HAMPTON, Ga. — The victors were happy and the vanquished frustrated.
So in a sense, Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was just like any other race — even with a new rules package intended to keep the field closer together.
In some ways, the package worked. At a track where the leader has gone out to an advantage of close to 10 seconds in the past, the lead mushroomed only to about four seconds Sunday. Even then, there were battles at the front. Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick traded the lead four times within a dozen laps near the race’s midpoint.
“It just felt like a typical race up there,” Larson said after finishing 12th, hindered by a late pit road speeding penalty. “Just battling hard. I didn’t think the package made us battle for the lead any differently than the old package.”
The 25 lead changes were the most in the past three Atlanta races. Martin Truex Jr. nearly made it a 26th. He closed on Brad Keselowski in the final two laps but couldn’t get by him, losing by .21-hundredths of a second.
The Team Penske drivers all could move through the field after they struggled in qualifying. Keselowski started 19th, Ryan Blaney 26th and Joey Logano 27th. They combined to lead 96 of 325 laps.
Car owner Roger Penske gave the day’s racing “a solid B” noting that “nobody gets an ‘A’ on their first exam. I say it’s a solid B for NASCAR today because there were drivers who, Brad included, Joey twice came from the back, could pass cars. One thing that was amazing to me was someone on the high line could run (with a car) on the low line going into (Turn) 2 and stay with them and drag them back on the straightaway. I felt overall the package showed well.”
Not everyone was thrilled. Truex was frustrated with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was a lap down, late in the race.
“They just have no respect for the leaders running for the win,” Truex said. “It’s completely uncalled for, ridiculous. It’s a shame.
“(Stenhouse) just kept hugging the bottom, hugging the bottom, hugging the bottom and knew that’s where I needed to run. I kept telling my spotter, kept telling his we need the bottom.
“These cars punch such a big hole and it’s so bad in dirty air, it completely killed us for 25, 30 laps to the point my front tires were gone once I finally got by him. Hell, I still ran down (Keselowski) in two laps from half a straightaway. We clearly had the best car and were in position to win. Guys a lap down have to have a little more respect than that.”
Kyle Busch, who has been a critic of this package, didn’t have his mind swayed by Sunday’s race.
“Traffic is really bad, aero-wise,” said Busch, who started in the rear in a backup car, ran as high as second, had a tire go down after contact and finished sixth. “You get behind somebody and they take your air away and you’re junk.
“You could make runs on people and have somebody mess up on a corner exit and get a good run. If you got a good run, you could go by them on the straightway. Being directly behind them is really bad. I think it’s worse than before.”
Aric Almirola also experienced some of the same frustrations. He started on the pole, led 36 laps early, fell back and then had a pit road speeding penalty drop him to 27th early in the race.
“My goodness was it a challenge,” Almirola said of running in the pack. “The cars make so much downforce and we’re all going so fast that it’s really, really hard to make passes until late in the run.”
Keselowski said one key factor for drivers is that they no longer can adjust the trackbar themselves in the car. That puts a premium on handling.
“To me the track bar adjuster always made it better to play defense, or easier to play defense,” Keselowski said. “And so I thought that was an interesting change. I thought you saw more comers and goers because of that personally, so I thought that was interesting.”
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said he saw “a fairly entertaining race.
“Like we said going into this race, we didn’t know what to expect either. We thought this package would showcase itself more as we got to the West Coast. With some really long green-flag runs, I think you saw the ability to get back up to the leader and make a pass, which is encouraging.”
Like this or hate it, this is what teams will be racing this season. While the package will change at some tracks — next weekend’s race at Las Vegas will feature aero ducts that should encourage more drafting — teams will have to figure out how to master all these changes. Those that do will celebrate like Keselowski did Sunday. Those that don’t will be bitter more often.