What matters at Atlanta: Reckoning with high tire wear

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What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Blaney, with an affinity for high-tire wear tracks, is built for Atlanta

It’s probably fair to say that Kyle Larson, with the fastest car and having led over 414 miles of the 500-mile contest, should’ve won Atlanta’s spring race. But that’d be unfair to Ryan Blaney, the actual winner.

Blaney made up a three-second disadvantage across the race’s final green-flag run and passed Larson for the lead with less than 10 laps to go. His speed that day was legitimate — ranked third in median lap time and first across the final stage, specifically — and so too was his approach, which took advantage of the 1.8-second lap-time degradation on worn tires.

How well Blaney nursed his tires compared to Larson was evident in their lap times near the end of the green-flag run. Larson’s first lap clocking in at 33.5 seconds — representing a full 1.3 seconds worth of falloff — was lap 309; Blaney’s first lap at 33.5 came 12 laps later.

Conserving tires, Blaney believes, is his strong suit, one cultivated at stock car racing’s grassroots level.

“I prefer tracks where the tires wear out,” Blaney said. “I think I like it so much because I grew up running the (Pro All Stars Series) stuff, we’d run 150 laps on the same set. You’d ride around for 100 laps of that race. And I think that kind of helped me save a little bit of tire from an early age and it kinds of helps me now.”

Blaney, whose acumen is progressing towards one of a well-rounded star, has represented Team Penske’s most consistent hedge on bigger tracks since the organization turned its attention to the 750-horsepower facilities prior to 2020. Blaney’s No. 12 car ranked first in speed among all teams last year on 550-horsepower tracks. This season, it’s tied for fourth in average median lap time on the same tracks.

“We’ve had really good cars on 550 tracks,” Blaney said. “Todd (Gordon, crew chief) does a good job — we have an aero package, whatever you want to call it — that we build them to be able to run hard. We’ve never really been known for amazing straightaway speed. Other teams are known for that. We make sure we handle (well), and that helps me drive the car really hard.

“I enjoy the bigger tracks and can really drive hard in the cars with high downforce stuff. That’s got me in trouble a few times … but it just works out.”

Larson is (still) a problem

Blaney and the rest of the Cup Series field will still have to deal with the problem presented by Larson, whose No. 5 car ranks first on 550-horsepower tracks in average median lap time. Penske’s competition director, Travis Geisler, noted two weeks ago that while Chevrolet, and Hendrick Motorsports specifically, have performed well at the bigger tracks, Larson has been a cut above them.

“I think the 9, the 48, the 24 — those guys seem to be a lot more race-able or beatable,” Geisler said. “(Larson) has a margin on his teammates right now.”

Chase Elliott represents a real threat to Larson in today’s race. Starting from the pole, Elliott recorded the fifth-fastest median lap time at Atlanta this spring but failed to finish, the result of an engine failure. He leads all drivers — with Larson ranked second — in surplus passing value on 550-horsepower tracks, holding a pass differential 87 positions better than his statistically expected +20. His pit crew secured the fastest median four-tire box time through the first half of the season.

And yet, Larson remains the betting favorite, primarily due to the relentlessness of his speed. His car ranked as the fastest (based on median lap) in nine of the 20 races this year, not counting the All-Star Race at Texas, a track shaped similarly to Atlanta and a race he won. With high-tire wear races acting as races of truth — they historically reward speed more so than any other pertinent metric — he’s the rabbit after which the field is chasing until we see otherwise.

Strategizing around Atlanta’s tire wear

Short-pitting, or pitting early or before the most populated few laps within the pit window, is the mathematically advantageous tactic for green-flag pit cycles on tracks with high tire wear like Atlanta. In theory, a car that’s pitted earlier can utilize fresh rubber to cut fast laps while its nearby opponents on old tires are at their most vulnerable.

For the most part, this is a truism that was religiously followed in Atlanta’s spring race; there weren’t any teams of note attempting to long-pit; however, a few teams executed the pit sequence — the timing of the stop, getting onto and off of pit road and the stop itself — better than others.

Rodney Childers, on behalf of Kevin Harvick, helped net nine positions across the race’s three green-flag pit cycles, crucial in Harvick’s march from as low as 30th to his eventual 10th-place finish. Ben Beshore’s six positions earned, including five on the third and final pit cycle, helped Kyle Busch recover from a lap-221 pit road speeding penalty to score a fifth-place finish.

But, arguably, the driver for whom a well executed strategy helped most was Larson. Crew chief Cliff Daniels retained Larson’s lead spot on all three green-flag pit cycles, a scenario which sees a 53% probability based on the series-wide rate. For the season, Daniels has defended Larson’s running spot on 73.2% percent of green-flag pit cycles, a rate ranked second among playoff-qualified crew chiefs, netting 17 positions across all non-drafting ovals.

Daniels’ burgeoning ability to defend Larson’s position has enhanced the No. 5 team’s ability to dominate, increasing the performance gap between them and every other team.