Atlanta takeaways: Cup drivers deserved at least a heads up about ’22 reconfiguration

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HAMPTON, Georgia – With “collaboration” being a NASCAR industry buzzword for years, how did the communications breakdown occur that left Cup stars befuddled, “blindsided” and enraged about the Atlanta Motor Speedway reconfiguration?

“Just a broken-down process,” Denny Hamlin, the de-facto leader of his peer group, said before Sunday’s race, the last before a makeover formulated with hardly any driver input (or awareness, for that matter). “That’s what is so frustrating is the process is just broken.

“The disconnect right now between all the parties, NASCAR, the tracks and the drivers. It’s tough right now. It’s not in a good place.”

Just more than two years removed from the collapse of the Drivers Council (a well-intentioned but ultimately ineffectual and maligned concept that never quite met the original vision of a union planned by Hamlin and Jeff Gordon), the demand never has been greater for constantly open channels of information — yet there seems a dearth of conversation as NASCAR enters one of the most transformative eras in its 73-year history.

There is a NextGen car that still is undergoing safety evaluations, schedules (both for race weekends and the full season) that seem forever in flux and a volatile market for charter franchises leaving drivers and team owners on edge.

It’s understandable how a major topic could slip through the cracks – but that doesn’t begin to explain why stars weren’t at least briefed about the transformation of Atlanta that will be “180 degrees different” (according to Ryan Blaney) from an abrasive surface that is beloved by drivers who gleefully slide through its corners while manhandling their cars for hundreds of miles at a time.

Speedway Motorsports kept its plans heavily under wraps throughout a process that took months because it wanted to make a splash with last Tuesday’s stunning announcement – but the sneak attack immediately backfired.

Within an hour, the plot already had been lost about emphasizing a new fan-friendly Atlanta (“the racing will be closer than ever!”), and the narrative only deteriorated from there – reaching an apex when Kyle Busch blasted the plan Saturday after winning the Xfinity race.

It was another reminder that while NASCAR and its track owners might hold the purse strings, the stars always hold the conch as the loudest and most influential voices in the room.

Whether they’re on board with a project or not, they are the primary ambassadors of the NASCAR brand. Just as they can choose how difficult they want to make each others’ lives on track by racing harder, they also can determine whether an idea succeeds or fails.

Atlanta Motor Speedway workers repair a pothole during Sunday’s race (Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports).

If you want to bring Daytona- or Talladega-style racing — the most dangerous type of racing in NASCAR — to Atlanta, that absolutely has to be vetted with drivers. Even if they won’t endorse it after currying their favor, they might be less inclined to torpedo it – and they might offer a few helpful suggestions in the process.

“Tell us the agenda,” Hamlin said. “Do you want speedway racing here? OK. We don’t like it, but here’s what you need to do to get there. We’ll help you accomplish that. Just tell us the goal. Don’t mix the message by saying, “You’re going to see something you’ve never seen!” and show a clip of iRacing cars racing in a pack, but yet you want your surface to match the old. That’s counterintuitive. You can’t make (a track) narrower and have a superspeedway race. Those two things don’t match up.

“I think we could help. We’re the biggest asset that NASCAR, these tracks could have if they just tell us their goals. We may not agree with the goal, but we can help them get to where they want to go.”

There are too many examples to recount, and the Car of Tomorrow might be the most obvious.

Already doomed to be a public relations failure, its demise was hastened when the new model increasingly was ripped to shreds by drivers over two years of testing before its official debut. The inexplicable fining of Hamlin for innocuous criticism of the Gen 6 successor was another instance, and that at least began to spur more “collaboration” as drivers at least have been looped into the explosion of team owner, manufacturer and stakeholder meetings in recent years.

But there is some recurring friction in the relationship between Speedway Motorsports and NASCAR stars. It dates back to the 2017 race at Kentucky Speedway when drivers were displeased they weren’t consulted by vice president of operations Steve Swift about track preparation.

Swift also was in the middle of the Atlanta controversy last week after he implied driver opinions were the least important in the process because they often screw up the show for fans. That statement didn’t go over well with NASCAR officials – even though it contained a kernel of truth.

There is an inversely proportional driver-fan dynamic that was best illustrated by Speedway Motorsports’ 2007 overhaul of Bristol Motor Speedway. Drivers praised the multiple lanes of racing that virtually eliminated the demolition derby while fans decried the disappearance of Bristol’s hallmark bump and run that was a byproduct of a one-groove surface.

Even most drivers would admit they are less than ideal arbiters of toeing the line of competition and entertainment.

But to leave them twisting in the wind to learn the news of Atlanta’s iRacing-driven reconfiguration over social media — and then expect their tacit support with no blowback — is foolhardy.

“This isn’t the first time that we’ve had the repave talk and the uproar over the pavement,” Kevin Harvick said. “I think it’s the first time that everybody has had the plan pitched on them three days before the race and said, ‘Oh, iRacing designed this.’ .. It’s not anything personal against iRacing, but you wouldn’t design an airplane and go fly it with passengers in it before you tested it. The input that comes with the drivers and the way that the cars are and the things that happen are important. So you can’t have a bunch of suits designing a racetrack.

Said Blaney: “We don’t own the tracks, we just race on them. The people who own them will make the call on what’s best, but it would have been nice to have it brought up to us. It’s like finding out your wife’s pregnant when you start seeing a belly on her. It’s that kind of a bombshell.

“It’s just being in the know. You don’t want to be in the dark with anything.”

The good news is it isn’t too late for a slight course correction with a repave that has become mandatory (evidenced by Sunday’s pothole interruption). As Jeff Burton noted on this week’s NASCAR on NBC Podcast, Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith will adjust the blueprint if concerns are raised about the new layout.

Getting drivers on the phone and involved in the process would seem a wise move.

But perhaps Swift or Smith should make the first call.


Mind your P&Qs

On the flip side of the driver disconnect at Atlanta, Joey Logano was among those involved as NASCAR held meetings last week on the return of weekly practice and qualifying sessions in the Cup Series next season.

With the NextGen car making its 2022 debut, it seems certain that every race weekend will feature prerace time on track. The discussions are over how much time is needed, whether separate sessions are needed and what format would work best for determining the starting lineup.

Among the proposals being floated:

–A hybrid practice/qualifying session.

–Using an average of multiple laps for qualifying (even on ovals).

–Relying on a pool of several backup cars (possibly supplied by each manufacturer) to avoid teams reverting to building and transporting their own (which eats up tremendous costs and time for cars that rarely hit the track).

While he declined to reveal any specifics, Logano said he has lobbied for standalone qualifying with a knockout element (“Other forms of motorsports, maybe the most entertaining part of the whole weekend is sometimes qualifying”). The Team Penske driver also believes the current 50-minute practice sessions implemented for the handful of tracks with qualifying this year will be insufficient with the NextGen.

“It’s all not going to happen as quickly as with 50 minutes now, we can get through it pretty quick,” he said. “We start somewhat close because we have history. There’s no history with this car. We don’t know which direction to fix it or change it. I think it’s got to be almost more or less a test day. Maybe not a practice at every track. But a test day where you can really take time to learn stuff and not go through a panic mode of 15 minutes of trying to make as many laps as possible and learn 10 things that you really didn’t learn anything. It’s all about longer test days that teams can do and take the data off the car.”


Generational development

Now that Kyle Busch’s Xfinity Series career effectively has ended, what will the series’ winningest driver miss the most?

“The camaraderie with my teams,” he said. “All the people that I’ve worked with over the years. The list is countless. Just so many guys and girls we’ve worked with over the years at Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Braun Racing. Trying to develop talent, not only develop myself, but also the talent of crew chiefs, engineers and crew guys. Those guys all go through the feeder system and work their way up.”

Though the focus is often on the younger Xfinity drivers who benefit from racing against experienced champions, crew chief Adam Stevens (who won 19 Xfinity races with Busch before two Cup titles) is one of many team members who also have advanced after working Cup stars who dropped down a level.

Busch said with a hearty laugh that “I may or may not have gotten a few of them fired, sorry, but I also have gotten a hell of a lot more of them moved up and I work with them on Sundays. That’s been the cool part of the series and what it’s all about.”

Busch also revealed that he wanted to run the Superstar Racing Experience, “but I got shot out of that one” (Joe Gibbs Racing tends to frown on extracurricular racing by its drivers). Chase Elliott will make his debut with the short-track series started by Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart this Saturday at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, racing against his Hall of Fame father, Bill.


Special pavement

As if Kyle Busch needed more insult added to injury after how Sunday’s victory slipped from his grasp, his older brother, Kurt, was awarded with a chunk of asphalt for winning the last race on Atlanta’s 24-year-old surface. Kyle Busch had requested a block of asphalt after winning Saturday’s race but no such presentation occurred (and would have been quite awkward after he spent the better part of 15 minutes blasting track management in his winner’s news conference).

But don’t fret, “Rowdy.”

A Speedway Motorsports official said Kyle Busch also will receive his own weathered piece of AMS pavement as a keepsake.