NASCAR Ventures into the Unknown at Atlanta

Atlanta Motor Speedway has been reconfigured to produce Daytona style racing.

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And now for something completely different.

The NASCAR Cup Series will return to Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend for the first of two trips this season but will be greeted by a first of its kind track layout and rules package designed to replicate the type of racing produced by Daytona and Talladega.

The difference, of course, is that Daytona and Talladega are 2.5 miles and 2.66 miles respectively while Atlanta remains 1.54 miles even after a winter reconfiguration.

So, what’s different?

The banking in the corners have been increased from 24 degrees to 28 degrees with the racing surface narrowed from 55 feet to 40 feet. Additionally, the entire track has received a fresh coat of asphalt. The straightaways remain banked at five degrees.

As a result, NASCAR has mandated the Daytona and Talladega rules package for this specific intermediate length track --7-inch spoilers and 510 horsepower. The fresh pavement will provide maximum grip for the new Goodyear Eagle 18-inch speedway radial tires.

A handful of drivers from each NASCAR national touring division tested the new configuration on January 6-7 but Austin Dillon issued what is largely a shared opinion by his peers.

"I have no clue actually on this one," Dillon said. "I’ve watched a couple laps of the test that they had. I’ve heard people talk about ‘we’re going to be wide open; speedway racing on a 1.5-mile track and it’s gripped up’ and we’ll just have to see what it’s really like."

When Speedway Motorsports and NASCAR revealed the reconfiguration last summer, it sparked an intense pushback amongst drivers that their feedback was not being factored into the decision-making process. Steve Swift, the Speedway Motorsports operations director, said the track was designed with fans in mind, not drivers.

"When fans are happy, drivers aren’t," Swift said in July. "When you talk to drivers, you get driver tracks and we’re making a fan's track. We’re taking elements of driver feedback, but we’re ultimately giving the fans what they want to see."

This was part of a larger debate about the intended rules package for the Next Gen car, which was designed to be lower horsepower and high downforce on intermediate tracks, until an emergency industry meeting at the awards banquet in Nashville in December eventually resulted in a downforce reduction and horsepower increase.

It also contributed to the formation of the driver's advisory council.

For much of this century, Atlanta had been viewed as the ultimate driver’s track due to its previous configuration and aged asphalt, which was last paved in 1997.

"Our best races come from places that just have ancient asphalt that tears up tires," Dillon said. "It could be a great race and it could be one of those where you’re just trying to make it through it. I’m assuming that with it being a speedway style race (with increased grip,) there will be some aggressive driving and some blocks made.

"You’ll have the potential to wipe out a bunch of cars. We’ll just see how it works out."

Kevin Harvick?

"I have no idea," Harvick said. "I don't even want to get in the middle of making a comment about that place."

Kyle Busch?

"Atlanta is going to be crazy," Busch said. "It literally got a facelift with a whole new track surface and layout and everything. It’s going to be a different race than what we’ve had there in years past, where you have the old asphalt and really have fast lap times to fire off, and then you have a lot of fall-off where lap times go down throughout the run.

"That led to having some guys come up through the field and others drop through the field, whether or not they are fast early in the run or slow late in the run, or vice versa.

"This time around, it’s going to be more like a Daytona or Talladega speedway race. You are going to see a lot of pack racing with some guys two-wide and maybe three-wide, and we’ll have to see how wide the track gets in the time we have on it."

NASCAR will be enforcing a double yellow line rule like at Daytona and Talladega and with such narrow corners, cars will be packed on top of each other, at least for restarts. From there, it will either become a superspeedway style race or something that more closely resembles intermediate length races from the past three seasons.

A complicating factor is that the track is still quite bumpy, even with the fresh pavement, which could prevent drivers from staying wide open all the way around the track.

Denny Hamlin has long argued that if cars are going to stay wide open on an intermediate track, they’ll probably need closer to 400hp instead of the 510 they will have this weekend. The bumps present another question mark this weekend.

"I think the biggest concern from what I hear from drivers is that even though it was just repaved, it’s got tremendous amount of bumps off of turn two that is not smooth, which you would think you would have with a new paved track," Hamlin said. "I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know if we are going to be drafting. I don’t think we are going to be tight pack racing. It’s not going to be Daytona or Talladega, but are they going to be grouped together, how are you going to build your car, all of those things are going to be a question mark and I have no clue what I’m getting into."

Austin Cindric won the Daytona 500 in February, the most recent superspeedway race, and says he expects a 'hybrid' of Daytona/Talladega and NA18D style racing under the previous intermediate track rules package.

"Honestly, I don't really know," Cindric said. "I think we are preparing in some ways for it to be that way from a racing standpoint but from a car standpoint and necessity for grip, I think you still need to have driveability and practice being able to handle and be able to stay close to guys.

"I think that is one thing I have got on the top of my head: You are going to have drafting situations but if I am too tight to stay tucked up to somebody then that becomes difficult. Also, tire-wise it is a lot different than what we ran at Daytona and a lot different than what we will run at Talladega just from a stagger perspective.

"I am interested to see how that re-balances and races. I haven’t driven a lap on the race track and we will have practice. There is a lot of different talk about racing procedures and what it will look like. I think as an industry we need to be open-minded throughout the weekend."

Open-mindedness is the key for the entire season, and it was a word used by Harvick later in his media session last weekend.

As a whole, Atlanta is just another change is a season already full of them between the new car, a race inside a football stadium to open the season and this experiment at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"As a driver, there was nothing better than the Atlanta Motor Speedway and its old asphalt," Harvick said. “Now it’s a new racetrack, and it’s obviously going to be different. But a lot of things this year are different, so it fits right into the theme. …

"There are just so many challenges in the beginning of the year with new racetracks and new cars and logistics and you just have to be very open-minded. You have to take it one step at a time and not get too frustrated with everything that’s going to be going on."

Cup Series practice for the new track runs from 5-6 ET on Friday. Qualifying is scheduled for Saturday at 12:30 ET. The Xfinity Series and Truck Series will also race at Atlanta on Saturday using the rules package from Daytona.

Busch says he will be monitoring closely.

"Really paying attention and watching some of the Truck Series and Xfinity Series racing earlier in the weekend," Busch said. "It’s going to be helpful to see what we’ll have for Sunday."

Cole Custer won an NA18D race at Kentucky in 2020 but add him to the list of drivers who just doesn't have enough conviction to make any predictions before getting on the track.

"It’s going to be interesting," Custer said. "These cars are on edge so going to those high-speed mile-and-a-halves it’s going be interesting to see which guys are pushing it more than others and which crew chiefs and teams are pushing it more than others in the setup.

"It’s definitely going to be interesting because it’s a new week. Every single week you don’t know what to expect, so it’s going to be a very interesting few weeks to see how these cars handle on these mile-and-a-halves."