NASCAR makes its first return trip to a racetrack this season with a 400-mile reprise of Atlanta’s springtime thriller
With the midway point of the 2022 season now crossed, the time has come for several of NASCAR’s core racetracks to host their second Cup Series race of the year. First up is the Atlanta Motor Speedway, a track which has now taken on an extra element of importance in the race to the playoffs.
The NASCAR Cup Series heads back to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Quaker State 400, the track’s second race of the season after the debut of its newly repaved and re-profiled configuration in March. In its first race in the springtime, the “new” Atlanta delivered a race unlike any other in the speedway’s history, with William Byron taking the checkered flag in a race that saw cars run in packs and a season-high 46 lead changes.
Atlanta’s spring race was a truly wide-open affair, and the expectation is that this weekend’s race will be as well — which could end up creating another surprise winner to even further alter the playoff grid.
How to Watch the NASCAR Cup Series at Atlanta
Date: Sunday, July 10
Location: Atlanta Motor Speedway — Hampton, Ga.
Time: 3 p.m. ET
TV: USA Network
Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
What to Watch
- Between its constant lead changes and the drivers who contended for the win, the spring race at Atlanta was as dynamic and unpredictable a race as any this season. And based on what transpired over the course of that race’s 500 miles, several drivers are likely viewing this weekend as one of their best remaining chances to win a race and make the playoffs.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led 22 laps and looked to have a car capable of winning when he blew a tire and crashed out of the lead on Lap 201. Bubba Wallace ran second in the final laps, and was ready to make his move for the lead and the win when his plans were suddenly shattered by the advance of Ross Chastain and the outside lane breaking apart. At the checkered flag, Corey LaJoie came home a career-best fifth.
As things stand in points, Stenhouse, Wallace, LaJoie and more likely face must-win scenarios in order to make the playoffs. But as much attention they should garner, even more should be paid to the drivers on the playoff bubble: Christopher Bell, currently the last driver in the playoffs on points, led 16 laps and crossed the finish line second before NASCAR ruled that he made an out-of-bounds pass on the final lap. Kevin Harvick, who trails Bell by 20 points, led 11 laps before being caught up in a crash.
As the track is now, Atlanta presents arguably the biggest wild card in the summer months before the regular season finale at Daytona. And though Tyler Reddick’s victory last week at Road America presented an upset to the playoff grid, that win could pale in comparison to the impact that Atlanta could have on who races for the championship this fall.
- This all assumes that Atlanta is the exact same racetrack everyone raced on in March. But it’s less than certain whether it actually is.
When the Cup Series raced at Atlanta in March, the track’s asphalt was completely new and freshly repaved, and temperatures were warm and pleasant for the start of springtime. Now, the track has had a few months to sit in the elements, and it has spent the past several weeks baking in the southeastern summer heat — heat that will continue into this weekend, and heat that means a slick and greasy racing surface where grip is in much less supply.
Speaking several weeks ago at Nashville, Denny Hamlin hinted that a few months of age to Atlanta’s surface and much hotter temperatures could make for a different race with more emphasis on handling.
“That track ages so fast because of the heat. I’m wondering will we see that type of racing again at Atlanta,” Hamlin said. “It was 80 percent superspeedway racing and 20 percent intermediate racing. Will that number change to 50/50? Because as a track wears, you’re not able to stay as close to your competition because of the aerodynamics of the cars.
“I think that I’m more nervous to see how much does that track age and how much more grip do we need to build into our cars for that track being significantly hotter and a little bit more worn.”
Handling becoming a factor again at Atlanta would be welcome for drivers, many of whom loved the track’s old surface that allowed drivers to find grip from the very bottom to the very top after more than 20 years of wear.
- While it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a surprise winner this weekend, what shouldn’t be expected is a first-time winner. The reason for that is simple: The Cup Series is literally running out of drivers looking for their first-ever win.
Since the start of the 2021 season, eight drivers — including a record-tying five this season — have scored their first career win. And of the 36 drivers entered in Sunday’s race, 27 have at least one Cup Series win in their careers. That leaves just nine drivers in the field who have yet to win — most of whom have never sniffed Victory Lane at NASCAR’s highest level.
Ty Dillon is the most experienced of those still-winless drivers with 184 career starts, and he is arguably in the best possible situation to win driving for Petty GMS. Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland are both Cup rookies, and both are still developing despite winning pedigrees in the Xfinity and Truck Series. Corey LaJoie finished fifth here in the spring, but he and his team have not consistently run well this year or really even have the means to — a problem shared by teammate Josh Bilicki, Rick Ware Racing drivers Garrett Smithley and Cody Ware, and driver/owner B.J. McLeod.
If there’s any driver in the field this weekend who could get their first win, though, it might just be Noah Gragson. Set to make his seventh start of the year for Kaulig Racing, Gragson is in a car that is capable of mixing it up, and his driving abilities and aggressive streak from the Xfinity Series alike suggest that he won’t back down if the opportunity presents itself. However, Gragson didn’t fare well in the spring race at Atlanta, completing only 23 laps before a hard crash in Turn 2 ended his day.
For what it’s worth, a sixth first-time winner would break the modern era record for first-time winners in a single season, which was first set in 2001 and later met in both 2002 and 2011.
Pick to Win
(Odds via Caesars Sportsbook)
Ryan Blaney (+1000): While he’s shown to be a well-rounded driver most everywhere, Ryan Blaney has a very nice feel for races that involve drafting and a superspeedway skillset. In March, that was on display as Blaney led 15 laps and looked resolved to push Bubba Wallace to the lead before the final two laps foiled his plans.
The highest driver in points of those yet to win a points-paying race, Blaney is arguably due to win, and he already has an Atlanta victory in his hip pocket from March 2021. Given his feel for drafting and his propensity to find the front when it matters most, this feels like one of Blaney’s best opportunities to get in the winner’s circle and solidify his playoff spot for good.