There were many questions heading into this Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 race weekend. The majority of those centered around the first look at part of NASCAR’s new handling/horsepower package for the Cup cars. The predictions varied about some idiosyncrasies with drafting, but by Sunday morning, there seemed to be a common coda in the garage: restarts really matter and the long runs would look like the same Atlanta Motor Speedway races from the past. Those prophecies were spot on.
The restarts were bananas. Qualifying and practice made the Team Penske cars look like garbage, but they shot out of a cannon on the restarts on race day. Eventual race winner Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, and Joey Logano all seemed to ascend into the top 10 or 15 in the blink of an eye. Kevin Harvick, the defending race winner, also took very little time climbing from his 18th starting spot to the top 10. These drivers were among those that really made hay when the field was bunched up. A crew chief told me this morning these cars in this package take a lap or two to get wound up, similar to a restrictor plate.
But once the cars get settled in their positions, the running order did not change dramatically. The second place car seemed to have a better shot at catching the leader than did other cars behind them in traffic. Some drivers seemed to work the draft, even with lapped vehicles, to get that desperately needed push to add to their momentum. But making up lost spots over the course of a run was incredibly difficult.
Kyle Larson led a race-high 142 laps, but never could climb the whole ladder from outside the top 20. He finished 12th. Pole sitter Aric Almirola took the entire race to overcome his early speeding penalty. And if drivers made wrong moves on restarts, they were stuck in purgatory.
The tire fall off and multiple groove characteristics at AMS normally produced long green flag runs with little incident, which certainly was the case in Sunday’s race. But past races also saw drivers displaying more abilities to come on strong or fall off during runs. Tire management still played a huge role in the Cup race, but spotters and crew chiefs generally told drivers to not burn their tires up chasing a car they couldn’t catch in dirty air.
Dirty air played a big factor in Martin Truex Jr.’s not being able to catch Keselowski in the closing laps. Truex Jr. fumed over Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s lapped car holding the bottom lane and dirtying the 19 car’s air. This kept Truex Jr. at bay long enough for Keselowski to win. Keselowski said after the race that he probably could have only held Truex Jr. off for two or three more laps.
The coda in the garage leading up to the race was that Atlanta was a unicorn. The other tracks that would run this package (except Darlington) would have the front air dams to manipulate the air differently and those tracks would also have far less tire wear.
With the air dams and the lack of tire fall off at most of the other tracks, drivers may be able to hold their cars wide open for most of the runs. This could create some big packs with drafting and the restarts will almost certainly be wild. But we saw at AMS that clean air was absolutely king. Drivers seemed aggravated post-race at how little they really could do to determine their outcomes and make up spots on long green flag runs. The real real test of the package comes this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Will the front air dams make clean air less important? That is a must for this new package to be a success.