Mash The Gas: Atlanta Preview

[Credit Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images]


by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season kicked off in grand fashion with last week’s incredible finish where Denny Hamlin edged Martin Truex Jr. by 0.01 seconds to win the closest Daytona 500 in history. That momentum should carry over into Atlanta as the Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 gets the green flag Sunday afternoon as the drivers take to the fast Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Atlanta Motor Speedway
500.5 miles (325 laps)
Sunday, Feb. 28 1pm ET
FOX, 12:30pm ET
PRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
The 1.5 mile Atlanta circuit is the first test of the new 2016 low downforce aerodynamic rules that were favored by many of the competitors. With less downforce the cars should slide around more and could be a handful to control. The rules were in place for two events last year at Kentucky and Darlington and each time produced favorable racing. Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske were the top organizations in both those races with Gibbs drivers Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards scoring the victories.

Those Kentucky and Darlington races and their results should be taken into consideration when attempting to handicap this year’s Atlanta race and here are some drivers to watch on Sunday…

Kyle Busch (Dan Margetta)
Kyle Busch won the first event the low downforce aero rules were in place at Kentucky and he has proven to be one of the best drivers at controlling a loose race car which comes into play on Sunday. Additionally he finished a strong 7th at Darlington under the same rules and he owns two Atlanta victories to go along with four top five finishes and five top ten results. Kyle Busch is listed at favorable 8-1 odds for Sunday and I feel he is the driver to beat on Sunday

Joey Logano (John Wiedemann)
Like the Joe Gibbs Racing team, Joey Logano did very well at the two experiments of the “low-downforce” package last season with a second place finish at Kentucky and fourth place run at Darlington. Logano also has a lot of success at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, but most of that was on the short infield track where he won in the Bandolero and Legends cars. Last season he captured the pole and finished fourth in the Sprint Cup Series. Team Penske has been one of the top teams in recent years when running on the mile and a half circuits, but it looks like Joe Gibbs Racing is currently at the top of the mountain. Can Logano grab the honor back this weekend? I think he has a great shot at the win and he is my pick.

Brad Keselowski (DM)
Brad Keselowski’s record in Atlanta isn’t the greatest statistically with just one top five and three top ten finishes but he did race really well under the low downforce rules last season. Keselowski was one of the drivers who gave the Joe Gibbs Racing contingent a run for their money, finishing sixth at Kentucky and second at Darlington. Keselowski is also listed at 8-1 odds for Atlanta and he has proven he can handle the new rules. Plus, I think Brad Keselowski and the #2 team are looking to rebound from a mediocre Daytona 500 performance and Atlanta would be a good place for that to happen.

Matt Kenseth (JW)
It is very easy to look at Matt Kenseth’s slide in turn four on the last lap and say that he lost the Daytona 500. There is more to that move as Kenseth was without his usual spotter and now will have another new interim spotter this weekend at Atlanta. No matter who the spotter is, you can bet that Kenseth heads into Atlanta looking for a little revenge on “racing luck”. Last season Kenseth finished fifth at Kentucky, another intermediate track, when NASCAR ran the “low-downforce” package. Another good sign is that his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates finished in the top five with him. Look for Kenseth to be in the mix for the win this weekend.

Kyle Larson (DM)
The low downforce aero rules should suit Kyle Larson extremely well as he is not afraid to slide around as evidenced by his sprint car background. While Kyle Larson’s finish at Kentucky (35th) may scare some people away, remember he was the pole sitter for the race and was near the top of the charts in the practices. He finished 10th in the Darlington race and has one top ten finish in two starts at Atlanta. Larson is listed at 25-1 odds this week mainly because he has yet to score a victory however, that first victory could very well come on Sunday in Atlanta.

Jimmie Johnson (JW)
The defending champion of this race returns with a hope of returning to consistency. Johnson’s last two seasons have been great… for other drivers, but have not been up to Johnson’s standards. Atlanta will be the start of seeing if the dominant Jimmie Johnson has returned. The competition has stepped up their game and now it is time to see if Johnson has. One race won’t tell the story, the next three will be a good indication. Johnson has 75 victories in the Sprint Cup Series and will tie Dale Earnhardt for career wins with his next trip to victory lane. That could very well happen this weekend.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (DM)
My long shot pick this week is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who comes in at 200-1 odds. Stenhouse is another sprint car graduate who likes cars that slide around and are tough to drive. He finished 11th in the Kentucky race last year and won the pole for the Darlington event. The new aero rules should revitalize him and when his attitude is positive, he’s a pretty good shoe behind the wheel. I think Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could surprise a lot of people in Atlanta on Sunday and has a good shot at an upset win.

Chase Elliott (JW)
Georgia native Chase Elliott makes a hometown stop at Atlanta Motor Speedway and you can bet the fans will be rooting for him in full force. Chase’s father, Bill, won five times at the track and fans will be looking for that Dawsonville siren to be sounding at the end of the race. Those are pretty high expectations for a driver that has raced on the Atlanta track only twice in the Xfinity Series, but he did finish fifth both times. A spin early in the Daytona 500 dashed the hopes of the pole sitter and Elliott should have a better finish this weekend. While a win isn’t expected, look for a solid finish by the young driver as he continues to get his feet under him in the Sprint Cup Series.


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