Already one of the fastest tracks in the series, the 1.54-mile trioval was repaved with even steeper banking before the first of two Cup races at Atlanta this year.
The result is a more herd-style race, with the pattern in practice eerily similar to the restrictor-plate jams at Daytona or Talladega.
That should be exciting for the fans, but there could be plenty of beaten-up race cars when the grueling day is over.
“Obviously when you get to the end of the stages and the points are on the line, and especially when you get to the end of the race and the wins are on the line, man, you guys have to look out for each other,” Kyle Busch said. after practice on Saturday. “There is no reason why we should crash, but we will. You just hope it’s not too hard.
With everyone essentially feeling like a rookie, the practice session was especially important for the drivers to work on the quirks and experience the unique features of the new design.
“Everything seemed a bit chaotic for a practice session,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who posted the fastest lap at 186.616 mph. “We were all trying to learn as much as we could.”
They found it easier to stay in the draft than the plate races, but there were some anxious moments in the wide corners, with the bank increased from 24 to 28 degrees and a narrower track.
Coming out of turn four, it could become especially treacherous as cars try to dive into the pits.
“One mistake could wipe out most of the field if you’re up front,” Stenhouse said. “It’s going to be a little crazy to watch this.”
No matter who wins, there are sure to be plenty of exhausted drivers by the time they complete more than three hours of racing.
“Running 325 laps here is a lot,” Busch said. “You’re going to be packed in some tough conditions. It will probably be more mental than physical, but we will be tired after this.”
Heavy rain wiped out practice sessions for all three series on Friday, forcing NASCAR to make changes to the weekend schedule.
Qualifying had been set for Saturday but was canceled so the cars and trucks could get some much-needed practice time.
Chase Briscoe, coming off his first series win at Phoenix, will start the Cup race from the pole under NASCAR rules. Blaney will join you in the front row.
The cars circled the trioval under sunny skies on Saturday, although there were some strong gusts that made things interesting. The forecast for Sunday was for more sun with temperatures in the upper 60s.
Aside from Busch, who has three top-10 finishes and is second in points in four races, Joe Gibbs Racing is off to a rocky start this season.
Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Bell only have one other top-10 finish between them, Truex’s eighth-place finish at Las Vegas, and they’re itching to turn things around in Atlanta.
Truex ranks 13th in the rankings, while Hamlin is 27th and Bell is even worse off at 30th.
“We’ve had a lot of high points, but the final results haven’t shown it,” Bell said. “Definitely time to get some final results.”
It may not matter much with the new design, but Blaney and Kurt Busch won last year’s races at Atlanta.
Also keep an eye on Kevin Harvick, who hasn’t made it to Victory Lane since the 2020 season.
He won three times at Atlanta and put in a lot of strong races, most notably in 2017 when he won the pole and led 292 laps before finishing ninth.
Harvick ranks 10th in points with a pair of top-10 finishes. He is looking to snap a 47-race winless streak.
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