Byron Wins First NASCAR Cup Race On Transformed Atlanta Track
Mar 21, 2022
The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 wasn’t exactly a display of motor racing purity, but it was never meant to be.
Instead, the new Atlanta Motor Speedway has effectively become the Winchester Speedway of Daytona International Speedways. That’s a lot but give the description time to land. All of this is to say that the new configuration delivered exactly what its architects envisioned -- the short track of superspeedways.
It was designed to be the cross-section spectacle of Talladega and Bowman Gray, replete with every bit the gratuitous pulp Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith told the Athletic on Sunday he wanted it to be.
"This is a sports entertainment business and we served up a really entertaining weekend of racing here," Smith said.
Everyone reading knows who owns the de facto trademark on sports entertainment. With that said, the people were indeed sports entertained over the weekend. That more than a stewardship of sporting purity is Smith's primary job as a promoter in the same spirit as his father, Bruton, or the likes of Humpy Wheeler and Eddie Gossage.
And this might be a bitter pill for many to swallow, but the decision to transform Atlanta into a diet superspeedway might have saved the legendary intermediate. The race attracted its largest crowd in a decade and those who purchased tickets were treated to record lead changes, passes and crashed cars -- seemingly pillars of attracting the non-hardcore fans.
The end result was just so jarring because Atlanta has spent much of the past two decades as a pillar of motorsporting purity.
It was the quintessential driver’s track, thanks to a grip limited racing surface and the fastest speeds on the schedule, but it was also a formula that encouraged one-sided beatdowns and margins of victory frequently in the double digits.
Fans stopped showing up and there simply wasn’t going to be enough time to wait for a standard resurfacing to weather and become the track it was in the 2000s as articulated by Xfinity Series contender AJ Allmendinger on Saturday night.
"I hate this type of racing and always will," Allmendinger said. "But I'm sure it put on a great show for fans and on TV. With that said, if we were to run this race with our regular package, it would probably be terrible. Quite honestly, with these repaves, that's what happens.
"It's a Catch-22. I hate this kind of racing but it's probably better racing tonight than with our regular package because we would all be single file on the bottom and not passing each other."
It was also the most opportune moment in time for Smith to try something like this or risk losing Atlanta Motor Speedway and its rich history across two previous layouts altogether.
Smith had long coveted his own version of Daytona and Talladega, tracks owned by NASCAR itself, and he finally got one in Atlanta by raising the banking in the corner four degrees and laying fresh asphalt over one last paved in 1997.
It remains an open question as to what will happen once this asphalt begins to wear over the next decade. The moment tires start to fall off is the moment drivers will begin lifting off the throttle and the pack racing will start to fade -- but with a surface that will probably always require 500 horsepower or less.
More pressing is what this means for the future of intermediate track racing across the schedule.
After three years of running a high downforce, low horsepower rules package intended to transition to the Next Gen cars, drivers and the sanctioning body ultimately agreed over the winter to return to lower downforce and higher horsepower for the debut season with the new car.
That decision was rewarded with genuinely thrilling races at abrasive two-mile Auto Club Speedway and the moderately aged pavement at 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway. A month into the season, and it seemed like the frustrations of the NA18D era of the sport were firmly behind everyone.
And it still can be.
Hopefully Smith uses the same restraint he used after the initial success of the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. There was some consideration about applying the ROVAL format to the now defunct Kentucky Speedway or the ever-challenging Texas Motor Speedway, but Speedway Motorsports opted to keep the infield road course layout unique to Charlotte.
There is a lot of merit towards applying the same approach towards Atlanta.
For the near future, Atlanta will become the same kind of must-see train wreck as Daytona and Talladega. It essentially gives the sport another track type with an intermediate-superspeedway hybrid to go alongside the ever-growing cache of diverse offerings on the current Cup Series calendar.
But make no mistake, five regular season superspeedway crapshoots is enough.
February | Daytona
March | Atlanta
April | Talladega
July | Atlanta
September | Daytona
Rick Hendrick says this is enough and the drivers collectively feel it’s enough.
"No, I vote to cap it," Hendrick said. "With our record at plate races with finishing ... I just -- I think this is enough."
"Now, let's just have it here, Daytona and Talladega, and not repave every mile and a half in the country. Let's not bring Kentucky (Speedway) back to life. Let's leave it six feet under. It's done. It's over and we're never going back there.
"I just feel like this can be its own thing and something to be excited about. But raising the banking at every mile and a half. That's not our future and I think that Jim France and Ben Kennedy know that. Drivers, we want to lift (off the throttle). Atlanta, it's a cool place, and even if I crashed out, I think I would have had a positive experience."
It was fun in the same way that Pepsi isn’t a dietary foundation, but all things should be enjoyed in moderation -- even New Atlanta, the Winchester of Daytonas.