Track Talk: A Preview of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 At Atlanta

Following a two week kickoff for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Daytona International Speedway, the tour has shifted its focus to Hampton, GA’s Atlanta Motor Speedway.  A NASCAR staple since 1960, the track was originally a pure oval similar to Homestead-Miami Speedway’s current configuration before going through a reconfiguration into a quad-oval in 1997.

Measuring at 1.54 miles in length, its five degree straightaways are accompanied by corners banked at 24 degrees.  Based on those figures, it sounds like its sister venues at Charlotte and Texas but that’s about where the similarities end.  The track surface was last repaved during its refit 19 years ago meaning that it’s one of the bumpiest and abrasive asphalt arenas that the circuit visits all season long.

On top of that, the Cup drivers and teams are in their first regular season race with the new low downforce package. In layman terms, the rear spoiler is shorter by 2.5 inches (6 to 3.5 inches), the splitter overhang is shorter (2” to 0.25”) and the radiator pan has shrank from 38” wide in 2015 to 33” wide this season.  Basically, NASCAR made these changes to bring the driver back into the equation with handling those cars.

Today’s Folds of Honor Quiktrip 500 (Live on FOX at 1 PM ET, 10 AM PT) at the Atlanta Motor Speedway will be a true test of what a majority of the non-restrictor plate races are like for the Cup competitors.  The hopes are that the successful stints for this package at the races at Kentucky and Darlington last year are duplicated at most of the race tracks this year.  Goodyear has also stepped up its efforts with the new package by designing tires that are more compatible for this configuration and hopefully aid in improving the races on a more consistent basis.

While it would be somewhat foolhardy to expect today’s race to showcase this package at its fullest, it will at least be a good starting point for the drivers and teams as they gain more experience and data throughout 2016.  Might this package benefit some while hurting others in the early going?  Those questions may be answered as early as this afternoon, particularly for the juggernaut teams of Hendrick, Gibbs, Penske, Roush, and Childress.

The TPF Track Talk team of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley Hull, Cody Shoppe, Jessica Tow, Kathleen Cassidy, Katie Copple, Sean Fesko and Stephen Conley are just about ready to share their thoughts on today’s race as well as the four major stories that led up to this weekend.  We’ll have more of our thoughts on Stewart-Haas’ switch from Chevrolet to Ford for the 2017 season in next weekend’s edition of Track Talk.  For now, let’s get to it and talk racing now!

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Question 1
Fortune favored the bold aka Denny Hamlin last Sunday.

Fortune favored the bold aka Denny Hamlin last Sunday.

Denny Hamlin scored his first Daytona 500 win by working the outside lane on the last lap from the fourth spot and making a bold maneuver past teammate and leader Matt Kenseth on the final corner.  Was that drive to the win a sign of things to come for the No. 11 FedEx Toyota team in 2016?

Hull :  I think that this team, especially with the paring of Denny Hamlin and Mike Wheeler will be the ones to watch this year. They seem like they have really clicked. Not only did he win the 500, but he also made a statement by winning the Sprint Unlimited. I think that this will give Denny the drive he needs to succeed.

This is the most pumped and excited I have ever seen him as well. Also, he is with a powerhouse team that has proven to be also in championship form, with three of its four drivers placing a top-five finish this weekend. We will see great things from Hamlin and the other Gibbs drivers this year for sure.

Hobbs :  I think it is a combination of both. Hamlin has been in this sport for long enough to know his Daytona 500 victory was coming, and long enough to know that his chances of a championship are not getting any better. I think good things are on the horizon for the entire Joe Gibbs Racing group. Hamlin knew what he had to do in order to have a shot at the Daytona 500, and teammates at that point is mute. The season really begins at Atlanta; let’s see if he can keep up the momentum and improve his numbers.

Shoppe :  Denny Hamlin certainly did a fantastic job in Daytona. Making those moves to win on the last lap were some of the best i’ve seen from Hamlin. I do believe that this only just the beginning of success this season for the No. 11 FedEx team. Since they are basically locked into the chase in 2016, they can spent the whole rest of the regular season just having fun trying to go win every week! The pressure is already off for the JGR No. 11 team so I expect to see Hamlin returning to victory lane often this year.

Conley :  The move he made on the final lap was certainly a muscle flexing move, but he needs to send Harvick a Christmas card. The shot he received from the No. 4 car is without question a major contributor to that win. With that said, there are some stout ponys under that hood. No one could really stay on the No. 11’s bumper all day no matter the line he ran, plus look at the final stretch from turn four to the line.

After the bump from Harvick, Hamlin flat out pulled away. Hamlin was the only one that could pull separation. He was a full car length in front of Harvick while Truex had the 18 locked on his bumper yet Hamlin was able to continue to just push past. The 11 is strong and no question JGR has their sights set on a 2nd straight Cup.

Copple :  Yes and no. It is Daytona, so anything can happen but also, that was one heck of a move to the front. The No. 11 team has been hit and miss in recent years, showing many strong races but some disappointing ones as well. Let’s see what Denny Hamlin does at Atlanta and Las Vegas before we determine how we think his season is going to go. But if he continues on this winning path…

Cassidy :  Winning the Daytona 500 is huge momentum for a team. This pride stays with the driver and crew for the whole year, maybe even longer. From this, we could see the 11 team having the motivation to do well this season.

Tow :  Absolutely! The No. 11 team, moreover Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole, has proved that they are all a force to be reckoned with in 2016. Denny Hamlin had a magnificent Speedweeks, capturing wins in both the Sprint Unlimited AND the illustrious Daytona 500. Between that and the dominant showing from all of his teammates, I have no doubt that this is all a sign of greater things to come for Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team.

Fesko :  Absolutely. Mark my words: Denny Hamlin will be a strong threat for the 2016 Sprint Cup title. Joe Gibbs Racing has this low-downforce package figured out – remember they swept both 2015 races run with the package – and Hamlin is as clutch as ever despite off-season knee surgery. He had a similar surgery to resolve a similar injury during the 2010 season and still won seven races following the procedure. He finished second in the title hunt after a questionable pit call at Phoenix and an early spin at Homestead-Miami, which only serves as fuel to the fire to win it all in 2016.

Question 2
Might today be a more telling sign for Hendrick Motorsports' outlook in 2016?

Might today be a more telling sign for Hendrick Motorsports’ outlook in 2016?

While Joe Gibbs Racing had a tremendous day in the Daytona 500, Hendrick Motorsports did not come home with strong finishes in the “Great American Race.” Which of their four teams do you see having a strong weekend at Atlanta and which one do you see struggling for a second straight race?

Hull :  Obviously, I think that Jimmie Johnson will have a great weekend at Atlanta, This is HIS track. With an average finish of second in the past two races at this track, he will most definitely be the one to watch, and why he will most likely be my pick to win the race this weekend. He is also the defending winner of this race. So hopefully, the statistics do not lie for Jimmie and that he has a strong weekend.

As for the one that will probably struggle again this weekend, it’s really hard to tell, because with the exception of Chase Elliott, the other two Hendrick drivers (Dale Jr. and Kasey Kahne) have an average finish of seventh. I am really unsure about how Chase will run at this track. I think that last week for him was just part of Daytona racing and isn’t indicative of how he will do the rest of the season. So at this point, it will just have to be a wait and see kind of thing in my opinion.

Hobbs :  Is this really a question? It is clearly Jimmie Johnson! He is dominate at Atlanta; with Dale Earnhardt Jr. right behind him. Kasey Kahne is not too bad at the fast, slick track either, so in general, HMS should pick up steam. It is also a great chance for Chase Elliott to rebound. Who knows how well he could have done in all honesty if the splitter/grass combination was not a factor on Sunday.

Shoppe :  Kasey Kahne was the best finishing of the four Hendrick Motorsports team in the Daytona 500 with a 13th place finish. I expect this weekend at Atlanta will be the start of a resurgent year that the No. 5 team needs to have. Atlanta is the site of Kasey’s last Sprint Cup victory as well as one of his best tracks!

Conley :  I’m not so sure any of the Hendrick cars will be very strong at Atlanta. We saw two cars  break lose all on their own and complain all race long of being incredibly loose. More so than any other teams. Last year at Kentucky with this aeropackage, HMS struggled. Jeff Gordon was tops for Hendrick in that race and Jimmie Johnson didn’t lead a single lap finishing 10th. I’d expect the 48 have the best run of the four and the hits will unfortunately keep on coming for young Chase Elliott. This package is nothing like what he ran in the XFINITY Series and you can expect a big learning curve.

Copple :  Jimmie Johnson had a great race for the most part at Daytona. He had a great save and even led a handful of laps. The same thing can be said for Dale Jr. In my opinion, we should NEVER count Hendrick Motorsports out but they are going to struggle as an organization this season. With newcomer Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne, who has been struggling as of late, it could be a rough year for at least half of them. Going in to Atlanta, it’ll be interesting to see how Elliott handles the track. He will be the one to watch this weekend and really all season.

Cassidy :  I believe that Jimmie Johnson will be the best chance for Hendrick Motorsports to win at Atlanta. The 48 crew has had a lot of success at this track over the years. Jimmie has wins, followed by many strong finishes at this 1.5 mile track. However, I feel like Kasey Kahne will continue to struggle this Sunday. Besides a few strong finishes at Atlanta, Kasey and the 5 crew often had bad luck at this track.

Tow :  Looking at prior stats, Jimmie Johnson has the greatest chance to secure a strong performance this weekend at Atlanta. However, this is rookie Chase Elliott’s home track so I will have him high on my radar as well. Both Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kasey Kahne may struggle this week but it should not go unnoted that Kahne has won this race once in the past while Junior only has a couple of Top-10 finishes.

Fesko :  If there’s any track that Hendrick is excited for, it’s Atlanta. The team has won three of the last seven races there including the previous two with Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne. It’s Chase Elliott’s home track and one of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s best tracks – he’s finished in the top 10 nearly 50 percent of the time.

That being said, Atlanta is going to be a strong race for Johnson and Earnhardt. They finished first and third here last year and both have the confidence to put Daytona behind them and focus on the race at hand. Nothing against Elliott and Kahne, but I’m reserving judgment on the rookie until he gets a couple more Cup races under his belt. Kahne could surprise me since he’s won here before, but he seems to lack the spark that set him apart on the 1.5-mile tracks.

Question 3
At one point, Jeff Gordon got Tony Stewart on the phone line during last Sunday's Daytona 500.

At one point, Jeff Gordon got Tony Stewart on the phone line during last Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Last Sunday’s Daytona 500 was the first NASCAR Sprint Cup race without Jeff Gordon in the field since the Phoenix race in 1992.  It was also the first Cup race without Tony Stewart in the field since the ’98 season finale.  Both are irreplaceable icons but which racers in today’s field, in your opinion, have the potential of being a superstar or catalyst of the next era of Cup racing?

Hull :  This again is a hard question because there is so much talent out there in NASCAR today. I would say that among the veterans in the sport, it would most definitely be Jimmie Johnson, obviously. The man has won six championships and could potentially win another one before retiring. Also, there’s Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, since they all have championships. The drivers without championships such as Carl Edwards and Dale Jr. are at superstar status as well.

Among the rookies, I believe both Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney have what it takes to become superstars. Both have good racing genes (Hello Bill Elliott and Dave Blaney). Chase has won a XFINITY Championship. Ryan has proven that he can hang with the big boys, running in the top-ten for most of last week’s race. I think that there will be so many good things coming from these two young drivers. They will be superstars one day. Also, don’t forget about Kyle Larson. Despite his rough year last year, he will be a force to be reckoned with in the future.

Hobbs :  Well, we currently have superstars still out there in Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, and Kyle Busch just to name a few. The veteran drivers left might be breathing a sigh of (small) relief knowing two of the best competitors are now off track and they might be able to improve their game a little bit. I also bet many veterans are hoping for Jimmie Johnson to retire soon as well so they can improve even more!

Jumping ship to the young crowd that has been coming in, I still believe Kyle Larson still has what it takes to make a lot of noise in the sport. He has been pretty quiet since he came into Cup, but not everyone can start off on a high and stay there; some take time to build up. Also, we clearly have to look at the rookie class we have now; all four of those drivers are clearly great talents and can bring a lot of this sport. They are all young and quite experienced in NASCAR, and they are now racing the drivers they have looked up to since they were babies. While they have a lot to learn in the Cup series, they also have a lot of education under their belts.

Shoppe :  It sure was weird to see a Daytona 500 without Jeff and Tony! First time for myself. This is a changing of the guard time in Cup right now with some of the more dominant drivers in this era hanging up their helmets. The future for the Sprint Cup Series (or whatever it’ll be called in the future) is very bright. Young guns like Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, and Chase Elliott will serve as the next era’s superstars!

Conley :  You have to go right to Jeff’s replacement in this with Chase Elliott. He has a huge learning curve, but we’ve seen him overcome and adapt quickly. Ryan Blaney has talent that most drivers only dream of and he will finally get to put that in to play and now going full time racing we should see a strong future.

Chris Buescher is a quick up and comer and coming off a championship in XFINITY so no one should be surprised to see him run well, even with the smaller Front Row team. We’ve also got a lot of young talent in the XFINITY and Truck series like Ryan Reed, Ryan Preece, Daniel Suarez is here for the long run and of course the incredible talent of Erik Jones. The sport is good hands with a lot of young talent.

Copple :  Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, simply put. This might be the most competitive rookie season yet. These two will be dominate drivers in the Sprint Cup Series in the years to come. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for these two young guns.

Cassidy :  When looking at the young guns coming up in the sport, I feel like Ryan Blaney is currently being overlooked. Blaney has proven to have a huge amount of potential driving in any NASCAR series. He has shown that he has the ability to win races, at many different style of tracks. With the takeover of the 24, Chase Elliott, is on the radar for most people to win rookie of the year. However, I would not underestimate what the season holds for the uncharted 21 team.

Tow :  Joey Logano and Kyle Busch are the two drivers who I foresee as the forthcoming superstars in the next era of our sport. Both of these men have proven themselves as top contenders, particularly over the last couple of seasons.

Looking ahead even further I predict that Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney (two members of this year’s rookie class), will etch themselves storied careers worthy of superstar greatness in years ahead. Both Logano and Kyle Busch are proof that success is inevitable as they reach the peak of their careers through experience that has been gained throughout and since their respective rookie seasons.

Fesko :  Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Erik Jones are the future of the sport. Throw Joey Logano in there, too, because he’s so young. All four have the ability to do great things – Logano already has. Larson is the modern-day Tony Stewart and can keep the grassroots fans interested. Elliott is the sport’s tie to the past, and Jones is perhaps the best pure talent to come along since Gordon in the early 1990s. They’ll all play a large role in the Cup series over the next two decades.

Question 4
It might be one of the most discussed asphalt surfaces in the racing world.

It might be one of the most discussed asphalt surfaces in the racing world.

Atlanta’s older track surface has presented a unique challenge to the Cup field in that it’s slick and abrasive.  With the “new” low downforce aero package making its 2016 debut, is this going to make this particular race weekend even more difficult for everyone despite the notes and data acquired from the races at Kentucky and Darlington last season?

Hull :  Yes, I do believe that these types of conditions are going to be a handful for most drivers. But also a lot of these drivers such as Carl Edwards (who won with the low downforce package at Darlington last year, and placed a stellar 4th at Kentucky), will absolutely love these conditions. As Carl has stated, racing is supposed to be hard. In fact, most if not all of the drivers praised the no downforce package, saying it made it more fun. This will also be more excitable for the fans as well. While they will have a challenge on their hands, this will be like racing was in the 90’s, fun and exciting!

Hobbs :  Kentucky and Darlington are not even on the same page as Atlanta. Atlanta is a hot, slick, extremely fast track. While you can make assumptions based off of those two “test sessions”, only the race will be able to tell. Smart crew chiefs, like Chad Knaus, probably have an extremely good idea of what will come. These crew chiefs are very mathematically and engineering inclined and can figure things out, but they can never account for the unknowns that is NASCAR.

Shoppe :  This weekend’s race in Atlanta will be very difficult for these teams. Even without this new low downforce package, Atlanta is slick and slippery. The drivers with the best car control will surly separate themselves from the rest this Sunday!

Conley :  I think if you look back at who ran well at Kentucky, those are the same drivers you can expect to be up front this week. Kyle Busch won there last year and with the way JGR wrapped up last season and started this year. Kyle Busch should be the odds on favorite to take this weekend as well. As with Kentucky last year, don’t be surprised if JGR has four of the top in the Folds Of Honor Quick Trip 500 at Atlanta.

Copple :  This is going to be a great race to see which teams and drivers are going to succeed this season and which are going to struggle. Coming off a high like Daytona and then adding in a track like Atlanta, this weekend will be full of entertainment, stress and who knows what else.

Cassidy :  I believe that teams will be faced with a bit of challenge when facing the new low downforce package at Atlanta. Each track has its own unique features, which is part of why racing is so much fun for our sport. Drivers and crew chiefs will be able to take what they learned from Kentucky and Darlington in 2015, and apply these points to old Atlanta notes. As a result, this would could be the best bet for teams to have some idea of how this new aero package will take on this mile and a half.

Fesko :  No, because Kentucky and Darlington aren’t walk-in-the-park tracks themselves. If the new package had only been tested at, say Charlotte or Kansas, then teams would definitely be thrown for a loop this weekend. Kentucky had the second-toughest track conditions in NASCAR after Atlanta up until its repave this year, so teams should be well-equipped to conquer the slick and abrasive surface. Look for dirt-track standouts to run well here.

Nice work, team!  It sounds like we’re about ready to get down to business in terms of sharing our race picks but before we do so, let’s look at the TPF Track Talk Cup points standings after round 1 of 36!
1) Rob Tiongson – 45 points (1 win)
2) Ashley Hull – 45 points (1 win)
3) Katie Copple – 39 points
4) Stephen Conley – 33 points
5) Jessica Tow – 6 points
6) Ashley Hobbs – 6 points
7) Cody Shoppe – 6 points
8) Kathleen Cassidy – 6 points
9) Kerstin Smutny – 6 points
10) Sean Fesko – 0 points (first race: Atlanta)
It’s a case of two stories where Hull and yours truly correctly predicted that Denny Hamlin would win the Daytona 500, thus beginning the year with maximum race points.  Copple and Conley’s choices of Kyle Busch and Regan Smith netted them solid points over Tow, defending TPF Track Talk Cup champion Hobbs, Shoppe, Cassidy, and Smutny, whose pick of Dale Earnhardt Jr was looking solid until a late race accident.  Fesko joins TPF’s Track Talk panel as an “open panelist” as he writes for Frontstretch but will join us to contribute to our weekly Cup preview piece!
Winning Daytona doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all good in the hood for the points leaders as a race pick who had a poor result in today’s race easily changes the complexion of these standings heading into Race 3 at Las Vegas.  That said, let’s show the race fans who we’re picking to win today’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway!
One of these four might net a panelist some major points thanks to today's race at Atlanta!

One of these four might net a panelist some major points thanks to today’s race at Atlanta!

Tiongson :  Like last weekend’s Daytona 500, I’ve chosen my race pick on a hunch rather than numbers.  Sorry Hobbs, I’m sure I’ll cost myself eventually but today will be Joey Logano‘s day to shine like a peachtree!

Shoppe :  I’m going with Joey Logano to win today’s race.

Hull :  I am going with Jimmie Johnson as my pick for the Folds of Honor Quicktrip 500, just based on the stats. He has an average finish of second in the past two races so I can’t go wrong with that pick. I hope not at least!

Copple :  My pick to win is Jimmie Johnson.

Hobbs :  I think Jimmie Johnson will be rebounding this weekend at Hotlanta!

Cassidy :  I’ll go with Jimmie Johnson to win today!

Conley :  Going with Carl Edwards for the race win.

Fesko :  Carl Edwards will win the race.

Tow :  Matt Kenseth is my pick to win the race today!

There you have it, race fans! The Track Talk crew has spoken and given their thoughts for today’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500!  How about you?  What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?

Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now! Thanks as always to the TPF team.  The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.  

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it’s about anything with an engine and four wheels, you’ll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication.

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