Overreactions and observations from NASCAR's Atlanta stop
Jimmie Johnson won his 71st career NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Atlanta, securing his Chase place in the season's second race. With the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 in the rearview, what did we learn at the Atlanta Motor Speedway this past weekend?
1. Atlanta + March /= Success
NASCAR juggled its schedule this past offseason in an attempt to shake up the early Sprint Cup season. The thought was an admirable one; several dates simply did not make sense where they were. But the move to bring Atlanta back onto the early season schedule reminded everyone just why it was taken off in the first place. Even without the late week ice storm, late winter weather in the Southeast is unpredictable.
NASCAR was extremely lucky that they managed to get all three events off as scheduled (relatively). Teams scrambled to get the equipment they needed to the track, in part leading to Travis Kvapil's exit before qualifying. Wet conditions delayed the start of the Cup race and cold conditions impacted attendance without question. The racing proved Atlanta belongs on the schedule but NASCAR needs to do a better job of setting the date.
2. Qualifying remains a weekly adventure
At Daytona, qualifying for the Xfinity and Cup cars came to a screeching halt as wrecked cars littered the track. Atlanta featured the opposite problem as teams couldn't seem to make it on to the track. Truck qualifying saw only one driver (Ben Kennedy) actually make a pass during the later round, resulting in a pole start for him and a series of other trucks playing games on pit road. The Cup qualifying turned into a farce as 13 teams failed to turn a single lap due to issues in pre-race inspection.
Yes, gamesmanship is going to be a part of group qualifying. And I fully understand both the teams' need to find speed and NASCAR's need to ensure a level playing field. But ask Mike Wallace, a part time driver for a backmarker team, just how “fair” qualifying was for him. The group qualifying system is mildly entertaining when it works and a disaster when it doesn't. If the series cannot find a way to limit these disasters then maybe it's time to bring back a system that worked for decades before.
Jimmie Johnson diecast from Amazon
3. So much for that idea
Johnson's victory shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. He's been a master at the intermediate tracks over the years and his teammates have all done well here before. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had another strong showing and was near the front all race long. The 48/88 shop had eight wins and 23 top five finishes last year and looks to be aiming for more of the same in 2015. Despite significant changes to the car and rules packages, this Hendrick duo looks to be the class of the field so far.
The racing overall seemed to mirror than of 2014. If anything, the cars were slightly faster on track as reduced drag (specifically, two inches less spoiler at the back) proved more valuable than horsepower. The estimated reduction of 100+ horsepower due to the addition of a tapered spacer and other measures was supposed to slow the cars down and keep them closer together. This was supposed to encourage more passing and reduce the advantage of clean air. Yet as has happened before, teams continue to find speed even if it means running on the edge of out of control.
4. So much for that idea, #2
The “super subs” at Joe Gibbs Racing and Front Row Motorsports were anything but this past weekend. David Ragan finished two laps down in 18th place while his teammates that survived the late race wrecks (Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards) finished on the lead lap in fifth and 12th place respectively. Meanwhile, Ragan's sub at Front Row, Joe Nemechek, was at the center of one of the wrecks as he sent Greg Biffle sideways in front of nearly the entire field with less than 25 laps to go.
JGR's defenders pointed to Ragan's relationships with Kenseth and Edwards as a reason why he would be a good fit in the #18 car. And Nemechek's fans pointed towards his past qualifying prowess and the veteran's ability to bring the car home in one piece. Neither proved useful in Atlanta and if FRM was going to tow it's car home it may as well have used the time on a driver whose best Cup years are ahead instead of behind them.
Gordon hits the inside wall in Atlanta
5. SMI's turn to feel the SAFER warth
Last weekend, it was Kyle Busch who was seriously injured thanks to a crash into an exposed concrete barrier. This week, it was Jeff Gordon who found the wall. The four time champion escaped serious injury but the thought of joining Busch on the shelf was clearly on his mind. Prior to entering the track ambulance, Gordon stood on the track, gesturing to the exposed wall he hit just a few feet from the end of the inside SAFER barrier.
Unlike Daytona, Atlanta Motor Speedway is owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc. SMI, the main competitor to NASCAR-dominated International Speedway Corp., was strangely silent after last weekend's controversy at Daytona. They made no effort to upgrade the facilities at Atlanta and nearly paid the price when Gordon's car made a beeline for the concrete. I expect that we'll hear plenty from SMI officials this week. As before, it's a week too late and its yet another example of the penny-wise, pound-foolish approach that tracker owners have to the SAFER technology.