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Pennell’s Points: Tempering Atlanta Reactions, Busch Back In Business and Points Pressure Already

Jay Pennell asks if Sunday's race in Atlanta was really the best in NASCAR history, looks at Kyle Busch's strong start to 2024, and wonders if some drivers are already in danger when it comes to the point standings.

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Great Racing, But the Best?

There is little debate that Sunday’s Ambetter 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway was a thrilling race that brought people to their feet in the stands, caused goosebumps for those on pit road, and had millions more glued to their TVs and radios lap after lap.

The four-wide racing at the front of the field, the varying strategies, the mistakes and ill-timed pushes that led to massive wrecks, drivers fighting for grip and battling ill-handling cars, three-wide finish for the win leading to the third-closest finish in NASCAR history (0.003 seconds), this race seemed to have it all.

Instant classics conjure up lots of emotions and feelings, but let’s temper the hyperbole and keep in mind the changes made to the configuration of Atlanta were done to produce the exact type of racing we saw on display on Sunday afternoon.

RELATED: Daniel Suarez Scores Atlanta Victory in Unreal Three-Wide Photo Finish

The drafting rules package for the Next Gen car creates the tight packing racing and allows for the huge runs we see generated from mid-pack to storm to the front. The wide track and the high banks provide the room for the three- and four-wide racing through the corners and tri-oval.

There is no doubt, Sunday’s race was a great race, but there needs to be some caveats added to that term, most of all being that this product was the direct result of changes and rules implemented for this car and track

Does that make it the best race in NASCAR history, as Toby Christie argued earlier this week in Toby’s Take? I would argue that although it was a great race, it was not the best ever.

RELATED: Toby's Take: Sunday's Race at Atlanta Was the Greatest NASCAR Race Ever

While Toby was at the track and I was watching from home, and the in-person atmosphere and reaction to witnessing something live in real time certainly adds another element, there are just too many other outside factors that play into what we saw on display.

According to The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck’s weekly ‘good race’ poll on social media, 94.8% of the nearly 50,000 people that voted said Sunday’s race was a good race.

In a separate poll, Gluck asked fans to weigh in on what they thought was the best finish in NASCAR history, of the options fans could choose from 2003 Darlington (Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven side-by-side), 2007 Daytona 500 (Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin side-by-side as the field crashes behind them), 2012 Watkins Glen (the epic battle between Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose), or Sunday’s race in Atlanta. Sunday’s finish won over 2003 Darlington by a margin of 41.6% to 35.6%.

There is one slight problem with the poll and all of the excitement to call Sunday’s race the best ever in NASCAR. We’re ignoring many of the stories and lessons taught last year while celebrating NASCAR’s 75-year history of the sport. Missing from Gluck’s poll (and many of these conversations this week) was any race prior to 2003.

That ignores the epic, crashing finish between David Pearson and Richard Petty as they came off Turn 4 in the 1976 Daytona 500, with Pearson creeping across the line in a steaming pile of wrecking as the Petty team runs out to push their wounded car.

RELATED: (VIDEO) Post-Race Interviews: NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta

This also ignores the 1979 Daytona that literally brought NASCAR to the attention of millions, with Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough throwing haymakers at each other down the backstretch on the final lap, only to crash together and fight in the grass for everyone watching at home.

It also forgets the iconic final lap in the 1992 Winston All-Star Race, in which Dale Earnhardt blocked Kyle Petty’s charge to the lead down the Charlotte Motor Speedway backstretch, only the lose the rear of the car in the final corners, allowing Petty by and Davey Allison to slip underneath for the win, which resulted in a shower of sparks and an ambulance trip to the hospital for Allison.

And that’s just finishes, not mentioned at all are the 1992 Hooters 500, often cited as the greatest race in NASCAR history. Prior to the invention of the Chase or the Playoffs, six drivers entered the final race of the season with a mathematical shot at the championship. As the day went on, one-by-one they fell to the wayside until it came down to Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki. Elliott was in control of the race, but the cunning strategy of Kulwicki allowed him to lead one more lap than Elliott to secure the bonus points for the most laps led. At the end of the day, Elliott won the race but that extra lap led allowed Kulwicki to win the championship by 10 points, the smallest margin at that point.

So, while I’ll agree with the crowd that Sunday’s race was a classic, let’s temper the comments, look at how and why we saw the type of racing that was on display, and remember our history as much as possible.

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Busch Back in Business

One thing that I think everyone can agree on is that there certainly does not appear to be a sophomore slump for the Kyle Busch and Richard Childress Racing partnership so far in 2024

Coming out of the gate really strong in 2023, the second season for Busch at RCR is off to another great start in 2024. Although only two official and one exhibition event under his belt so far this year, Busch has consistently been a factor at the front of the field and in contention for the win.

In the record books, Busch will be listed with a third-place finish in Sunday’s race at Atlanta, but in reality he was 0.007 seconds from victory. He has an average finish of 7.5 through the first two events, leads the overall point standings, and is headed to his home track Las Vegas Motor Speedway for this weekend’s race.

In his first season with RCR, the Las Vegas native recorded a 14th-place finish in the Spring Vegas race, while he was third in the Playoff race at the 1.5-mile track. With a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series win already under his belt this year, expect Rowdy to keep those winning ways going, potentially as early as this weekend.

Points Pressure Already

Only two races into the 2024 season, surely we can’t be concerned about points at this point are we? You better believe it.

Of the drivers that were Playoff contenders in 2023, only three drivers (Bubba Wallace, William Byron and Tyler Reddick) were outside the top 25 in points after the first two races. The 2023 season did not start off with back-to-back drafting style tracks, but the holes dug in the first two races by these drivers and teams are still the same.

Looking at those drivers currently outside the top 25, there are certainly some big names that ought to be concerned.

Todd Gilliland having a breakout season at Front Row Motorsports, and as Joseph Srigley pointed out, is leading the series in laps led. However, the sophomore driver’s best finish is 26th and he is mired 30th in driver points.

RELATED: #SrigleyStats: Front Row Motorsports Begins New Era of Ford Support with Record-Breaking Weekend at Atlanta

Defending series champions Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are also stuck deep in the point standings, ranking 31st and 34th, respectively. After two weekends of wrecked race cars, Austin Dillon sits in 33rd. Ryan Preece and Noah Gragson were each just hit with 35-point penalties, making their Playoff hopes at this point a must-win situation.

While the season may be in its infant stage, watching the point standings from the very get-go is crucial, and these teams and drivers certainly have a hole they need to start climbing out of starting this weekend in Las Vegas.

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Ready for the Real Season

The first three events of the season featured very unique styles of racing with the Clash at the LA Coliseum, the Daytona 500, and the drafting we saw at Atlanta last weekend.

Las Vegas kicks off a long stretch or regular season races that will truly test the teams and their preparation, no longer is the draft able to disguise or hide any flaws so preparation and hard work will show up and the mistakes will be amplified.

This is the meat-and-potatoes of the NASCAR schedule, with trips to non-drafting 1.5-mile tracks, short tracks, intermediates, and a road course before the next drafting track coming up on April 21 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Those teams that have prepared the best and can keep that momentum going will begin to shine, with the cream rising to the top. By the time the series hits the high banks of Talladega in April, we should have a much better understanding of who the real players are this season in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Great Weekend of Short Track Action

While the focus of this column is primarily to cover NASCAR related topics each week, there are two great live events coming up this weekend on RacingAmerica.tv that should have people tuning in.

The 60th Annual Alabama 200 'Hunt for the Bear' at Montgomery Motor Speedway will take place on Saturday, March 2, with streaming beginning at 7:00 PM ET. This historic event will see 30 entries compete in the 200-lap Pro Late Model event, considered one of the biggest in the Southeast.

RELATED: Two Big Races This Weekend on RacingAmerica.TV

Additionally, RacingAmerica.tv will have coverage of the Children's Dream Fund 50 at Citrus County Speedway, also on Saturday, March 2, starting at 6:00 PM ET. This event kicks off the Must See Sprint Racing Series season and is co-sanctioned by the Southern Sprint Car Shootout Series.

Both events are available exclusively to Racing America subscribers. Not a subscriber? Sign up today!

Feature image courtesy Alex Slitz/Getty Images

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