Nashville begins run of 20 consecutive weekends of racing for Cup

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After a weekend off, it’s time to get back to racing for the Cup Series. This weekend at Nashville Superspeedway marks the first of 20 consecutive weekends the series races, going all the way to the season finale in November at Phoenix Raceway.

NBC and USA Network take over broadcasting of Cup and Xfinity races the rest of the season, beginning this coming weekend. NBC Sports will present a total of 39 races (20 Cup, 19 Xfinity) across NBC and USA Network in 2022. The Nashville Cup race airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBC.

The first season with the Next Gen has seen 12 different winners in the first 16 Cup races. That leaves four spots open with 10 races left in the regular season. There has never been more than 16 different winners at the end of the regular season. Will this year change that?

That’s just among the storylines to watch as the season resumes.

Looking to return to Victory Lane

Eight drivers who won a Cup race last year have yet to win this season. They are:

Martin Truex Jr.

Ryan Blaney 

AJ Allmendinger

Aric Almirola

Brad Keselowski

Bubba Wallace

Christopher Bell

Michael McDowell

First career Cup wins

Four different drivers have won their first Cup race this season. They are:

Austin Cindric (Daytona 500)

Chase Briscoe (Phoenix)

Ross Chastain (Circuit of the Americas)

Daniel Suarez (Sonoma)

This is the most since the series had five first-time winners in 2011 (Marcos Ambrose, Trevor Bayne, Paul Menard, David Ragan and Regan Smith).

Stay until the end …

Three races have been determined by a last-lap pass.

Six races have gone to overtime.

Eight races have seen the final lead change take place with five or fewer laps left.

Twelve of 16 races have had the final lead change take place with 10 or fewer laps left. 

Changing of the guard? Hold that thought …

After nine of the first 11 races were won by drivers age 29 and under, the older guard has taken control.

Each of the last five races has been won by a driver 30 and over, including two races in that stretch won by drivers more than 40 years old (Kurt Busch, 43, at Kansas and Denny Hamlin, 41, at the Coca-Cola 600).

Do it again

Kyle Larson won last year’s race at Nashville, leading 264 of the 300 laps. Can he repeat?

Ross Chastain finished second in last year’s race. William Byron placed third. Aric Almirola was fourth. Kevin Harvick completed the top five.

Penalties for wheels coming off a car

Ten times this season a wheel has come off a car on track during a race. That is a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. Here is a list of teams that have been penalized for the infraction:

Justin Haley (Daytona 500)

Kaz Grala (Daytona 500)

Todd Gilliland (Auto Club Speedway)

Corey LaJoie (Phoenix)

Bubba Wallace (Circuit of the Americas)

BJ McLeod (Talladega)

Denny Hamlin (Dover)

AJ Allmendinger (Dover)

Justin Haley (Kansas)

Kyle Larson (Sonoma)

Hot days ahead

With the early forecast for Sunday’s Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway calling for a high of 94 degrees, it would be the hottest race of this season.

Hottest races so far this year:

87 degrees — World Wide Technology Raceway (June 5)

87 degrees— Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (May 29)

85 degrees— Circuit of the Americas (March 27)

83 degrees— Talladega Superspeedway (April 24)

79 degrees— Phoenix Raceway (March 13)

Friday 5: Portland ‘will always be a special place’ to AJ Allmendinger

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The memories remain fresh to AJ Allmendinger 16 years later. 

The last time he was at Portland International Raceway, Allmendinger won his first Champ Car race and shared the podium with one of his best friends and one of his toughest competitors. 

Allmendinger returns to the 1.97-mile road course for Saturday’s inaugural Xfinity Series race there. He arrives as the series points leader. 

Allmendinger says he remembers the events around that Portland Champ Car race in June 2006 “like yesterday.”

It started with fellow competitor Paul Tracy, who had supported a teen-aged Allmendinger in go-kart racing, telling Allmendinger he heard that his friend was about to lose his Champ Car ride. 

Allmendinger soon did. It wasn’t long before he was contacted by Forsythe Racing about a ride but was told that it might not happen for a week or so. The timetable accelerated. Forsythe Racing let go one of its drivers and hired Allmendinger the week of the Portland race.

At ease with the new team, Allmendinger was fast in practice and qualifying. He started the Portland race second, took the lead after the green flag and surrendered it only during green-flag pit cycles. 

His only concern came from close friend Justin Wilson.

“I had gotten out to a decent sized lead and then J Wil (Wilson) kind of ran me down through traffic,” Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “I remember thinking, ‘Of course, anybody but J Wil.’ It was good and bad. We had so much love and respect for each other, I knew he wasn’t going to come barreling down the inside and take me out. But I was like, ‘Man I’d rather take Sebastian (Bourdais, the two-time reigning series champion then) at this point.’

“It was surreal to be able to win the first race there. It was Father’s Day and my dad was there. It will always be a special place to me.”

Allmendinger won by 5.4 seconds over Wilson. Bourdais, who went on to win four consecutive series titles from 2004-07, placed third.

Sharing a podium with Wilson carries extra meaning for Allmendinger. Wilson died a day after he was struck in the head by debris during the August 2015 IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway. 

“I truly felt like — and this is the type of the person he always was — of course he wanted to win the race, but I almost felt like he was happier that I won than if he had won it,” Allmendinger said. “At least that’s the way he acted toward me. That was really special.”

Wilson’s excitement was evident as soon as the race ended.

“As I was getting out (of the car), he had parked and immediately come over,” Allmendinger said. “The guy that he was, he let, of course, my family and the team (get to Allmendinger first).

It also was meaningful for Allmendinger to be on the podium with Bourdais after beating him.

“He was the guy to always beat in Champ Car; Newman-Haas was the team to beat,” Allmendinger said. “It was one of those things, Sebastian, for sure, hated not winning because he won so much in Champ Car. Anytime he didn’t win, he was pissed off.

“But there’s pictures of us, him dumping champagne into my pocket. Stuff like that where I even felt like, ‘OK, he’s happy for me. As mad as he probably is about not winning.’ 

“Looking back on those photos and just sharing moments like that on the podium, that was really special. I couldn’t imagine two better guys (to share the podium) with at that point.”

Allmendinger seeks to make more memories this weekend. Should he win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, it would mark his third consecutive road course victory, tying Terry Labonte for the most Xfinity road course wins in a row. A victory also would give Allmendinger a win in six of the last 14 Xfinity road course events. 

COTA Xfinity race
AJ Allmendinger has one victory (shown here at Circuit of the Americas), six top-five finishes and 12 top-10 finishes in 13 Xfinity Series races this year. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The 40-year-old has seen his career revived since joining Kaulig Racing in 2019.

“NASCAR is unique,” said Allmendinger, who also will drive for Kaulig Racing in Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.

“In my head it’s the only top-tiered sanctioning body that has different levels that you can drop down and still race. Like (two-time NTT IndyCar Series driver) Josef Newgarden is not going to drop back down to Indy Lights if Penske, all of a sudden, starts struggling. F1 guys are not going to drop down to F2 and F3, things like that. 

“I think sometimes in the outside world people don’t look at it and fully understand what the Trucks and the Xfinity Series is. For sure, they’re still a development series to get the young guys into Cup, but it’s also really competitive.”

And Allmendinger has held his own. Since 2020, Allmendinger has won eight of 57 Xfinity races (14%) and scored 30 top-five finishes (52.6% of his starts in that time).

“It’s not even always about winning, it’s trying to run up front,” he said. “When you have to do it 38 weeks of the year, it can become miserable, at least for me.”

“I used to always talk to David Ragan and I would always laugh. He either fakes it well or this is true. David used to always talk about, yea, at the racetrack he would be mad and all that, but when he walked into his house that week was over and he was OK, he was done. 

“I don’t know how to do that. Believe me, I’ve been talking to my wife Tara about it over the last couple of weeks because in the Xfinity Series we’ve been finishing decent and we’ve got the points lead, but we haven’t been as competitive as we want.”

That’s something Kaulig Racing President Chris Rice told NBC Sports last month at Darlington Raceway even after the team’s cars finished sixth (Landon Cassill), eighth (Allmendinger) and 10th (reigning series champion Daniel Hemric).

NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard
AJ Allmendinger celebrates his Cup win last year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Kaulig Racing President Chris Rice (left) and team owner Matt Kaulig (right). (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I think some of the rule changes that were implemented in the offseason … we just haven’t caught back up,” Rice said then. 

“We’re not laying down. … We’re going to work hard to get it fixed before we go to the playoffs. It’s just bad because we only go to Texas (and Charlotte) and then we hit a stretch of road courses and different style of racetracks. 

“Hopefully, by the time we get back to the mile and a halves after Texas that you’ll see a difference in our cars, because we’re really going to put a big push on trying to get better on these style (of tracks).”

Although JR Motorsports placed three cars in the top four at Charlotte, including winner Josh Berry, Allmendinger saw positives after his 19th-place finish. Allmendinger’s finish was hurt by a tire going down and hitting the wall. He finished two laps down.

“Charlotte was finally the first kind of bad luck that caught us out,” Allmendinger said. “We had kind of been playing with fire for the last few weeks. The funny part of it is — this is the way auto racing is — it was actually, probably one of our better races in (terms) of speed on a mile-and-a-half racetrack. 

“We weren’t going to win. The JR (Motorsports) cars have, for sure, found something and they are succeeding. … We had tried some new stuff going into Charlotte, and I felt like we actually made gains.”

2. Work to do  

Although Alex Bowman has scored nine top-10 finishes, including a win, in the last 12 races, he’s looking for better results.

“I feel like the stat sheet probably looks pretty consistent, (but) we’ve definitely had a rough couple of weeks,” Bowman said. “Texas wasn’t great (sixth in the All-Star Race), Kansas wasn’t amazing (ninth) and Charlotte (10th) was pretty rough. Just got to keep working at it. 

“I think we’ve learned a lot. We were awful in Darlington (29th due to an accident). I feel like we learned a ton from that race. Just being able to go back to the simulator afterwards and identify things and kind of go there.

“It could always be worse. I feel like the summer has always been rough on us. We’re just doing our best to put together the best races that we can. Unfortunately, the ones lately haven’t been great, but we’ve had a lot of really fast race cars this year, too.”

Hendrick Motorsports will field a car for Bowman in one Xfinity race this season. He will compete in the Indy road course event, the day before the Cup race there in July. He said running in the Camping World Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas helped him in the Cup race. He finished second in the Cup race.

“I felt like I did a poor job at COTA last year and needed to be better,” he said. “We ran the Truck and had a really good day on Sunday. Hopefully, more of that same there.”

3. Can the streak continue?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Christopher Bell each have finished in the top 10 in the last four races, the best active streak in the series.

Stenhouse’s streak comes after he had finished 21st or worse in eight consecutive races.

“We were in a valley but we were kind of hanging our hats that we had good races and good speed,” he said. “We just didn’t have those finishes to go along with the effort that the team was putting in at the racetrack and the shop.”

All-Star Race
In his last four points races, Ricky Stenhouse finished second at Dover, eighth at Darlington, eighth at Kansas and seventh in last week’s Coca-Cola 600. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Stenhouse classifies World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway as a short track even though it is a 1.25-mile track. He classifies it that way because the braking drivers do in Turns 1 and 2 is similar to what they do at Phoenix, Martinsville and Richmond — all tracks 1 mile or less. 

Stenhouse notes that JTG Daugherty Racing’s short track program has struggled, so his goal is more modest this weekend.

“Going to Gateway this weekend, we’re not shooting for a top 10,” he said. “I feel like the way our short track program started this year, if we could make some improvements and have a top-15 car, I think that would be a win. 

“If something happens like at the end of the Coke 600, you never know what kind of finish you can get out of it. We’re just trying to make sure we stay consistent and keep executing like we have been.”

Stenhouse’s hot streak has helped him go from 31st to 24th in the points. Even with five top-10 finishes this season, he hasn’t scored as many points as he did last year when he had only one top-10 finish through the first 14 Cup races. Stenhouse had 281 points at this time last year. He has 267 points this year.

“I probably feel better about this year, just knowing that at tracks we were capable of winning, Daytona and Atlanta, we put ourselves in the position that we needed to be in when chaos broke loose,” he said, alluding to accidents in both events. “We got a top 10 at (Auto Club) and ran in the top five. 

“We were top 10 at Vegas and had that engine issue. I felt like COTA we were good on the long run and felt like we could have finished top 15 (before a drivetrain issue led to a 37th-place finish) … so I feel good about where our road course program is going into Sonoma in two weeks.”

4. Taking away the positives 

Cole Custer was in position to score his first top-10 finish of the season when last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 went to overtime. Custer restarted seventh. He was 10th when he was collected in a multi-car crash triggered after contact between Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson  at the front.

Custer’s car could not continue and he finished 21st. It marked his fifth consecutive result of 15th or worse.

“You just have to keep grinding,” said Custer, who is 27th in the points, of his predicament. “It’s a really long year and you just have to stay at it and keep working with your team and get your cars better and go week-by-week.  

“But I think the biggest thing from last week is that we can take a lot of positives and a lot of momentum from that. I mean, being able to run up there in the top five and have a shot to win the race at the end, that makes you pumped to go to the track the next week.

“I think we’re going in the right direction, it’s just a matter of cleaning some things up and having some good luck.”

That’s something he and his Stewart-Haas Racing team haven’t had.

He ran in the top 10 for much of the race at Circuit of the Americas and spun off course on a restart with less than 10 laps left. He finished 23rd.

Custer started third, ran in the top five for the first two stages at Martinsville before a penalty for an uncontrolled tire put him in the back of the field. He never recovered, finishing 21st.

And there was Coca-Cola 600 result.

“We’ve had tires roll away, we’ve had motors blow, and we’ve gotten wrecked I think six or seven times, so it seems like one thing after another,” Custer said. “But if you bring fast cars to the racetrack, it’ll eventually turn around,” he said.

5. Inaugural Cup race winners

With Cup heading to World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway for its inaugural race there, here is a look at drivers who have won inaugural Cup races since 2000:

2021 Indianapolis Road Course — AJ Allmendinger

2021 Road America — Chase Elliott

2021 Nashville — Kyle Larson

2021 Circuit of the Americas — Chase Elliott

2021 Bristol Dirt — Joey Logano

2020 Daytona Road Course — Chase Elliott

2018 Charlotte Roval — Ryan Blaney

2011 Kentucky — Kyle Busch

2001 Kansas — Jeff Gordon

2001 Chicagoland — Kevin Harvick

Dr. Diandra: Which drivers are superspeedway specialists?

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We often view superspeedway races as events anyone can win, but that’s not the case. It’s just that we remember surprise winners much more vividly. We also tend to lump Daytona and Talladega together despite being very different tracks. Most of the true underdog winners — the Trevor Baynes and Michael McDowells — win at Daytona.

Eleven drivers earned their first win at Talladega. For six of those 11, that win is their only Cup win. Some drivers in Sunday’s field have only won at superspeedways: David Ragan, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bubba Wallace and Justin Haley. Two out of three of Aric Almirola‘s wins are at superspeedways. Some drivers have developed unique skill set necessary to succeed Talladega, Daytona and the new Atlanta. This fast-paced form of racing requires drivers to rapidly process information, understand the draft, and avoid wrecks.

Who’s good at superspeedways?

I focused on the 2020-22 seasons to keep the results recent enough to be relevant to this weekend’s race. The trends observed, however, hold for other ranges of time as well.

I limited my analysis to Talladega and Daytona because we’ve had only one race at Atlanta in its superspeedway configuration.

I excluded drivers who ran fewer than three superspeedway races. That, unfortunately, eliminates rookie drivers. Don’t overlook Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

I also excluded drivers with an average finishing position higher than 25.

I plotted drivers’ average finishes below. We’ve had nine combined Cup Talladega and Daytona races between 2020-22. If a driver didn’t compete in all nine races, I noted the number of races run atop the bar. Drivers are ranked from left to right in order of best average finishing position.

A vertical bar graph showing the average finishing positions of drivers at superspeedways from 2020-2022

No one will be surprised by the first three names on the left side of the graph. A lot of pundits recommend Ryan Blaney and Wallace this weekend as winning picks. Despite a disappointing 2021, Kevin Harvick finished fourth, fourth, 15th and eighth at superspeedways last year.

You might not expect to find Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on the right side of the graph. His two superspeedway wins both occurred back in 2017. In the last two years, he finished second at Talladega in 2020, but every other finish was out of the top 15.

What’s more surprising are the last two names on the far right: Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch, two recent champions. We know they’re good drivers, but superspeedways seem to have been their Achilles heels recently.

Sussing out superspeedway skills

To separate out good drivers who aren’t so good at superspeedways from drivers who are mid-pack everywhere, I compared each driver’s average finishing position at superspeedways to their averages at all other types of tracks. I kept superspeedway data in green and added the non-superspeedway data in yellow. I again ordered the drivers with the best finishing average at superspeedways to the left.

A vertical column chart that compares average finishes on superspeedways to average finishes on all other types of tracks.

The graph shows that some drivers, like Hamlin and Chris Buescher, have relatively similar average finishes at superspeedways as they do at other tracks. But many drivers have big differences in their finishes at the two types of tracks.

I’ve dotted in the green bars for the seven drivers with the largest ratio of average superspeedway finish vs. other-track finish. Wallace’s superspeedway results are almost twice as good as at other types of tracks. The other six drivers are: Justin Haley, Corey LaJoie, Chase Briscoe, Ty Dillon, McDowell and Blaney. These drivers clearly have an edge at superspeedways that makes them better bests there than at other tracks.

On the other side, we have drivers who finish worse at superspeedways than at other types of tracks.

Kyle Larson’s average finish at superspeedways is about three times worse than elsewhere. His weakness seems to be not finishing races. Larson has 12 DNFs at the 30 Daytona and Talladega races he’s run. That’s a 40% DNF rate.

Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr. also do much better at non-superspeedways. Logano and Truex finish about twice as far back at superspeedways compared to other tracks. Each of these drivers has a teammate at the other end of the graph. This looks like a driver issue and not an equipment/team issue.

Don’t base Talladega picks on Daytona results

Some drivers perform very differently at different short tracks. The same is true for superspeedways.

The graph below shows average finishing position for Talladega in red and Daytona in blue. Drivers with the best Talladega average finishes are to the left. I again shaded the red bars for drivers who perform much better at Talladega than Daytona.

A vertical bar chart that compares average finishing position for Talladega to average finishing position for Daytona

 

Wallace won the last fall’s Talladega race, but he didn’t finish within the top 10 at any other Talladega race from 2020-22. All but one of those finishes were out of the top 15. At Daytona, Wallace only has one finish out of the top 15 and two second-place finishes. He’s on many ‘recommend’ lists for Talladega. The numbers don’t seem to support that degree of enthusiasm.

Ty Dillon finishes three times better at Talladega than Daytona. This stat is based on only three Daytona and two Talladega races. I left him in because I think he’s a good underdog pick.

Brad Keselowski was undeniably good at Talladega with Penske. He won his Daytona Duel this year. But his new team is still struggling to get good finishes.

Erik Jones is about 2.5 times better at Talladega than Daytona. His stats are skewed by fifth- and second-place finishes in 2020 running for JGR. He did finish ninth in the last Talladega race, though.

Although Byron ranks low on the superspeedway finish graph, he’s eighth in Talladega ranking and the highest Hendrick car.

The news from this chart isn’t good for Kyle Larson fans. His average finish at Talladega is worse than at Daytona by a factor of two.

Chase Elliott has an even larger differential on the Daytona-favoring side. His average finish at Daytona is three times better than at Talladega.

Luck is necessary at Talladega. But drivers with better-developed superspeedway skills have a distinct edge on their competition. This isn’t a race just anyone can win.

NASCAR viewer’s guide: Atlanta Motor Speedway

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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)

Friday 5: The many sides of Alex Bowman

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Alex Bowman’s life is full of contradictions on and off the track.

Start with his dogs: Roscoe, a beagle mix, and Finn, a Labrador retriever.

“Finn is an awesome dog,” Bowman told NBC Sports in the offseason. “You can take him anywhere. Super chill. Take him to the racetrack, (he) doesn’t mind.

“Roscoe. Total opposite. … Hates all other dogs beside Finn. Causes a scene wherever you take him. He’s like that person at the bar that is always causing a scene. That’s my dog Roscoe. He stays at home most of the time because of that, but I love them both.”

Just as his dogs provide contrasts, so does his racing career. 

Amid his victory celebration last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Bowman’s career faced scrutiny because of Kyle Busch’s rant. 

Busch, who was on the way to winning until a late caution took away his advantage and pit strategy gave it to Bowman, unleashed a string of expletives on his team’s radio about Bowman’s seemingly good fortune in many of his victories. 

Bowman told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he and Busch talked this week and Busch — who has finished runner-up to Bowman three times — expressed that his comments were made in the heat of the moment.

Still, Bowman’s victory marked yet another time he won a race in the final laps. 

Five of Bowman’s seven career Cup victories have come when he took the lead with 10 laps or less remaining. While that shows he can put himself in position to win, others may view it as a sign of luck or good fortune and overlook his talent. Don’t do that.

Since the start of last season, Bowman has won five Cup races. Only Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson has more victories (11) during that time. A lack of consistency, though, has plagued Bowman and his team since he began running full-time at Hendrick in 2018, making the narrative on Bowman more challenging to decipher. 

Bowman has finished 20th or worse in 43 of his 147 starts (29.3%) at Hendrick. This year follows the pattern. He placed 24th in the Daytona 500 and 25th at Auto Club Speedway before winning at Las Vegas. 

Bowman knows being more consistent is key for this season, but even that might not be enough to avoid being overshadowed on his own team. 

“I have quite possibly the most talented race car driver of our generation as a teammate,” Bowman told NBC Sports last year, referring to Larson. “I have the most popular race car driver of our generation as a teammate (Elliott). And I have ‘Boy Wonder’ in William Byron as a teammate. 

“I’m just a guy that likes to wrench on race cars, spend time at home with my dogs. I’m a very regular person. I don’t mind if the media thinks I’m fourth in line to those three because they’re all pretty special, and it’s just cool to be their teammate.”

NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500
William Byron (left), Alex Bowman (center) and Kyle Larson (right). Since last season, Larson and Bowman have combined to win 16 of 39 Cup races. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

But Bowman’s path to Hendrick differed greatly from his teammates.

Elliott and Byron have been with Hendrick Motorsports their entire career. Larson has raced for Chip Ganassi Racing and Hendrick Motorsports since going full-time in Cup in 2014. 

Bowman’s first race was with BK Racing. His first start came in the 2014 Daytona 500 under challenging circumstances.

“Our superspeedway cars were so slow and we weren’t locked in,” Bowman told NBC Sports about his first Daytona 500. “Talk about pressure in the playoffs. Try pressure being a broke race car driver tying to make it, trying to make your first start at the Daytona 500 when there’s (49) cars there, a bunch of guys going home.”

The first two Cup teams Bowman raced for — BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing — no longer exist. After finding out on social media he had lost his ride at Tommy Baldwin Racing shortly before the start of the 2016 season, Bowman was hired to be the driver in the simulator for Hendrick Motorsports. After Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion that season, Bowman was tabbed for 10 races. 

The next season, Bowman ran only two Xfinity races, spending his time in the simulator for Hendrick. He took over the No. 88 in 2018 after Earnhardt retired from full-time Cup racing. Bowman moved to the No. 48 last season, taking over after Jimmie Johnson left to go to IndyCar. 

Now, half his teammates have won championships. Larson and Elliott have combined to win the last two Cup titles. Could Bowman make it three in a row for Hendrick Motorsports this season?

For those who view him as more lucky than good, the question could seem ludicrous. But viewing Bowman as lucky misses the point. Just look at last week’s win at Las Vegas. 

He ranked third in average running position for the race at 6.55, trailing only Ross Chastain (3.82) and Byron (6.48). Bowman did that despite a pit-road penalty for equipment interference on Lap 136 of the 274-lap race. 

Bowman climbed to fourth before the final caution. While those ahead of him took four tires, crew chief Greg Ives called for a two-tire stop that got Bowman off pit road behind only Larson. That put the two winningest drivers in the series since last year on the front row for a two-lap shootout. 

And Bowman won. It marked the third time Larson has finished second to Bowman.

Dramatic finishes are not new to Bowman. Among his four wins last season, three came in the final 10 laps:

“It was awesome last year to win four races,” Bowman told NBC Sports in the offseason. “Obviously want more consistency. … I’m here to win trophies and Mr. Hendrick wants wins, and that’s what I’m here to deliver. While we would like to tie it together with more consistency, that’s obviously the goal for ’22, I like trophies.”

To win more trophies and gain that consistency, Bowman is trying new ways to be a better driver.

“I’ve really worked on trying to get outside my comfort zone,” he said in the offseason. “I’ve done a lot of types of training. I went to a flat track motorcycle school, which is something I never thought I would do and, to be quite honest, will never do again. 

“I fell down a lot, and I was way outside my comfort zone, but stuff like that, it’s why I’m going to race cars a lot this year and race cars that I haven’t raced before. Just try to do things that help me learn and try to do things that improve myself as a driver for Sundays.”

As for the flat track experience, Bowman said the track was too muddy, so the school ran on a dirt bike course. 

“A lot of time on the ground,” he said. “A lot of time getting really muddy. That was really it. I think the biggest thing for me was trying to figure out how to lean over and not wash the front end out. It was definitely interesting.

“Very uncomfortable. Pretty much the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in my life. It was rough.”

So was the early part of his Cup career, but he’s shown the ability to win.

2. Don’t overlook Trackhouse Racing

While much has been made of Trackhouse Racing scoring a top-five finish with Daniel Suarez (fourth at Auto Club) and Ross Chastain (third at Las Vegas), part of that attention is based on the team being an underdog in the sport.

That’s not how Chastain sees it.

“We are no underdog,” he told reporters Thursday.

Justin Marks’ organization is in its second season. The team expanded to a two-car operation this season. It seeks its first Cup victory. Chastain gave the organization its first stage victory last week at Las Vegas.

NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 - Qualifying
Trackhouse Racing teammates Daniel Suarez (left) and Ross Chastain have each scored a top-five finish this season. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

While recognizing the milestone, Chastain says the team seeks bigger goals.

“The plan is and the preparation we’re putting in is to get to a point where it’s just ‘Yep, OK, we won another stage. Did we win the race?”‘ Chastain said. “I don’t view us as an underdog. We don’t feel we’re lacking anything.”

After crashing in practice at Auto Club Speedway and going to a backup car, Chastain bounced back to finish third last weekend at Las Vegas and lead a career-high 83 laps. 

Chastain said he didn’t leave Las Vegas disappointed despite not getting the win after such a strong performance. 

“It was great, it is great,” Chastain said of his result. “Especially coming off the start of our season, it’s exactly what we needed. …  Super happy. I have no regrets. I know things I could have done better, I know things I could have been faster at, but as far as a whole picture, if I could have written down how the weekend would go, I would’t change anything for how it went.”

3. Sneak peak

Justin Allgaier was among three drivers who took part in a wheel force transducer test last week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, marking the last time drivers will be on the repaved and reconfigured track before next weekend’s events for Cup, Xfinity and the Camping World Truck Series. 

Wheel Force Transducer Tests allow manufacturers and Goodyear to collect data using specialized vehicle mounted transducers. Each manufacture is allowed to have a car at the test to compile data. Allgaier drove Chevrolet’s car. David Ragan drove Ford’s car. Drew Herring drove Toyota’s car.

For Allgaier, it was his second time on the track. He took part in the Xfinity tire test there in January. 

He says the Xfinity and Cup cars drive differently at Atlanta.

What I can tell you is the packages between the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series are completely different,” Allgaier said. “I was really surprised in the difference of speed and kind of how the cars drove.

“I would say the Cup car is obviously a lot faster and more on the limit of grip vs. what the Xfinity Series car was at the test. That will be interesting to see how that all plays out. …  I think when you look at the course of the weekend, between the Trucks, Xfinity and the Cup Series, I think you’re going to see three different types of racing over the course of the weekend, so I’ll be very excited to watch the other two.”

Cup cars will run the superspeedway package that was used at Daytona and Talladega, but will the race look like the pack racing common at those tracks?

“I think some of it is going to come down to do teams really try to go full Daytona/Talladega and trim their cars way out and do all the things we do at Daytona and Talladega?” Allgaier said. “I think there’s a lot of thought that’s going to be the right way to do it. 

“Truth be told, when we get there, having the most downforce, the most grip you can have is going to be super important because the tire doesn’t seem to fall off a lot, so the speeds stayed up kind of the whole time. You’ve got some grip to be able to maneuver around if you wanted, if you wanted to go to the middle or the top. I don’t foresee there being any issues, it’s just whether or not the drivers and teams are comfortable with being two- and three-wide.”

AUTO: JAN 06 NASCAR Goodyear Tire Test
The repaved frontstretch at Atlanta Motor Speedway during the January Goodyear tire test. Kurt Busch was among those who tested then. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

NASCAR hasn’t made a formal announcement, but Steve O’Donnell, chief operating officer, suggested that the sanctioning body would have the double yellow-line rule for Atlanta.

That rule is used at Daytona and Talladega. Any driver going below the double yellow lines to pass another car will be black flagged. Any driver that forces another car below the double yellow lines to avoid being passed may be black flagged. 

Since the January tire test, Atlanta Motor Speedway, at the suggestion of drivers, made an alteration to the frontstretch wall.

A Speedway Motorsports spokesperson said track officials “softened” the entry coming out of Turn 4 and into the traditional dogleg corner by moving the outside wall in about five feet at the dogleg corner for 320 feet. A new SAFER barrier and concrete wall were put in that section.

That won’t reduce the frontstretch width, as track officials repaved much of what used to be frontstretch grass. 

4. Dirt track ready to go at Bristol

Steve Swift, senior vice president operations and development for Speedway Motorsports, says the dirt track at Bristol Motor Speedway is ready to race, adding that the task was completed about two weeks ahead of schedule.

The track will host the Bristol Dirt Nationals March 20 – April 2 before the Camping World Truck Series (April 16) and Cup Series (April 17) compete there, followed by the World of Outlaws April 28-30.

The track is using the same dirt as last year. It was stored on the track’s property. 

Citing driver feedback, officials adjusted the banking on the track. Swift said the banking is progressive, steeper at the top than the bottom.

“In talking with several of the drivers, they felt like that would make much better racing, make the track much better, make all lanes come in a lot easier,” Swift said this week.

The banking is 19 degrees at the top, 18 degrees in the middle and 16 degrees at the bottom.

5. 2023 Cup schedule update

Ben Kennedy, senior vice president of racing development and strategy for NASCAR, said the goal is to release the 2023 Cup schedule this summer. 

The past two years, NASCAR announced the schedule for the upcoming season in September. Before then, NASCAR was revealing the schedule in the spring. The schedule reveal was pushed back on the calendar the past two years as the sport dealt with the COVID pandemic. 

The later the schedule is released, the more time NASCAR has to potentially add any new venues. 

A report last month from Sports Business Journal stated that NASCAR remained in talks with Chicago for a street course race there, possibly as early as next year.

Asked about that, Kennedy said: “Definitely continue to consider all the options from a scheduling standpoint. Chicago has been one of them, and I think that’s no secret from the iRacing event we had last year. That said, nothing to confirm at this point. Still looking at a handful of different options on the table.”

NASCAR Cup Series Busch Light Clash
A estimated crowd of at least 50,000 attended The Clash at the Coliseum last month at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, marking the first time NASCAR raced in the historic stadium. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kennedy also said talks continue on the status of the Clash at the Coliseum for next year. NASCAR’s contract to have the event at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was for this year but also included options for NASCAR to have the event there in 2023 and 2024.

NASCAR’s contract with the Coliseum states that the sanctioning body must inform the facility within 90 days of the race if it seeks to run the event there next year. That would put the deadline at May 6 for NASCAR to inform Coliseum officials.

“We’re still pulling together a ton of data and recaps over the next couple of weeks or so,” Kennedy said. “Hopefully, in the next few months or so, we’ll share more on that. 

“I think overall a great event this year. A lot of new fans that were out there, both in person as well as tuned in on TV. I think it was a great way to kick off our season with the Next Gen car, which definitely didn’t disappoint as well on the racetrack.”