How will less downforce and horsepower change NASCAR drivers’ approaches to Atlanta Motor Speedway?

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Always synonymous with speed, Atlanta Motor Speedway became even more about stomping the accelerator Thursday as NASCAR teams tested the lower downforce and horsepower rules for the 2015 season.

Despite 125 less horsepower and roughly 24 percent less downforce, the top lap speed in the first session (191.549 mph by Jamie McMurray) actually was faster than the fastest in qualifying last September (191.278 by Aric Almirola).

The speeds began to fall as the session wore on, and the amount of rubber built on the weathered asphalt of the 1.5-mile oval (which hasn’t been repaved since 1997). The new package has changed the way drivers approach their style behind the wheel on a track well-known for its breakneck pace.

Sam Hornish Jr., who drives the No. 9 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, said he was running full throttle for about 80 to 85 percent of a lap, comparing it to the lower-powered Xfinity cars except faster.

Other Sprint Cup veterans seemed pleased by the new combination.

“The car feels great,” Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards said of his No. 19 Toyota. “The new package is a little bit different. It feels like we have more on-throttle time. We’re not out of the throttle as much, so I have to get used to that.

“It changes the way you drive this place being on the throttle a little more. It also looks like we’re being real hard on tires right now, so we’ll have to manage that and watch how that goes in this second session. Everything seems pretty good.”

Edwards said the speeds would continue to decrease with the rubber buildup.

“Everybody can make fast laps right now running the top,” he said. “These cars just get faster and faster, and they still have a big splitter and a big spoiler and real sticky tires. Even when you take away a little bit of power, we’re making so much speed in the middle of the corner, it’s really fast there. I think NASCAR is heading in the right direction by cutting the spoilers (by 2 inches, reducing downforce). I think the farther we go in that direction, the better it’s going to get.”