Atlanta was.. well, Atlanta
Without the full 2019 rules package in effect, we saw a pretty standard race on Sunday. Atlanta’s 20+ year old surface didn’t disappoint, eating up tires and forcing drivers to search around for grip. NASCAR opted to keep the front aero ducts off of the cars for Sunday’s race, due to potential brake overheating. That minimized the draft, making things look pretty normal at Atlanta.
The only difference that we saw on Sunday was a lack of straightaway speed and increased corner speeds. To the diehard, you could spot small differences. But I’d bet the causal fan couldn’t. They’re probably wondering what all the fuss over the new rules package is at this point.
They won’t have to wait long. Judging from NASCAR’s test at Las Vegas, you’ll see a much different product out west.
Kevin Harvick was unable to go “Harvick-ing”
Perhaps no driver has experienced such a clear advantage over the years than Kevin Harvick at Atlanta. That wasn’t the case on Sunday. With increased corner speeds and less time off throttle, Harvick’s advantage was wiped out. Kyle Larson proved to have the dominant car, even when Larson gave up the lead on pit road. Harvick had plenty of long run speed, but rarely got to show it thanks to pit stops and stage ends.
Stewart-Haas Racing was the talk of the garage before the race, but in the end it was Kyle Larson and eventually Penske Racing showing the way. Harvick’s lack of dominance was notable, considering what he had done there over the past five races. It’s further proof that things are about to change in a big way on the intermediates.
Late into the third stage, Daniel Hemric, Ryan Preece and Chris Buescher found themselves inside the top ten. Hemric actually ran all the way up to fifth, running ahead of Kevin Harvick late in the going. One of the things we had talked about with this package was how it may bring the field closer together. On Sunday, it certainly did that.
Hemric’s incredible day ended with a shredded tire which force him down pit road. Ryan Preece ended up having a collision on pit road with BJ McLeod, which sent him to the garage. Buescher brought it home ninth, the only one of the three to get the finish he deserved.
This part of the 2019 package delivered right off the bat. We’ll see if this continues with the aero ducts in place this weekend in Vegas.
Luck always seems to favor Penske
For whatever reason, Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon have a magic touch when it comes to pit strategy. We saw another example on Sunday. In the middle of a pit sequence, the caution flag flew after Ryan Preece’s wreck on pit road. The result? Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kurt Busch had trapped the entire field a lap down. That meant they would inherit the top three spots, along with a nice cushion of lapped cars in between Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and the rest of the contenders.
Logano took the lead and Keselowski passed him shortly after. Not to make this sound like Brad fell into a win — he had legit top five speed — but he wasn’t ready to beat Larson, Harvick or Truex straight up. But once again for Team Penske, that didn’t matter.