NASCAR expects fireworks from rules debuting at Atlanta
HAMPTON, Ga. — NASCAR was long overdue for an added punch to its racing product and eagerly awaits the results from a new competition package designed to increase the entertainment factor for the troubled series.
The new rules debut Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where the prevailing opinion is that the bumpin’-and-bangin’ and rubbin’-is-racin’ lore of NASCAR will return.
“This is going to cause probably more wrecks and more tempers are going to fly and more drama is going to be there,” said reigning NASCAR champion Joey Logano.
NASCAR for 2019 will use a package created to deliberately slow cars and keep them closer together. It isn’t intended to be the “pack racing” beloved by fans at Daytona and Talladega, but drivers so far anticipate that will be the effect.
Packs usually lead to crashes, which typically create conflict and the headlines NASCAR needs. The series is coming off a season in which three drivers combined to win 20 of 36 races — results that did nothing to stop NASCAR’s slide in attendance and television ratings.
NASCAR’s solution was overhauling the competition package in a way that, if it works, should close the gap between the top teams and the underdogs while spicing up the action.
“I think everybody is going to be in attack mode in a lot of ways,” said Georgia native Chase Elliott. “How that translates into the race and how aggressive people get? I mean there is only so much space on the track, right? At some point, somebody is going to have to draw the line as to what is smart and what is not.”
The package was not used in last week’s seasonopening Daytona 500, a crash-fest won in overtime by Denny Hamlin. Atlanta — where Aric Almirola is the pole-sitter — is not expected to be a true indicator of how the racing will look this season, though, in part because the fast and bumpy track has the oldest racing surface in the series. The track was last paved in 1997 and the abrasive asphalt eats tires and limits passing opportunities.
NASCAR knows a better indicator of what to expect will come from next week’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, followed by a completely different look in Week 4 when the series visits ISM Raceway in Phoenix, a 1-mile low-banked tri-oval that is nothing like the 1.5-mile Atlanta and Las Vegas speedways.
“I think you will see about 50 percent of the realized potential of this new package at Atlanta,” said David Ragan. “The track surface is worn out and the tire combination Goodyear brings here puts down a lot of rubber and loses grip through a run at a faster rate than any track we go to. You will eventually get spread out and it will look like a traditional Atlanta race.
“If you just woke up from a 12-month sleep from last year, you really wouldn’t notice a difference. We will see [a difference] at Las Vegas.”
NASCAR’s second and final practice session, Saturday in a steady mist, got off to a bumpy start when Brad Keselowski couldn’t make it to his car because of illness. Team Penske had Xfinity Series driver Austin Cindric start practice for Keselowski, but Keselowski eventually got in the car and ran two stints. He was met at the Penske hauler by a medical crew that drove Keselowski to the care center, and crew chief Paul Wolfe said the driver “isn’t doing too good.”
He’s expected to at minimum start Sunday’s race, but his status remained uncertain.
Kyle Busch quickly posted the fastest lap of all Toyota drivers but then hit the wall and had to go to the garage with damage that sidelined him the remainder of the session. Erik Jones, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, later headed to the garage with a power steering issue.
Clint Bowyer was the fastest Ford driver, Austin Dillon the fastest Chevrolet and, in a surprise, Michael McDowell and Corey LaJoie rounded out the top five of Saturday’s final session. McDowell irked Logano last week when he didn’t push Logano on the closing laps at Daytona, then argued he has no obligation to help Logano win races.
LaJoie was a headliner at Daytona because of the paint scheme on his car, which was his entire face as Old Spice pushed its dry shampoo. The exposure was strong enough that Old Spice returned to sponsor LaJoie at Atlanta.
“If you just woke up from a 12-month sleep from last year, you really wouldn’t notice a difference. We will see [a difference] at Las Vegas.” David Ragan
Atlanta pole-winner Aric Almirola, left, talks with teammate Kevin Harvick, the race’s defending champion, during practice for Sunday’s race.