Long: New-look Atlanta provides Cup race unlike any other at track


HAMPTON, Ga. — Never had they seen a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway like this. Pack racing, the leaders unable to break away and crashes. Lots of crashes. So many crashes. And some hard hits.

Drivers forecasted chaos after an intense 50-minute practice session Saturday. Fans got it Sunday.

When it was over, an ebullient — and relieved — William Byron celebrated his first Cup win of the season. And Christopher Bell, who crossed the finish line second, was penalized for passing below the out-of-bounds line on the backstretch and dropped to 23rd, the last car on the lead lap. 

“Pretty crazy race, but definitely good to come out on top,” Byron said.

A 500-mile race that took 3 hours, 57 minutes and 14 seconds didn’t earn the ire of fans because there was action on the track — or seemingly action even if it was hard to pass. With cars running two-by-two much of the race, and the lines bobbing and weaving, something seemed to be happening even when it wasn’t. 

A track-record 46 lead changes took place over 325 laps. Still, drivers talked about difficulty in passing if they weren’t in the first few rows.

The race also had 11 cautions, including eight for accidents — and that didn’t even include the crash as the field came to the checkered flag. Chris Buescher traveled across the finish line backward in seventh place. 

Thirty-one of the 37 cars in the race were involved in a crash. Bubba Wallace and Cody Ware both said their incidents were the hardest they have ever had.  

Everyone walked away.

Fans, wanting action at a 1.5-mile track instead of single-file racing, walked away feeling good about this new style at Atlanta Motor Speedway. 

“We designed this track two years ago with the help of iRacing (and) didn’t know what the Next Gen car was going to be like, said Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports, which operates Atlanta Motor Speedway. “Here we are today with a great day of racing a lot of fun for the race fans.”

Smith said it was the track’s largest crowd since 2014.

Not all drivers were thrilled with the racing. 

Kyle Busch, involved in a crash, was never happy with the change. Last July, track officials announced they would repave and reconfigure the track, increasing the banking from 24 to 28 degrees in the corners, Busch blistered the decision after he won the Xfinity race. 

There ain’t nobody thinking,” Busch said then, alluding to the narrowing of the track in the corners that he predicted would lead to the field being stuck two wide. 

After exiting Sunday’s race and finishing 33rd, Busch’s words were fewer but the sentiment remained.

Asked if he felt he was more an entertainer then driver at this track, Busch said: “Yup.”

Asked if he liked the changes, he said: “Nope” and then walked away.

Joey Logano, who was involved in one incident and finished ninth, called this type of racing his “tax” for racing at other venues.

“I always look at it as a tax I’ve got to pay to go racing more fun stuff, like next week (at Circuit of the Americas),” Logano told NBC Sports. “That’s just part of it. I’m not a big fan of it because there are so many wrecks and stuff. It takes a lot of the driver out of it, so it kind of bugs me a little bit. You can study it and be really good at it and get caught up in the wrong stuff and that’s what happens.”

It happened to Denny Hamlin, as his misfortune continued. He finished 29th, eliminated by a crash. It marked the third time he’s failed to finish in the first five races of the season.

He was asked if this style of racing was acceptable for Atlanta.

“I think it’s what they were shooting for,” Hamlin said of track officials. “If you asked them, it’s a success. I think the racing was obviously close. It’s exciting. There’s some crashes. There’s something for everyone.”

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson, who finished 30th after he was eliminated from a crash, understood why the changes were made to the track.

“I like traditional-style racing and traditional-style mile-and-a-half racing, but for a new repaved track, this is probably more exciting,” he said.

It was for Corey LaJoie, who was involved in a crash and finished a career-high fifth.

“If it was as crazy as it felt, (the fans) had to be entertained,” he told NBC Sports. “It was an interesting style of racing.”

Winning car owner Rick Hendrick said he wants more changes to the sport to create unique events like Sunday’s race.

“I think keep changing it up, and it just seems to bring in a lot of new people that we haven’t seen,” he said. 

He went on to say: “I think just doing something different than you’ve done for years and years is good for the sport.”

NASCAR weekend schedule for Circuit of the Americas


NASCAR’s three major series return to the road this weekend with races scheduled Saturday and Sunday at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series races are Saturday, and the Cup Series is scheduled to race Sunday afternoon.

MORE: Drivers expect North Wilkesboro surface to be challenging

Joey Logano, winner of last Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, has led laps in both COTA races and will be among the favorites Sunday.

As the first road course of the year, COTA will begin a new approach by NASCAR to stage racing on road circuits. There will no longer be a caution to end stages, but points will be awarded for the finish order. In another change, the “choose” rule will be in effect on road courses.

A look at the weekend schedule:

Circuit of the Americas (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Thunderstorms in the morning, sun later in the day. High of 86. 80% chance of rain.

Saturday: Sunny. High of 83.

Sunday: Partly cloudy. Temperature of 81 degrees with a 15% chance of rain at the start of the race.

Friday, March 24

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 11:30 a.m. .- 6:30 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 1:30 – 8:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2:05 – 2:55 p.m. — Cup practice (No live broadcast; tape-delayed version airing at 8 p.m. on FS1)
  • 4:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck practice (No live broadcast)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Truck qualifying (No live broadcast; tape-delayed version airing at 9 p.m. on FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 7 – 8 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)

Saturday, March 25

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 2 – 10:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1)
  • 1:30 p.m. — Truck race (42 laps, 143 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 5 p.m. — Xfinity race (46 laps, 156 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 26

Garage open

  • 12:30 – 10 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (68 laps, 231.88 miles; Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)




North Wilkesboro’s worn surface will prove challenging to drivers


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Three Cup drivers got their first chance to experience North Wilkesboro Speedway’s worn racing surface Tuesday and said tires will play a key role in the NASCAR All-Star Race there on May 21.

Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday. That test was to continue Wednesday.

The verdict was unanimous about how important tire wear will be.

“This place has got a lot of character to it,” Reddick said. “Not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving. It’s a really fun place.”

Dillon said: “If you use up your tire too early, you’re going to really be in trouble. You really got to try to make those four tires live.”

Buescher said: “The surface here was so worn out already that we expect to be all over the place. The speeds are fairly slow just because of the amount of grip here. It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight.”

Reddick noted the drop in speed over a short run during Tuesday’s test. That will mean a lot of off-throttle time.

“I think we were seeing a second-and-a-half falloff or so over even 50 laps and that was kind of surprising for me we didn’t have more falloff,” he said. “But, one little miscue, misstep into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car.”

“That’s with no traffic. Maybe with more traffic and everything, the falloff will be more, but certainly we’re out of control from I’d say Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car. … It’s really hard 30-40 laps into a run to even get wide open.”

Chris Buescher runs laps during a Goodyear tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway, while Austin Dillon is on pit road. (Photo: Dustin Long)

One thing that stood out to Dillon was how the facility looks.

While the .625-mile racing surface remains the same since Cup last raced there in 1996, most everything else has changed.

In some cases, it is fresh red paint applied to structures but other work has been more extensive, including repaving the infield and pit road, adding lights for night racing, adding SAFER barriers, the construction of new suites in Turn 4 and new stands along the backstretch.

“It’s cool to see how much they’ve done to the track, the suites, the stands that they’re putting in,” Dillon said. “To me, the work that is going in here, we’re not just coming for one race. We’re coming here for a while. I’m excited about that.”

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup race at COTA


Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, has attracted an entry list that includes talent beyond that of the tour regulars.

Jordan Taylor, who is substituting in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet for injured Chase Elliott, brings a resume that includes 31 IMSA class wins, two 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins and two IMSA wins at COTA.

MORE: NBC Driver Rankings: Christopher Bell is No. 1

Jenson Button won the Formula One championship in 2009 and has five F1 starts at COTA. He is scheduled to be a driver for the NASCAR entry in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kimi Raikkonen, entered by Trackhouse Racing as part of its Project 91 program, won the 2007 F1 championship and has eight F1 starts at the Austin track.

They will draw attention at COTA this weekend, along with these other drivers to watch:


Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best seasonal finish: 2nd (Atlanta I)
  • Past at COTA: 19th and 14th in two career starts

Keselowski hasn’t been a star in road course racing, but his 2023 season has started well, and he figures to be in the mix at the front Sunday. He led the white-flag lap at Atlanta last Sunday before Joey Logano passed him for the win.

AJ Allmendinger

  • Points position: 17th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 5th and 33rd in two starts

The Dinger is a road course expert. Last year at COTA, he was involved in tight racing on the final lap with Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman before Chastain emerged with the victory.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Auto Club)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top fours, including a win

Chastain lifted Trackhouse Racing’s profile by scoring his — and the team’s — first Cup victory at COTA last season. He’s not shy about participating in the last-lap bumping and thumping that often mark road course races.


Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 13th and 21st in two starts

Buescher has never led a lap at COTA and is coming off a 35th-place finish at Atlanta after being swept up in a Lap 190 crash. Although he has shown the power to run near the front this year, he has four consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas I)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top 10s

Bowman’s four-race run of consistent excellence (finishes of fifth, eighth, third and ninth) ended at Atlanta as he came home 14th and failed to lead a lap. At COTA, he is one of only four drivers with top-10 finishes in both races.

William Byron

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I)
  • Past at COTA: 11th and 12th in two starts

Involvement in an accident at Atlanta ended Byron’s two-race winning streak. He’ll be looking to lead a lap at COTA for the first time.



Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended by NASCAR


Three members of the Reaume Brothers Racing No. 33 Craftsman Truck Series team have been suspended for three races by NASCAR after a piece of tungsten ballast came off their truck during last Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The suspensions were announced Tuesday.

Crew chief Gregory Rayl and crew members Matthew Crossman and Travis Armstrong were suspended because of the safety violation. Mason Massey is the team’s driver.

MORE: Xfinity driver Josh Williams suspended for one race

In a tweet following the announcement of the penalty, the team said it will not file an appeal. “The ballast became dislodged only after the left side ballast container had significant contact with the racing surface,” according to the statement. “We would like to be clear that there was no negligence on the part of RBR personnel.”

NASCAR also announced Tuesday that Truck Series owner/driver Cory Roper, who had been suspended indefinitely for violating the substance abuse policy, has been reinstated.

The Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series are scheduled to race this weekend at Circuit of the Americas.