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Mash The Gas: Atlanta Preview

Kurt Busch leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2016 Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. [Credit: Photo by Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images]

by John Wiedemann

Race number two of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is this weekend at the Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. This race is the 2500th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race and the 110th Cup race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. The 1.5 mile intermediate type track features 24 degree banking in the turns and a long D-shaped front straightaway stretching over 2300 feet.

Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Atlanta Motor Speedway
Sunday, March 5
2:30 p.m. ET
FOX, 2:30 p.m. ET
PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
500.5 miles (325 laps)
Stage 1 (Ends on lap 85),
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 170)
Final Stage (Ends on lap 325)

Atlanta Motor Speedway has the second-oldest asphalt of the tracks that the series races on, and this weekend will be the last race on that surface. The drivers love the challenge of the now 20 year old asphalt that is abrasive and loves eating tires, but this will be their last chance to take it on before the repave later this spring.

Bobby Labonte won the first race on the new pavement in 1997, setting the quickest race pace ever for the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Geoff Bodine’s pole speed for that race also remains the quickest qualifying lap at a speed of 197.478 mph. Last season’s winner, Jimmie Johnson, has been the most successful in the 31 Cup Series races contested on the surface. Who will close out the final race for the current layer of asphalt? Well, here are some drivers you should watch….

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson has the highest driver rating, almost nine points higher than Matt Kenseth who is the second best in driver ratings. The two-time defending champion of this race is looking for three in a row. Johnson has won at Atlanta five times with 14 top five, 16 top ten finishes and an average finishing position of 9.6. After a disastrous Daytona 500 where Johnson wrecked and left the track with only 5 points, Atlanta is where he could zoom up the standings and pickup bonus points for the Chase. While the circumstances were different last year, Johnson was near or at the front at the stages in the race where points will be given this year. If he gives a repeat performance this weekend, he will be back around the top of the standings and setup quite well for the Chase.

Kurt Busch
Speaking of being setup quite well for the Chase, Kurt Busch is sitting pretty comfortable after winning the Daytona 500. The Daytona win was a long time coming for Busch who has been in contention in previous years and finally captured the flag last Sunday. The only bad thing about winning the Daytona 500 is that the following week is packed with appearances for the victor. Busch should be pretty worn out but excited to get back in the car at a track where he runs well. Busch is the defending pole sitter for this race and enters the Atlanta race with three wins at the track. An average finish of 14th puts Busch sixth best amongst his competitors and he has six top five and 11 top ten finishes on his Atlanta resume. If Busch has some Monster Energy left for Sunday’s race, expect him to battling at the front of the pack again on Sunday.

Kevin Harvick
Last year in this race, it looked like Kevin Harvick was going to run down and pass Jimmie Johnson on the last lap to steal a win away. Unfortunately, a late caution bunched up the field for an overtime finish and Harvick didn’t get the chance to go for a dramatic win. Harvick finished sixth but led a race high 131 of the 330 laps. Last weekend Harvick finished 22nd in the Daytona 500 but winning a stage and running at the front paid off point-wise and benefits the most from the new rules jumping all the way up to fourth in the point standings. Look for Harvick to do the same plus finish the race up front to have a huge point day. One of the most memorable moments to take place on the current racing surface was Harvick winning the race in 2001 after taking over the Richard Childress ride for the late Dale Earnhardt. Harvick looks for more history Sunday to close out the asphalt’s history as he goes for a second Atlanta victory.

Chase Elliott
Chase Elliott is poised to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. It’s going to happen and an intermediate track like Atlanta Motor Speedway is a likely place. Chase’s dad Bill won at Atlanta five times and it would be a good story for Chase to get his first Cup win in his home state. Last year, Elliott finished eighth after starting back in twenty-fourth. Expect even better this weekend from the Daytona 500 pole sitter.

Daniel Suarez
Daniel Suarez has taken over the ride vacated by Carl Edwards and he is looking to have a happier outcome than last weekend where he crashed out of the Daytona 500. The drivers of Joe Gibbs Racing have done well at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Suarez is looking to fit right in. Last season, Edwards came home with a top five run and that would be a spectacular finish on Sunday for Suarez. Suarez did well at intermediate tracks in his Xfinity Series championship run last season, but he didn’t win at a 1.5 mile track.

Erik Jones
Another rookie of the year contender, Erik Jones, will be one to watch this weekend. Jones has run two races at 1.5 mile tracks in the Cup Series in 2015, at Kansas in Kyle Busch’s car and at Texas in Matt Kenseth’s car. He finished those races 40th and 12th respectively. Jones teammate, Martin Truex Jr, was dominant at intermediate tracks last year, although he didn’t always have the finishes to go with his runs. It will be interesting to see how both drivers run and to see if two cars are too many for Furniture Row or if the team is up to the challenge. I believe both the team and Jones will be ready for the challenge.

Stage Racing
The one other thing to watch is the strategy that will come into play with Stage Racing. Daytona and restrictor plate racing is a different animal than most of the season’s events. While the jury seems to be split on Stage Racing after the Daytona 500, we need to see how it plays out on different tracks to make a decision if it really works in this series. I believe that the 1.5 mile intermediate tracks along with the two mile ovals will be the best stages for Stage Racing. This will be the first test for the crew chiefs to build their plans and it will be fun to watch it play out.

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