NASCAR viewer’s guide: Atlanta Motor Speedway


When NASCAR returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend, teams will be in for something new.

The 1.5-mile oval was repaved and reconfigured following its July 2021 race, with Speedway Motorsports changing the corner banking from 24 degrees to 28 degrees and widening the frontstretch in an effort to promote superspeedway-style racing similar to Daytona and Talladega.

Teams will be using the same rules package featured at those mammoth tracks, but both Daytona and Talladega are 2.5-plus-mile behemoths. At a tighter mile-and-a-half track, Atlanta’s resurfaced reconfiguration remains an enormous unknown before race weekend:

Inquiring minds want to know …

Few tests have been held in Atlanta since the track was redone, but among the drivers with experience in Cup cars are Ross Chastain, Kurt Busch, Chris Buescher, David Ragan, Drew Herring and Justin Allgaier.

Allgaier has driven both the Cup Wheel Force Data car and the Xfinity car and noted his experiences in both have been “completely different.”

When initial reports of the reconfiguration trickled through, drivers like Kyle Busch expressed displeasure with the decision, but that frustration seems to have eased as Speedway Motorsports has worked with drivers on changes throughout the process.

Michael McDowell, like most drivers, has yet to see the new surface for himself. While there is plenty of room to speculate what the race will look like, drivers enter this weekend with far more unknown than known.

“The guys that I have talked to said the track has a lot of grip and it’s very easy, wide-open, much like Daytona and Talladega,” McDowell said in a March 9 teleconference. “So I’m kind of anticipating that style of a race, but just like everybody else, with not making any laps, you just don’t know until you get there.”

Superspeedway favorites to watch?

If Sunday’s race is anything like a superspeedway race, it’s fair to wonder whether the favorites at Daytona and Talladega become the ones to watch in Atlanta.

Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick should immediately jump out as contenders in that case. According to Racing Insights, they are the only two drivers who appear on 1.5-mile and superspeedway tracks for the best career averages. Hamlin averages a 16.69 finish at superspeedways and 13.6 on 1.5-mile tracks, while Harvick averages 16.52 and 11.87 respectively.

Another to watch is Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney. He is a three-time superspeedway winner and the defending winner of the spring race at Atlanta. The seven-time Cup winner also placed fourth in this year’s Daytona 500, his seventh top five on a superspeedway.

Is “The Closer” getting closer?

Speaking of Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion is in the midst of a 47-race winless streak, his most recent victory coming at Bristol in 2020 to cap a nine-win season.

Sure, the track is much different than anything Cup has seen there before. But Harvick is a three-time winner at Atlanta, with victories in 2001, 2018 and 2020.

Stewart-Haas Racing has already gone to Victory Lane this year courtesy of Chase Briscoe’s first career win at Phoenix last week, and Aric Almirola hasn’t finished worse than 12th through four races. Harvick is on par with his teammates with finishes of seventh (Auto Club), 12th (Vegas) and sixth (Phoenix) in his last three races, his lone DNF coming at Daytona after a late-race crash.

Nothing about this Atlanta will be familiar, but maybe a Harvick victory would change that.

Give credit to Gragson

Noah Gragson is off to an historic start in the Xfinity Series. With finishes of third (Daytona), second (Auto Club and Las Vegas) and a Phoenix victory, Gragson joins Harvick (2005) and Elliott Sadler (2012) as the only drivers in series history to start the year with four consecutive top-three finishes.

Gragson has never won on a mile-and-a-half track but has finished runner-up four times on such tracks, second-most without a win behind only Daniel Hemric. He also has a Daytona victory in his back pocket if Saturday’s race plays out like a superspeedway. No driver has ever earned five straight top-three finishes to start the season. Gragson could be the first on Saturday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven teams dot the Cup Series entry list for Sunday’s race at Atlanta. The lone open car choosing to participate this weekend is NY Racing Team, which will field Greg Biffle in the No. 44 Chevrolet with sponsorship from Stillman College. The car has featured Grambling State University at Daytona and Florida A&M University at Las Vegas, highlighting HBCU programs through a partnership with Urban Edge Network.

David Ragan will pilot the No. 15 Ford for Rick Ware Racing.

In the Xfinity Series, 43 cars will compete for 38 starting spots in Saturday’s qualifying session. Sage Karam, a seven-time starter in the Indianapolis 500, will make his season debut with Alpha Prime Racing after making four starts for Jordan Anderson Racing in 2021.

The Truck Series will see 36 trucks in action Saturday, with no teams in danger of going home. Ross Chastain, runner-up in the Cup race at Phoenix a week ago, will make his Truck season debut driving the No. 41 Chevrolet for Niece Motorsports.

NASCAR Cup Series Entry List — Atlanta Motor Speedway

NASCAR Xfinity Series Entry List — Atlanta Motor Speedway

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Entry List — Atlanta Motor Speedway

Qualifying order

In a Wednesday teleconference, RFK Racing driver Chris Buscher acknowledged teams are still limited on parts and pieces, which limits how aggressive they can be in practice. But the need to learn still prevails, even if Buescher tested the No. 6 Ford there in January.

“We need to get out there,” Buescher said. “We need to get some group runs in. I would expect that you’ll see teams try and control their groups, stay with cars they know they trust. I think that will be our initial plan. If we feel like we need to get into a bigger group, we will.”

Qualifying on Saturday will follow the usual single-car, single-lap procedure as Cup teams will be separated into Group A and Group B based on a calculated metric that factors fastest laps, points positions and results from the previous week’s race. The five fastest teams from each group will advance to the second round for another single-lap effort to compete for the pole position.

The Xfinity Series and Truck Series will each get one 50-minute practice session on Friday before single-vehicle, single-lap and single-round qualifying on Saturday morning.

NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying Order — Atlanta Motor Speedway

NASCAR Xfinity Series Qualifying Order — Atlanta Motor Speedway

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Qualifying Order — Atlanta Motor Speedway

This weekend’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, March 18

Forecast: 93% chance of rain, high of 65 degrees, low of 54 degrees

  • 3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
  • 4:05 -4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 5:05 -5:55 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1)

Saturday, March 19

Forecast: Partly cloudy, high of 65 degrees, low of 40 degrees

  • 10:30 a.m. — Truck qualifying (FS2, FS1 at 11 a.m.)
  • 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1)
  • 2:30 p.m. — Truck race (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 5 p.m. — Xfinity race (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 20

Forecast: Sunny, high of 67 degrees, low of 38 degrees

  • 3 p.m. — Cup race (FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

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“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

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Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.