If the NASCAR media corps took a shot for every time we uttered the word “package” Friday, we would be as drunk as we are sugar-buzzed in the QuikTrip-laden media center. The rules package for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is a radical departure from what the series has been running. At tracks greater than a mile, Cup cars are running a higher spoiler (to create more drag), a bigger front splitter (for more downforce), and engines with a greater tapered spacer (to choke horsepower down 200 counts to 550). This is all in hopes of keeping the pack closer together on race day, hopefully creating more meaningful passes for position.
After a few tests and months of speculation, the MENCS cars took to the track for practice and qualifying Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Since the cars were in qualifying trim for the bulk of the session, drivers still didn’t get a feel for how long they would be able to run laps wide open around AMS’ worn, 22-year-old surface. Only Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and his teammate Erik Jones ran 10 or more consecutive laps.
The Stewart-Haas Racing Fords of Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola led the session. Afterwards, drivers didn’t seem to agree on how the race or qualifying would unfold. Crew chiefs and engineers may very well hold those cards.
As qualifying for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 got underway just after 5 p.m., the skies had darkened, the wind picked up, and the temperatures were far cooler than the lunchtime practice. Speculation about how the draft would come to play in group qualifying went mostly out the window. Cars generally laid down laps without drafting. But drivers, however, had to hit the track quickly, as the three rounds had shortened to 10, 10, and five minutes a piece. Some drivers did flirt with drafting. Hamlin and teammate Martin Truex Jr. ran about a car length apart in Round Three, timing into the show 3rd and 9th.
Momentum seemed to be the biggest decider. Drivers began using their warm up laps to gain speed on the high line and the fastest ones hugged the yellow line on the bottom of the turns on lap two. This netted Almirola his second-career pole (first since the 2012 Coca-Cola 600), with a speed of 181.473 mph. Kyle Busch won the pole year ago at 184 mph and speeds in 2018 topped 186 in Round One of that qualifying session.
For the decrease in horsepower, the decrease in speed is very small. This shows how much engineers and mechanics have already figured out to keep the corner speeds up and compensate for the rules change. While some smaller teams had decent qualifying efforts - Michael McDowell was 12th, Matt DiBenedetto 20th, Ty Dillon 21st, David Ragan 22nd, and Corey Lajoie 24th (he was 13th in Round One) - the cream generally rose to the top.
The Penske Fords were nothing like their counterparts at Stewart-Haas. Brad Keselowski was 19th, Ryan Blaney 26th, and Joey Logano 27th. And while SHR’s Almirola, Bowyer, and Daniel Suarez were 1st, 3rd, and 5th, defending AMS winner Kevin Harvick was only 18th.
Roush Fenway Racing looked very stout with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. placing 2nd and Ryan Newman 13th. And Richard Childress Racing is looking better than it has in a while, as Austin Dillon qualified 10th and was 3rd in practice. His rookie teammate Daniel Hemric was only 28th.
Teams will switch to racing trim for happy hour practice and prepare for Sunday’s race. But AMS is a different animal than other tracks, because of tire wear. Drivers speculated that next weekend’s Las Vegas race may see cars running wide open much of the time. In fact, many likened this package (drink) to how the Gander Outdoor Truck Series races. Skip around on this video and watch how that Truck race at Vegas played out a year ago. It was quite entertaining.
So whatever transpires Sunday, fans shouldn’t read too deep into it. Atlanta races totally different than other tracks and doesn’t run the front air dams that tracks like Vegas will. And by the time the Cup Series completes its West Coast swing in a month, drivers and crews will have more data to bolster their fleets and their strategy and change the complexion of the races soon enough.
Listen to the Performance Racing Network on GoPRN.com and the PRN app for live coverage of the Rinnai 250 Xfinity Series race at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at 1 p.m. Sunday. The Gander Outdoors Truck Series runs at 4:30 p.m. Saturday on the Motor Racing Network.
Hear Turnbull’s interviews with Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Corey Lajoie, Reid Wilson, Matt Tifft, Daniel Hemric, and Austin Hill on a bonus episode of the “Five to Go” racing podcast.