Byron Wins First NASCAR Cup Race On Transformed Atlanta Track
Mar 21, 2022
This wasn’t the first time Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith had attempted to create a superspeedway out of one of his intermediate tracks, but Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway was surely the realization of a dream.
For 500 miles, Cup Series drivers were effectively locked two-by-two around the freshly reconfigured 1.54-mile, producing a record number of lead changes (46) but also a record number of cars involved in a crash. It was for all practical purposes a Daytona and Talladega style race but with almost half the amount of room.
As was the case on Saturday with Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series drivers, their Cup Series counterparts mostly seemed to be fine with this being a novelty for Atlanta but would not like to see the increased banking and associated rules being adopted by other intermediate tracks on the schedule.
This point was best articulated by runner-up finisher Ross Chastain.
"I'm not upset about it," Chastain said. "I shouldn't tell this story, but I was talking to Landon (Cassill) about it and he said he didn't mind it and had quite a bit of fun, and I did too.
"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."
His former Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Kurt Busch, was the lone driver reportedly consulted about the reconfiguration last year but didn’t express a lot of excitement after his third-place finish.
"It was really wild and it's hard to digest right now," Busch said.
Any feedback in advance of the next Cup race here in July?
"I'm hoping we go unrestricted in July."
What about possibly doing this to maligned intermediates Texas Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway or Kentucky?
"It was really wild," Busch said. "Hard to digest."
Okay, well they’re not taking the tapered spacer off altogether in July and running a 900-horsepower engine on fresh paved asphalt, but what if he just meant the standard 650hp and low downforce rules package?
Does Chastain endorse that?
"I haven’t been around that long, and Kurt has forgotten more than I’ll ever know," Chastain said. "I got to know him pretty well the past couple of years and if he says that’s what we should do, he is way smarter than me."
Kurt’s younger brother, Kyle, has been notoriously critical of the NASCAR industry’s recent efforts to create pack racing at intermediate tracks over the past three years. He has at times felt like Cup is being presented more as an entertainment platform than a sport.
Did he feel like that today?
"Yep," he told NBC Sports after a mechanical issue eliminated him on Lap 171.
Does he like this version of Atlanta better than the old one?
"Nope," he said.
Say what you will about this version of Atlanta Motor Speedway, but the superspeedway qualities leveled the playing field and allowed Corey Lajoie and his smaller budget Spire Motorsports team to earn their first top-five together on Sunday.
"I am on this side of the garage and I have never rolled into Atlanta with a chance to finish on the lead lap, much less get a top-five, so you can do that now if you play your cards right," Lajoie said. "At the end of the day, NASCAR has two knobs.
"They have the competition knob and they have the entertainment knob, and they are not the same a lot of time, what fans think is entertaining and what drivers view as pure competition. I do think there’s a place for a race like this, and then you can have Fontana with the small (spoiler) and big horsepower and you slide around all day."
What about from a team owner standpoint?
Rick Hendrick won the race on Sunday with William Byron, Rudy Fugle and the No. 24 team, but has notoriously crashed a lot of cars over the years between his victories at Daytona and Talladega. Atlanta is now effectively the equivalent to those two superspeedways.
That means six races are now superspeedways, and Hendrick says that’s enough, and isn’t interested in seeing other intermediate tracks receive the Atlanta treatment.
"No, I vote to cap it," Hendrick said. "With our record at plate races with finishing ... I just -- I think this is enough."
Pole sitter Chase Briscoe had a chance to win on the final laps but pushed Ryan Blaney too hard and crashed both contenders out of the finish. He said it was the most mentally challenging race he has ever experienced, so it was hard, but doesn’t want to do it more than two times at Atlanta per year.
"Things happen so much faster than at Daytona and Talladega," Briscoe said. "At those two tracks, you can see things slowly happen but it’s like 16 times faster here. It was cool, and it was different, but I don’t want to do it at every mile and a half.
"It was interesting, and I’m sure from a fan standpoint, it was exciting. I don’t know what this means for the future of mile and a half racing, and it’s cool for twice a year, but we don’t need to do this to every mile and a half race track."
The most important thing to remember is that Atlanta hadn’t been repaved since 1997 before its reconfiguration. Even if the track had just received a new layer without changing the specs, it would have taken almost a decade for the surface to age and produce the kind of racing that drivers prefer.
That was a point made by AJ Allmendinger on Saturday night after the Xfinity Series race.
"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."
That point was echoed by Byron after the race, too.
"I doubt they're going to change it after the way today was, but, yeah, I think repaves are tricky," Byron said. "You're probably going to have a hard time making the tires last for a couple of years with the pavement and the grip that this place would have if we had low downforce.
"It is what it is, and just learning to adapt as we go and try to be the best we can be at it."
What it was, according to Joey Logano, was Daytona and Talladega.
"It’s a regular superspeedway," Logano said. "We just keep crashing. What did you expect? It’s the same stuff. I guess it’s OK, I don’t know. We survived, but a lot of cars crashed today for sure, just like we would expect. I don’t know, you be the judge if it was entertaining or not. I don’t know. It’s a different type of racing."
All told, after three years of the high downforce, low horsepower package at intermediate tracks across America, Speedway Motorsports finally got its superspeedway race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.