Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Is Atlanta the Best Drafting Track on the Circuit?

What Happened?

Daniel Suarez beat Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch back to the line at Atlanta Motor Speedway, in a three-wide battle that ended in the closest finish between the top three in NASCAR history.

Just 0.003 separated Suarez from Blaney, and only 0.007 separated Suarez and Busch, one of the greatest finishes we have ever seen. 

Suarez picked up his second career win, and his first since way back at Sonoma in June of 2022, during a time when the pressure was undoubtedly on Suarez to perform when it counts.

The win for Suarez also keeps Chevrolet’s 2024 chokehold on the three national series alive, as they remain undefeated. 

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Daniel Suarez Victorious After Epic Atlanta Finish

But What Really Happened?

New Atlanta put on a barnburner, a show for the ages, a race of the year candidate. Whatever you wanna call it, that’s what this race was. Many have been skeptical about the new configuration of Atlanta, myself included, largely due to some of the first few races we saw there — including last year’s spring snoozer, along with the Craftsman Truck Series and Xfinity Series duds the track has produced.

However, something changed last July, in a very good way. This unique 1.5-mile drafting track began to age, and the rain-shortened July race, along with today’s race, were outstanding.

That leads to a fair question: Is Atlanta the best drafting track on the circuit? Does this new anomaly top the traditional Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway we all know and love?

While it’s a tough debate, I think the answer is yes, and here’s why. 

A quick look at the stats tells you that both Daytona and Talladega produce more passing for the lead, and throughout the pack, by a wide margin compared to Atlanta.

In five races at Daytona with the Next Gen car and four at Talladega, Daytona averages 37.8 lead changes per race and 59.5 green flag passes per lap, while Talladega averages 56.25 lead changes and 80.65 green flag passes per lap. 

As for Atlanta, the five races on the new configuration average 31.8 lead changes per race and 28.8 green flag passes per lap, which seems like a large gap.

However, when you factor that every race at Daytona and Talladega has been at least 500 miles, while only the first at Atlanta was 500 miles, followed by three 400 mile races and one rain-shortened 285-mile race, the numbers are much more comparable than it first appears. 

The same goes for green flag passes per lap. When you consider every single lap at Atlanta is a mile or more shorter than a lap at Daytona or Talladega, those numbers are actually very similar as well.

So what makes Atlanta stand out if it can’t be proven by stats?

Well, the answer is a little thing called the eye test, and Atlanta far and away clears the other two in this category. The eye test is simply what the product on the track or TV screen shows your own two eyes. It can’t necessarily be backed up by stats but is clearly evident.

As for the racing at Atlanta, the rapidly aging surface and narrower track means drivers have to lift early in the run, and tire wear becomes king.

This leads to more comers and goers throughout the race and makes it easier to make up ground at will (and not due to fuel saving like we saw in the Daytona 500). It puts the ball back in the driver’s court rather than hoping you chose the right line at any given lap. 

Atlanta rewards cars that handle well and drivers who can manage them and drive them better than others, and that’s what makes it great.

By putting on a show that puts driver skill back at the forefront of importance, Atlanta has not only become the best drafting tracks in NASCAR, it is quickly becoming one of the most exciting tracks in general — and a fan favorite for sure.

Does that mean we should go make five more of them just like it? No, of course not (looking at you, Texas Motor Speedway), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognize it and celebrate it for what it is, while also letting it keep its glory as a one-of-a-kind facility and racetrack. 

Who Stood Out?

What a race Suarez and the No. 99 team had.

It’s not often that you see a car crash on lap 2 and end up in victory lane four hours later, but that’s exactly what we saw from Suarez and the Trackhouse Racing No. 99 team. 

Suarez piled into the back of Daniel Hemric’s No. 31 during the lap 2 melee but was able to escape with minimal damage. From that point on, Suarez was pretty much a non-factor toward the front for most of the day, but he was there when it counts, and that’s ultimately the only thing that matters. 

Suarez battled hard on the outside during the closing laps, leaving Busch enough room to shoot through the middle as the No. 8 took Blaney and Suarez three-wide, a moment that very well could have ended badly for all three.

Instead, Suarez lived to fight another day, and that new day was just seconds later as a side draft off of Busch’s No. 8 propelled the No. 99 around the outside of both Blaney and Busch. 

What a win, and what a confidence booster for a driver who so badly needed one.

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We can’t leave Atlanta without giving a shoutout to Todd Gilliland either. In what truly was a career day for Gilliland and the No. 38 team, he led not only a career-high but also a race-high 58 laps on the day, at times seeming like the car to beat.

Just when you though the pack had shuffled Gilliland out, the No. 38 would muscle its way back to the front with ease.

Unfortunately, Gilliland had to make an unscheduled pit stop late in the race, putting him down in 26th at the checkered flag, but the finish isn’t indicative of the show he put on at Atlanta. 

Who Fell Flat?

Everyone whose day ended on lap 2.

While many drivers like Suarez, Bubba Wallace and Chase Elliott were able to continue with ease following the lap 2 pileup, others were not so lucky.

Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Noah Gragson, Alex Bowman, Josh Williams and Erik Jones were among those whose days effectively ended before they really even started. Williams unfortunately never saw the track again, while Bell, Gragson, Bowman, Reddick and Jones all rolled around well off the pace for the rest of the day.

As good as the race was, it’s a shame to see so many cars, and really good cars at that, torn up before the race really got going. Unfortunately, that’s just the nature of the beast that is this style of racing. 

We did get a quote of the year candidate, though, when Williams said “I thought I left the ARCA (Menard’s) Series a long time ago, but apparently not.” So there’s that.

Better Than Last Time?

Better than last time?

Absolutely, no questions asked. How could it not be, we just watched one of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history.

However, it wasn’t just the finish that made this year’s spring Atlanta event better than the last, it was the entire race. 

It goes without saying that the 2023 installment of this race was a snoozer, I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But just for argument’s sake, this year’s edition saw 48 lead changes compared to last years 20. 

These two races were night and day. The ‘23 edition was the choo-choo train, and the 2024 edition was the chaotic masterpiece, with everything you could ever want from a drafting style race. The ’24 event clears its predecessor by a mile. 

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Paint Scheme of the Race

The weather in the ATL may have been a bit chilly, but some of the cars on track brought the heat to warm up the crowd. Even so, there were two paint schemes that stood out above the rest.

Hendrick Motorsports and William Byron took the Heat part seriously, debuting the Raptor High Heat colors, and this car brought the classic flames on the No. 24 to a whole new level. The raptor claw marks around the wheelbase are a unique feature on this car, and the graphic flames on the hood are outstanding. 

Not to mention, the black and red color palette with the yellow No. 24 screams Jeff Gordon, and who doesn’t love a subtle throwback? Here’s to hoping this car sees the track again in 2024. 

Another car making its debut this week was Blaney’s BodyArmor Zero Sugar car, and this car just looks mean, in a good way. It’s unfortunate that this car might just be a one-off for the zero sugar drink, much like last year’s spring Atlanta car, because this might be the best BodyArmor scheme that’s ever been on the No. 12.

The white base and the gradient gray on the bottom makes this car neat and simple, and the black stripe all the way down the center of the new Ford Mustang Dark Horse makes this car look like a true muscle car. The red trim all the way around with the red number ties this whole thing together. 10 out of 10. 

What’s Next?

After starting the season with two back-to-back drafting tracks for the first time ever, the Cup Series starts its traditional West Coast Swing this week with the first of two trips this season to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. 

Catch the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube on Sunday, March 3 at 3:30 p.m. ET, live on Fox, PRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. 

About the author

Chase began working with Frontstretch in the spring of 2023 as a news writer, while also helping fill in for other columns as needed. Chase is now the main writer and reporter for Frontstretch.com's CARS Tour coverage, a role which began late in 2023.  Aside from racing, some of Chase's other hobbies include time in the outdoors hunting and fishing, and keeping up with all things Philadelphia sports related.

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13 Comments
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Christopher

Is Atlanta the Best Drafting Track on the Circuit? Yes, for the current Cup car it is.

Joshua Farmer

STOP SHORTENING THE RACES NASCAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ted

I noticed that as well. The only ones still at 500 miles are the the Daytona 500, both Dega races, and the Southern 500,.. the bristol races are still 500 (250 miles) laps as well. I think it’s to fit easier into 4 hour tv window. 🤔🤷🏼‍♂️

MikeinAZ

They’ve been shortening them for a while now. I live i Phx and we really take it in the shorts at our track. 500KM (312 miles) is a joke for the price we pay. It should be at least 400 miles.

sdelfin

Though I prefer the old Atlanta configuration, I’d argue the new version showed some promise with the 2022 summer race. As I recall, that race was way better than the early-season races in 2022 and 2023. In the summer heat, the racing surface was slick which made handling extremely important and allowed for more passing opportunities for the drivers who could figure out theirs cars under those conditions.

The surface aging will help too, but I think the track and the quality of races are more temperature sensitive under the current rules package. When the racing is good, like in the two summer races, it doesn’t resemble the racing at Daytona or Talladega because the cars do get spread out and it’s nearly impossible to stay wide open all the way around. The problem is that the track has been very inconsistent. One detail I caught yesterday was that it was apparently warmer than expected there for February. It has also been an inconsistent track when factoring the Xfinity and truck races as we saw this past Saturday. Perhaps shifting the track dates so that both races run in warmer conditions without being too close together is the answer that would help all the racing there.

MikeinAZ

What a great race. Atlanta consistently brings us the best racing on the cup circuit. They need to build more tracks just like Atlanta or run more races on that track.

Bill B

They could try, but it probably would have some subtle difference that would make it race differently.

MikeinAZ

It will never happen anyway. They can definitely run more races on that one though. With more races like the one a couple of days ago, just think what that would do for NASCAR’s popularity?

Spot 01

I thought having more than 30 cars involved in wrecks made this “race” an all-time disaster. Highest percentage of the field ever were wrecked one way or another, an all-time NA$CAR record. Or is the finish spose da make up for that?

Echo

I heard almost every driver, wrecked or not, say that this was the most fun they have had in a long time. They raced and raced. I’m going with the drivers.

DoninAjax

So you’d enjoy being in a traffic jam at 180 mph?

Echo

The drivers all had smiles and said they had fun. That’s what I said.

Bill B

Definitely walking the edge between racing and demolition derby, but most of the cars on the list had minor damage and continued on. Maybe there was a record number of cars involved in wrecks but there wasn’t a record number of DNFs.

I don’t like having two crap shoot races back to back, otherwise, as long as the race is exciting it’s OK. Four wide will not work on a sunny, 90 degree day though.

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