Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: How Concerning Is the Lack of DNQs at Atlanta?

Is it concerning that none of the NASCAR national series fields will have DNQs at Atlanta Motor Speedway?

Austin Bass: From a fan’s point of view, it does not affect the quality or outcome of the race and is of zero concern. The downsizing of fields over the last decade in all three series has been fully normalized by NASCAR. Incomplete fields in the NASCAR Cup Series are the expectation within the current structure of the Race Team Alliance’s charter system. Atlanta is a drafting track with pack racing, so huge crashes and wadded-up equipment that can’t be avoided. The prestige and payout at Atlanta are not nearly the same as what you receive at Daytona International Speedway, so it is no surprise to see a smaller field after last weekend’s wreck-fest. Field fillers are the same as empty seats in the grandstands — they have no impact on the outcome of the race or our decision to watch or attend it, but are low-hanging fruit for those who love to nitpick.

Steve Leffew: Not too concerning. In the Cup Series we have become accustomed to seeing fields of 36. The charter system and payout structure make it difficult to profit if you don’t have a charter. At Daytona, we often see teams roll out an extra car, like RFK Racing did for David Ragan. The NASCAR Xfinity Series saw a decent dropoff from the 44 cars that entered at Daytona. Most of the no-shows for Atlanta were known part-time or one-off cars. The biggest Xfinity omission at Atlanta was MBM Motorsports, which suffered a post-qualifying disqualification penalty. You have to wonder how long it will be until we see it again, as the low-budget team was likely set back significantly by its disqualification at Daytona.

Josh Calloni: It’s most concerning for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. It’s no shock Cup doesn’t, and Xfinity typically always has DNQs, but when it went to Atlanta last summer, it didn’t have any either. Further, it has a full field for Atlanta, so it’d be more concerning if the series goes multiple weeks like this. However, the Truck Series started the week with 32 entrants and added one midweek, putting the starting field at three short of a full field. Smaller teams aren’t even showing up when they are guaranteed a spot in the field, and that is certainly something of concern this early in the season.

Frank Velat: Not very concerning. We’ve seen this trend before where Daytona brings all the drivers to the yard followed by a significant drop in participation. Quality over quantity should be the name of the game. Cup fields are smaller than they’ve been in decades, yet the percentage of cars capable of winning is arguably at its highest. Forty cars aren’t better than 36 if the slowest quarter of the cars on the grid are essentially rolling roadblocks.

Taylor Kornhoff: Not concerning at all; the sport has gotten more expensive, and for Cup, the charters make the barrier to entry exponentially high. Still, there are so many people, including those with big pockets, who are passionate about racing that it does not concern me in the slightest.

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Who performed better than expected at Daytona?

Calloni: Zane Smith. Smith ran inside of the top 20 for most of the Daytona 500 and finished well in his Bluegreen Vacations Duel race, showing very well for the first race of his rookie season. It was hard to project Smith, as his first few races in the series last year weren’t always consistent. Plus, he’s now driving for a freshly expanded Spire Motorsports. However, he was strong, finishing 13th.

Bass: Johnny Sauter can still wheel it. The Truck results won’t show how strong the 45-year-old was all night, finishing 29th at Daytona after being involved in a crash, but he was very competitive and aggressive. Sauter led 24 of the 101 laps, second most of all drivers, and appeared to have the fastest truck. His skill, talent and desire were on full display. The 2016 champion was strong out front, but he could bob and weave his way back to the lead anytime he got shuffled out of line. It’s a shame he isn’t yet announced to run any other races this year.

Leffew: I’ll head over to the Xfinity Series and give a shoutout to Parker Retzlaff. Last year, he opened the season at Daytona with a fourth. This year, he improved to third. Retzlaff drives for a mid-pack team, Jordan Anderson Racing. To make the playoffs he will probably need to win a race. He’s showing he could pull it off whenever the draft is involved.

Velat: Jesse Love had exactly zero wins, poles or even starts in the NXS before last weekend. He wound up starting on the pole and would have challenged for the win had his car not been so damaged. Love was the class of the field early, leading the first 32 laps. Teammate Austin Hill, who won the race, has carried the Richard Childress Racing banner pretty much on his own since Tyler Reddick moved on after 2019. This year, it looks like the No. 2 car is ready to contribute some wins as well.

Which Cup driver needs a good run at Atlanta after their Speedweeks performance?

Leffew: Harrison Burton. The young driver needs to have a good year. Daytona was one of his better chances to run up front, and it was foiled when he wrecked. He and his Wood Brothers Racing team need 2024 to be better than 2023, and Atlanta provides another chance to get some momentum going.

Bass: Poor Austin Dillon. The RCR wheelman had a horrible 2023 season with 10 DNFs and one top-five result. He finished a dismal 29th in the point standings and led just 19 laps across five races. Meanwhile, then-new teammate Kyle Busch won in only his second race with the organization, won twice more during the campaign, made the playoffs and made Dillon the second fiddle in the process. Fast forward to the 2024 Daytona 500 and the unfortunate luck continued, with Dillon getting collected in the first crash, which occurred just six laps into the season. A 37th-place finish out of the gate needs to be shaken off quickly at Atlanta to prevent a black cloud from settling over Dillon again, especially if Busch has another strong start.

Velat: Ryan Blaney. Despite having a strong car, the defending Cup champion got the worst that Daytona has to offer. Blaney couldn’t even get through practice without getting his car destroyed. The race was just as bad, with the usually laid-back driver dropping F-bombs like raindrops on the team radio. The grinding crash that ended his night put Blaney out of his misery — or, at the very least, finally stopped adding to it.

Kornhoff: Dillon. After a near last-place finish at Daytona, another bust of a race could send his season spiraling out of control momentum-wise — just like the last two seasons, when he finished horribly in the 500.

Calloni: Josh Berry. Sure, he is a rookie, but his Speedweeks were very quiet, finishing 25th in the Daytona 500, failing to make the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and finishing 17th in his Bluegreen Vacations Duel. It’s a tall order to replace Kevin Harvick, and Atlanta is a big prove-it race for him.

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What could be done to make Truck drafting-style races cleaner?

Velat: That’s going to be a long list of things that will never happen. But I’ll focus on one: modifying the playoffs. When the points championship was a season-long affair, consistency was king. Finishing second or third was almost as good as a win. Now, victory is so much more valuable in the grand scheme of things. But win-and-you’re-in leads to another clever but detrimental rhyme: checkers or wreckers. That’s the mentality created by the current playoff format, and to combat it, NASCAR would have to diminish the benefit of winning. If superspeedway wins didn’t count toward playoff qualification, it might help. But we all know that won’t happen.

Bass: The Truck body design has always punched a huge hole in the air, allowing for massive runs, big pushes and daring maneuvers by the drivers. Over the last decade, however, Truck engines have weakened in the name of durability and saving money. The current engines continue to be built with a reduction in horsepower to increase their longevity. The truck’s footprint, combined with its neutered engine package, creates a dangerous imbalance in speed differential between the leaders and followers in the draft. Drivers are forced to nudge one another forward within an ever-shrinking bubble of air to create more speed. With the winner-take-all mentality of the playoff system, push always comes to shove because second place is just the first loser. Only an increase in horsepower can prevent these demolition derbies.

Kornhoff: Something that could be implemented is making the Truck bodies more aerodynamic. I understand that pickup trucks are not inherently aerodynamic from the factory, but for the sake of better racing it may help. Plus, the spoilers are already huge so adding bigger spoilers would just be ludicrous. Perhaps just some small aero changes around the trucks’ bodies could make them more stable because the massive front fenders on them punch through the air like a brick and do not push very well. NASCAR could also try to mandate that the bodies be more in line with the older Cup superspeedway packages that featured bigger skirts all around the car for stability in the draft, even if it would look horrid.

Calloni: There’s not much that can be done. It’s a product of that style of racing. There could be more emphasis on the drivers being more careful with changing lanes drastically and pushing too aggressively, but at the end of the day, when each driver gets behind the wheel, they are going to do what they feel needs to be done to win. That usually gives a messy product on this style of tracks, but it’s something teams and fans alike are going to have to just understand.

Leffew: Let the superspeedway tracks be a free-for-all for higher-series drivers. The limits for Buschwhacking were put in place to give regulars a chance to run up front. We can keep those same limits, but make it so that Daytona, Atlanta and Talladega Superspeedway don’t count against the quota. An infusion of more Cup and Xfinity talent might produce a more clean and respectful outcome.

About the author

Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.

Austin Bass joined Frontstretch in 2024 as a contributor to combine his passion for racing and writing. Born in Wilson, NC, he developed a passion for racing at an early age while attending local short tracks on Saturday nights with his dad and watching the stars of the sport from their living room on Sunday afternoons.

Bass is a graduate of UNC-Wilmington with a degree in Communication Studies where he developed a deep understanding, appreciation, and love for the Oxford comma. He is an industrial degreaser salesman for Cox Industries whenever he is not writing or talking about racing.

Josh joined Frontstretch in 2023 and currently covers the ARCA Menards Series. Born and raised in Missouri, Josh has been watching motorsports since 2005. He currently is studying for a Mass Communication degree at Lindenwood University

Steve Leffew joined Frontstretch in 2023, and covers the Xfinity Series. He resides in Wisconsin and has been a NASCAR fan as long as he can remember. He has served honorably in the United States Air Force and works during the week as a Real Estate Lender.

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John

For the trucks, with only limited information on prize money, except for total purse, its difficult to piece together the business case that permits anyone to race. But, if your divide the total purse for Atlanta by 32, each car that makes the race receives less than $25,000 with the winners making more and backmarkers less. $5000 at a minimum goes to Goodyear. With 60% of the truck field severely damaged at Daytona, which paid the trucks $33,000 on average it should surprise no one that the field’s are short this week and all weeks. Why aren’t there more experienced drivers in the Truck Series to teach the youngsters (a questions overused this week)? You have to pay them and this series, while less expensive to run than Cup, still requires most of the bills to be paid by sponsorship or by someone’s dad to get the car to the track. Newer teams get no practice to develop their trucks. And on what little money they make, it is unlikely that any have their own simulators…The performance gap that generates insures that only the very, very few manufacturer supported teams get any sim time. Young drivers, no practice, bring your own funding, limited manufacturer interest, crash damage AND any hint of raining out qualifying will chase 33rd in points or worse, will keep any sane truck owner away…so why the surprise? The economics of this sport and the move away from on-track practice make the Chocolate Myers claims of a level playing field laughable. Xfinity has twice the money to work with and Cup gets over 11 times the total purse as trucks get at Atlanta (and on average).
The engine program is a step in the right direction for the trucks, but it comes with at a price…limited manufacturer money.

Marshall

I think maybe the Truck series just doesn’t belong at Daytona or Talladega. I know that’s a sacrilege, but from the first race in 2000 that almost killed Geoff Bodine it’s been dangerous. Start the truck series at New Smyrna with the Whelen mods.

As for the short fields I really wish NASCAR had left all the field sizes at 43. They didn’t need to be shortened just so NASCAR could advertise a full field. It’s ridiculous for 42 teams to show up for the Daytona 500 for 2 of them to go home. Just start them all for crying out loud. That’s how they do it at short tracks when 29 cars show up for a 28 car race.

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