Drivers to watch for the NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta

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By now, you’re likely aware that Atlanta Motor Speedway’s reconfiguration provides a myriad of unknowns heading into Sunday’s Cup race.

At 28 degrees, the 1.5-mile track has the steepest banking of any intermediate track on the circuit. NASCAR officials determined the series will utilize its superspeedway rules package, meaning this weekend’s events might look similar to those at Daytona and Talladega.

So which drivers should you expect to see contending for the win Sunday (3 p.m. ET, Fox)?

FRONT RUNNERS

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 10th
  • Last three races: Seventh — Auto Club; 12th — Las Vegas; Sixth — Phoenix
  • Recent at Atlanta: Seven top-10 finishes in last eight races

Harvick is one of NASCAR’s best at Atlanta, especially in recent years. In his last eight starts there, Harvick has won twice (2018, 2020) and has four top fives and seven top 10s. He’s also led at least 45 laps in eight of the last 11 Atlanta races.

In a sense, Harvick fans should be optimistic heading into this weekend. Paired with exceptional numbers specifically in Atlanta, Harvick has also been running better this season. He’s one of 12 drivers with multiple top-10 finishes this season and sits sixth in average running position, according to NASCAR’s loop data statistics.

Will that run of success continue in a superspeedway-style setting? That’s hard to say, but numbers say he should be fine either way.

Kyle Busch 

  • Points position: Second
  • Last three races: 14th — Auto Club; Fourth — Las Vegas; Seventh — Phoenix
  • Recent at Atlanta: Five straight finishes of seventh of better

Busch has a unique trend behind his wins at Atlanta. His 2008 victory marked the first time the Car of Tomorrow was used at the 1.5-mile track. Five years later, he was back in Victory Lane after winning the first Gen 6 race at Atlanta in 2013.

The two-time Cup champion has a chance to add to his list of firsts as the Next Gen hits Hampton, Georgia for its first competition there Sunday. Despite not winning in the past nine Atlanta races, Busch has three consecutive top fives there and has finished second in two of the last three races.

Busch hasn’t won a superspeedway race since 2008 when he won at both Daytona and Talladega. That might not play into his favor this weekend, but Busch is likely to find himself in the mix.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: Seventh
  • Last three races: 18th — Auto Club; 36th — Las Vegas; Fourth — Phoenix
  • Recent at Atlanta: Three straight top-five finishes

Blaney is the defending winner of the March race, which is reason enough to keep your eye on the No. 12 Ford this weekend. Add that he is a three-time winner on superspeedways, and it becomes even harder to dismiss Blaney as a factor.

Coming off his second top five of the season, Blaney is the series leader in laps led with 190 (143 of which came last week at Phoenix). Blaney also was victorious at Daytona last summer and found himself battling rookie teammate Austin Cindric for the win in the Daytona 500 in February.

In Atlanta, Blaney leads all active drivers with a 12.4 average finish and has led laps in three of the past four races there. It would be a surprise not to see the No. 12 Ford in contention again Sunday.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 11th
  • Last three races: 25th — Auto Club; WIN — Las Vegas; 14th — Phoenix
  • Recent at Atlanta: Two straight top fives

Bowman has already seen plenty of ups and downs in this young season, obviously highlighted by his March 6 win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Bowman’s seven career victories have come on seven different track types, none of which has been a superspeedway. However, he has now won at two different mile-and-a-half tracks — Vegas and the now-defunct Chicagoland Speedway.

Time will tell if the No. 48 can finally locate the proper consistency to run up front regularly

Kurt Busch

  • Points position: 12th
  • Last three races: Eighth — Auto Club; 13th — Las Vegas; Fifth — Phoenix
  • Recent at Atlanta: Six finishes of eighth or better in last seven races

The most recent winner at Atlanta, Busch was afforded the opportunity to test his No. 45 Toyota around the newly-formed track in January. Busch leads all active drivers with four wins around the 1.5-mile track, but last summer’s triumph was his first since 2010.

The 2004 champion earned his first top-five finish of the season in Phoenix after running mid-pack much of the day. Neither he nor teammate Bubba Wallace have performed as well as 23XI Racing was likely anticipating to start the year, but Busch’s experience has guided the team to top-10 runs twice and has yet to finish worse than 19th in 2022.

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 27th
  • Last three races: 15th — Auto Club; 32nd — Las Vegas; 13th — Phoenix
  • Recent at Atlanta: Three top fives, two finishes of 11th or worse in last five races

Not often is Denny Hamlin found outside the top 10 points, let alone the top 25. Nonetheless, Hamlin sits 27th in points after four races and is need of a good run much sooner than later.

The good news is that if Atlanta indeed produces a superspeedway-style race, Hamlin should be in contention for the win. Hamlin and Harvick are the series’ only active drivers who appear in the top 10 for average finishes at both superspeedways and mile-and-a-half venues.

The bad news is that Atlanta has been a point of inconsistency for the No. 11 team. Hamlin has only won once, and that victory came 10 years ago. He has scored points in 11 of the track’s 12 stages, however, so perhaps Hamlin can escape Atlanta with his first top-10 finish of the year.