Atlanta’s new configuration, and they should win handily on Sunday (Feb. 25). But if the track is to produce an upset winner, its one chance lies with Corey LaJoie.

Despite driving for Spire Motorsports, LaJoie has turned Atlanta into his wheelhouse. He finished fifth in the spring 2022 race, fourth in the spring 2023 event and was going toe-to-toe with Elliott for the win in the summer 2022 bout until he wrecked out on the last lap.

Fresh off of a fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500 and heading to one of his best tracks, look for LaJoie to show up in a big way once again.

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4. Is Atlanta worthy of two Cup dates?

Atlanta was in desperate need of a repave by 2021, so its fabled surface had to change. But turning it into a mini superspeedway didn’t come without the whiplash of seeing how the racing had dramatically changed.

While some are excited to have another drafting race on the calendar, others look at the reconfiguration with contempt, especially when intermediate tracks — what Atlanta used to be — and their racing have benefited the most from the implementation of the Next Gen car.

As for the thoughts on Atlanta from drivers and members of the garage area, Jordan Bianchi of The Athletic conducted an anonymous survey with 30 garage members regarding questions heading into the 2024 season. One of the questions was the track or race weekend they were looking forward to the least, and Atlanta had the most votes of any track with four.

Small sample size, sure, but there’s also the factor of now having six superspeedway races on the calendar. And for the teams, that means more wrecks, more expenses and more work for the unlucky drivers who get swept up in wrecks.

Attendance has also been a mixed bag. I wrote a column in July 2022 about how surprisingly low the attendance was, but then again, what track hasn’t battled attendance issues in the present or past?

What didn’t help the July 2022 race was that it was run in the middle of the afternoon in the Deep South during the heat of summer, so it’s not too much of a surprise that people stayed home. That event became a night race last year, and it was shaping up to be one of the most electric events of the entire season until showers ended the race 75 laps short of the scheduled distance.

Atlanta has had its high and lows in its new era. But in a time when tracks like Pocono Raceway, Dover Motor Speedway, Michigan International Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway have dropped from two dates to one, is Atlanta a track worthy of having two dates on the schedule?

The aforementioned tracks above had struggles with interest or attendance, and moving back down to one date has revitalized those weekends. In the case of Pocono, last year’s race had its highest crowd since 2010, and Michigan had its best crowd in years until rain postponed the remaining 126 laps to Monday. Dover also had a healthy crowd last year despite the race being postponed to Monday in its entirety.

Atlanta itself had just one race from 2011 and 2020. And if the fan, driver and team interest ever dwindles with having two dates on this configuration, there’s nothing wrong with having a track downsize to one.

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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5 Comments
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Tom

I think Atlanta should host 1 race. The only tracks in my mind that should host 2 races are Daytona, Talladega, and Martinsville. Charlotte should only host the Coke 600. The 2025 schedule should include former tracks like Kentucky and Chicagoland.

sdelfin

I know they had to repave Atlanta, but I wish they did not reconfigure it. I prefer it as an unrestricted intermediate track. I don’t worry about whether a track should have one or two, but I would say that if Atlanta only had one, I’d keep the summer race. With the new configuration, the first race didn’t do a lot for me. But in the July races, the asphalt is slick which brings handling more into play which I thought made the racing a lot better.

Joshua Farmer

I love Atlanta. A classic track needs the dates. I also say STOP making the races shorter.

DoninAjax

When they turned Atlanta in a D track they “improved” it. When they reconfigured it they “improved” it. Just ask Brian’s sycophants. Makes cents to the Brian Trust.

wildcatsfan2016

LOL Don, I so hear you!

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