What to expect in Atlanta Cup race? ‘I don’t know’ is a popular refrain

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HAMPTON, Ga. — The phrase “I don’t know” has been uttered more often by drivers this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway than for any other race in recent years.

A new rules package has drivers guessing what they’ll need in Sunday’s 500-mile race. The expectation is that tire wear will spread the field just as it has done in past races on the track’s worn surface. The key for drivers will be how well their car handles.

“There will be teams (Sunday) that drastically miss (the setup) and ones that hit it,” said Clint Bowyer, who was fastest in Saturday’s final practice session. “The ones that hit it are going to have a lot of fun. The ones that don’t are going to be miserable.”

Their misery could last a long time. Drivers can no longer adjust the trackbar to help the car’s handling. That provides another challenge.

“There’s a lot to think about,” said Erik Jones, who finished third in last weekend’s Daytona 500. “The package, you don’t really know where it’s going to go. No trackbar adjuster, so you’re going to have to set your car up for the start of the run. I don’t know. Nobody really knows how the race is going to play out.”

One key area could be restarts. Drivers expect them to be chaotic. With the engines limited to 550 horsepower, there is the question of trying to track down the leader. Gaining positions on the restart will be critical.

That could mean what lane a driver restarts in could play a significant role in their result. The preferred restart lane is the inside at Atlanta. For all five restarts last year, the leader took the inside lane. In two of those restarts, the first car on the outside lane (Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick) spun their wheels and lost at least three spots on the first lap of the restart.

With this package, will the inside line be more dominant?

“I think a lot of the reasons that the inside line was so important was that the top just had way more wheelspin, but with less horsepower, that should be a little less,” Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin said. “I don’t think it’ll be as detrimental actually, probably the other way around. Overall, until I see it, I’m not sure.”

But what makes one lane better than the other?

“I don’t know why it is,” Kyle Busch said. “There’s kind of a different color tone to the asphalt. I don’t know if has to do something to do with the asphalt mix when they paved this place that now you can definitely tell a difference between the inside lane and the outside lane.

“Also the inside guy has a straighter launch than the guy on the outside, he’s always kind of turning. … This is the worst for the launch, the application of throttle. To not spin the rear tires is so crucial, and it’s so easy to do in that outside lane.”

Even with the disadvantage of the top lane, Kurt Busch restarted there in sixth last year and gained three spots in one lap. Can Busch do that again with this package?

“All things are still up in the air,” Busch told NBC Sports. “We have less horsepower, so it will be easier to get the grip. You won’t spin the tires as easy with the full horsepower.

“Once we grab fourth gear, where is the draft because the cars have so much more drag. So it might not be where the bottom is preferred once you get to the corner because you want to side draft off the right side of the cars, which means you go to the outside.

“Still a lot of unknowns. That’s the box NASCAR wants to keep us all in, is keep us guessing in a lot of areas, and restarts are going to be big.”

Jimmie Johnson said he thinks another factor will be key in restarts. It will be who is behind.

I really feel like this package is going to be different than what we’ve seen in the past,” said Johnson, whose five wins at Atlanta are the most among active drivers. “You don’t have as much power to spin the tires. I feel like in a restrictor-plate race, who is behind you and the type of push they can give you is going to make a big difference in how things turn out for you down the backstretch. So, I feel like the leader will probably make decisions based on who they think is a good pusher.”

But even if drivers figure that out, there are many unknowns.

“We don’t know what to expect,” Bubba Wallace said. “I think it’s exciting for the fans because we’re just kind of going out and honestly taking what the car will give us. When they put all of us out there, it could be a good show, it could be a crapshoot. We don’t know.”