For the first time in 12 years, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Atlanta for the first of two races with Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. While this may look like another race at an intermediate track, first impressions don’t cut the grade for Atlanta.
Certainly, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, and Brad Keselowski seem like the odds on favorite at Atlanta. However, with the oldest track surface in Cup, racing at this 1.54-mile tri-oval might feel like the Texas roadways during last month’s winter storms.
Each race weekend, The Podium Finish’s panelists preview each NASCAR Cup Series points-paying race. This weekend, Adam Lucas, Ashley Hobbs, Cody Shoppe, Kobe Lambeth, Luis Torres, Matt Sisoler, Michelle Raynor, Taylor Kitchen, Terra Jones, and yours truly consider the most surprising winner so far in 2021 and the struggles surrounding Stewart-Haas Racing.
Podium Preview: Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta
Of the five drivers who’ve won a NASCAR Cup Series race this year, which one has surprised you with their victory and why?
Torres : I was rather surprised William Byron won at Homestead due to the fact it’s a track Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t win all that often. In fact, two of the greats (Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson) had only won there a combined two times. Not just winning, but ultimately having the strongest car out of the whole grid. Byron has taken a great while to adapt in the sports highest level, so an early win wasn’t on the cards. Look at him now. He’s been super consistent in 2021.
I’d say Michael McDowell at Daytona, but he has been strong on the superspeedways for years. So, it was just a matter of time for him to win. That’s why I had to go with Byron.
Sisoler : Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win is still the upset of the year for me. Even though he runs well there, not many of us thought he had a legitimate chance to win.
Lambeth : Over a month later and I am still stunned by Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 victory. However, I probably should not be surprised because he runs well on the superspeedways. Front Row Motorsports has always put together cars that work extremely well in the draft at Daytona and Talladega.
McDowell was in the right place at the right time and avoided the Big One on the final lap of the Daytona 500 and took home a shock win. Honestly, I never expected to see the No. 34 Ford Mustang secure a spot in the playoffs this year. Now, they have something to look forward to later in the season as they continue improving their Cup program.
Shoppe : How can you not say Michael McDowell here? I mean, we say all the time at superspeedways, anyone has a chance to win. But it has been quite a while since an underdog pulled it off in our biggest race! Certainly, I am like many others who say he isn’t just a fluke winner. And he has been in contention to win there often and finally sealed the deal. Still, I can’t help but be the most surprised with this winner compared to the other four.
Lucas : Christopher Bell takes the cake from me for his early success this season. I did not anticipate him to start the season with such force. But, then again, JGR has been one of the most consistent teams overall for the past few seasons.
Usually an organization that has a fourth full time team struggles to find the same amount of success as the rest of the teams. The No. 20 has been JGR’s struggle team as of late. This is no slam at them, it’s just statistically the teams performance was less than the other three.
Still, the No. 20 is at a high level, but just not as beautiful as the other guys. Maybe Kyle Busch’s No. 18 team has been bestowed the curse of the fourth car, as his struggles from last season have carried somewhat over to this year.
Bell was a surprise to get a win so early in the season. But now that I am thinking longer about it, dirt aces tend to drive better at road course events. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised!
Raynor : I was surprised with Christopher Bell winning so soon. I knew he would win but not on the road course race. He struggled last year and I was not sure how he would do his first year at Gibbs. With the 18 and the 20 swapping teams it has also helped make the transition for Bell easier. It also shows that the 20 was missing something with that team prior. Bell is extremely talented and can drive setups in the car most can’t.
Outside of Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing has somewhat struggled as a team. All things considered, with the team split with experienced drivers and young talents, is Atlanta a good place for the team to turn up the wick?
Conley : I think this is another year of Harvick, and everyone else. Outside of the plate tracks and maybe a possible road course for Briscoe, I’m not sure SHR makes it back to victory lane with anyone other than the 4 car. Surprises can happen. Just look at Custer at Kentucky last year.
However, lightning doesn’t strike twice. With the new car on the way in 2022, SHR may have put a lot of focus on that program. It doesn’t matter what race is coming up. The speed is lacking in the Stewart-Haas Racing machines. And I’m not sure that is a benefit anywhere, especially Atlanta.
Jones : Unfortunately, after looking at the numbers, I don’t think this is the weekend for SHR to start shining. Starting with the rookie, Chase Briscoe has seemed to have had a tough time acclimating to the Cup Series. Sophomore Cole Custer barely squeaked out a top 20 last year.
Aric Almirola has two top 10 finishes at the track in 10 Cup starts (only one with SHR). And while Kevin Harvick’s stats are much better throughout his long, storied career, I don’t think the cards are going to play the SHR way just yet. With that being said, I don’t think they’re far away from getting back to their regularly scheduled racing.
Tiongson : It can be easy to say it’s too early to panic for Stewart-Haas Racing. However, if Kevin Harvick is carrying the load for SHR at less than dominant strength, it’s worth watching how SHR fares at Atlanta. Historically, mostly through Harvick, SHR isn’t too shabby at Atlanta. Granted, they have a rookie in Chase Briscoe and a sophomore in Cole Custer.
In years’ past, it might’ve not been important to run well at Atlanta. While this track is not in the Playoffs, it’s helpful to run well at this track on Sunday to have a baseline in July. If Harvick runs well at Atlanta and his teammates finish inside the top 15, that’s a great starting point toward the SHR we’re accustomed to seeing on the track.
Hobbs : Whenever the sport starts talking “should we be worried for” this early in the season, they usually eat those words later. When it comes to performance at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Stewart-Haas Racing has the second best average finish. But with only two wins in the Spring race, both by Kevin Harvick, this might not be the weekend the team as a whole turns around. Last year, the only top 10 finish came from Harvick, and that was a victory. The rest of the team (more or less) rounded out the top 20.
All in all, two laps around a slick Atlanta proves quite interesting and entertaining with our panelists! Next, we consider last Sunday’s Instacart 500 at Phoenix race and points reports!
Now, Ashley Hobbs gets all about Crunching the Numbers: Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta style!
Ultimately, here’s our picks for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta!
Tiongson : It’s hard to bet against a driver whose average finish is 5.6 in the past five races at Atlanta. I like Kurt Busch for this Sunday’s race as he searches for his first Cup win of 2021.
TPF Stats : Atlanta Motor Speedway is probably a track folks had circled for Kyle Larson to get back to victory lane; but he bumped that by being a winner already. Nonetheless, AMS is the kind of track that is very fitting for Larson to be victorious.
Hobbs : We’re going to see our first repeat winner of the year. With a very solid streak of top 10 finishes at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and the past two races on the podium, Martin Truex Jr will go back-to-back.
Lambeth : So far, the main talk at Team Penske has been Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Their teammate will remind everyone to include him in the conversation too later today. The No. 12 team will put together a complete race and get Ryan Blaney into victory lane in Atlanta!
Lucas : Brad Keselowski and his Auto Trader team will capture the victory this weekend. He’s won this race in the past in the orange themed livery and will add another one to his list.
Jones : 2017 – Keselowski. 2018 – Harvick. 2019 – Keselowski. 2020 – Harvick. I like patterns. I like 2021 – Keselowski.
Torres : On the track he got his maiden Cup win 20 years ago, I can still see Kevin Harvick being a threat to win here again at Atlanta. Compared to the other races, I had to think about who’d pick because there’s no true strong guy that’ll convince me to win with ease.
I can see five-six guys fighting for the win, but Harvick will finally get that ball rolling to seek redemption after missing the Championship 4 last year.
Raynor : Kevin knows how to get around this track and has always shown speed and knows what it takes to win. He’s due for his first win.
Shoppe : While he has had a fairly quiet start to the season, this is certainly the place to break through with the first win of the year! Kevin Harvick wins again in ATL!
Sisoler : 20 years after he won in a classic finish against Jeff Gordon, I think Kevin Harvick has a great chance to do it again.
Conley : With the speed of the Hendrick cars, and Chase Elliott‘s “need” to win at his home track, no time better than the current to put those two things together and lock in to the playoffs.
Kitchen : Chase has the best average finish at this track of all active drivers. If Chase is mistake free, he can win this race. He has been so close to wins this season otherwise.
Race fans, thanks for joining us for our preview of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta.
We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race? Who are your favorites to win? Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!
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