Two Hot Nights in Atlanta
Atlanta Motor Speedway has a reputation, much like its namesake city, for being hot and rough around the edges. Although the 63-year old facility was re-paved following the 2021 season, it did very little to make things any less grueling for the drivers and teams trying to tame the beast.
Atlanta went from am exhausting fuel/tire strategy track where there was so little grip that drivers would run along the painted line at the bottom of the race track and so much tire wear that you would drop off within 30 laps of a pit stop to what is essentially a third restrictor plate track with steep 28 degree baking, making for much more exciting racing (from a fan standpoint), but just as much if not more stress for the drivers.
This year, there was an added wrench thrown into the mix. (Did I just make a tool pun while writing a story at a NASCAR race? Yes. Yes I did. )
Both the Xfinity and Cup Series races will be run during the twilight hours and end under the lights. Why is that a bad thing? Because qualifying was run during the hottest part of the day – meaning the track has the tendency to run with less grip since the asphalt is so hot it could be compared in hyperbole to the surface of the sun, which melts tires and causes the track to be slick..
That reduced grip and added speed was never more apparent than during Xfinity series qualifying on Saturday afternoon. Spartanburg’s own Jeremy Clements, driver of the #51 Fly and Form Structures Chevrolet, who has had a tough time qualifying this season, was one of the top 10, grabbing the pole position briefly after his first round run, topping what was then the best time by 2 tenths of a second.
Jeremy remarked after his 1st run that the car was running “free”, which although one would automatically think that means loose, it does not. It is not even the contrary. When a car is running free, it means there is just enough grip to where the car is not running tight or loose. The setup is just right. However, that is something that can change on a dime as track conditions change.
Following the first round of qualifying, the 51 team made very few changes, opting just to make a slight wedge adjustment and add some aero tape to the front grill. Jeremy did not fare as well in his 2nd run, maintaining the 8th position. Following qualifying he remarked that the car handles the same, but just didn’t pick up much more speed, as was the case with most of the 10 teams that advanced to the 2nd round.
As the heat of the day turned to an even more blisteringly hot and humid night, the track did not cool enough to alter the conditions, except for in regard to speed. During qualifying the top speed was 172.5 MPH. The fastest speed in the main event? 179.3 MPH.
Jeremy’s speed certainly carried over. The 51 had an advantage of running an engine built by Hendrick Motorsports, which no doubt was a boost to the already well-set up and good handling machine the team at JCR put together. Jeremy clearly had top 10 speed all night long – perhaps even fast enough to be in the top 5.
It was not all good. Atlanta Motor Speedway has a history of being a rough track. Maybe not on par with Darlington, but no matter what configuration it has been in, it has been a fickle beast. Being a superspeedway now doesn’t make things any easier.
Being successful on a superspeedway takes a combination of speed, skill, communication, patience, nerve, execution of strategy, and luck. Nobody knows that more than Jeremy Clements. Especially after his wild victory in a wild race at Daytona last August. Unfortunately for Jeremy, only speed, skill, and nerve played into his favor on Saturday night.
After opting not to pit under the first caution to get stage points and posting a 7th place finish in the opening stage, the 51 squad had a disastrous first stop at the stage break. They had problems getting the left front on. Once they did and dropped the jack, the car got stuck and would not go into gear to pull out. The team had to push the car backwards before it finally went into gear, leading to a 30 second stop and a loss of 23 spots on track. Jeremy would go on to start the 2nd stage in 30th position.
He worked his way back up the field quickly, partly in thanks to his speed, but also because several cars from the middle of the pack stayed out under the stage break caution. So, when the 3rd yellow of the race came out at lap 51, Jeremy was able to move up to restart 17th. He worked his way back up to 12th before dropping back to 17th, where he finished the stage.
The pit road monster struck again during the 2nd stage break. Jeremy came down, looking to get 4 tires, a tear off, fuel, and a slight wedge adjustment. But, he ended up missing his pit box entirely and had to go back around and pit the next lap, which once again landed him at the back of the pack, restarting 35th for the final stage.
Despite all of the issues on pit road and getting a small piece of ‘The big one’ (10 car mess at the exit of turn 2 on lap 89), Jeremy’s speedy car still managed to be in good position to possibly squeak out a top 10 or more. He held his own in 13th until the caution came out for the final time with 2 laps to go, prompting a green-white-checker (NASCAR overtime) finish. Mulling about with strategy, the team opted to stay out rather than give up track position, believing they could make it to the end.
Jeremy restarted on the outside line in P12, but as it turns out, he was not the only one to play the fuel mileage gamble. Right on the restart, the 3 cars ahead of him stacked up as one of them ran out of gas, forcing Clements to have to floor it to the middle lane in order to avoid getting pancaked. As he did, he also ran out of gas. Jeremy was able to get it to re-fire and managed to only lose 3 spots, and wheeled it around to a 15th place finish, which, all things considered, is something you’d take in a heartbeat.
“It’s disappointing for sure. We definitely had a better car than that, and we didn’t capitalize on it. We made too many mistakes”, said Clements on his thoughts about the race.
“At the end I thought we had a chance to get a top ten. We took off and there was about two cars in front of me. The car in front of me was running out of gas and I was pushing him and then I went to the inside of them. Then I started running out of gas and lost a few positions, but it fired back up and it went the rest of the way, which was weird. But we were just all low on gas. I mean, looking back, if we were that low, we probably just should have been safe, came in and had had full fuel. But we just made too many mistakes.”
I also asked Jeremy to walk me through what happened on the 2nd pit road incident where he missed his pit stall.
“I was never counted down. All I was told is we’re like six in front of the 48. And then, hell, I never saw it. It’s pretty dark on Pit Road, and you gotta be counted down, you know, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and I don’t, I don’t remember hearing that at all, and then just never even saw it (his pit sign).
I never even saw it once. So, that sucks, too. So, just a lot of things that shouldn’t have happened did happen tonight.”
Jeremy heads into next weekend’s race at New Hampshire 19th in the Xfinity Series points standings 144 points behind the cutoff line in 19th.
John Hunter Nemechek took home the win, his 3rd of the season, keeping him atop the standings by 16 points over Austin Hill.
There is a common theme these days among NASCAR fans, regardless of whether or not they fall in the camp of those that complain about how the number on the side of the car isn’t in the right place and that the sport truly died with Dale Earnhardt, or if they are one of those who love the sport and have never wavered in their loyalty to it, even if they don’t agree.
The theme is “How do we fix it?”
“How do we fix the NextGen Car?”
“How do we fix the short track package?”
“How do we fix *insert track here?*”
“How do we fix the sport and bring the fans back?”
Truth be told, none of us are sure. There are plenty of ideas. There are an endless plethora of things that NASCAR has tried. There have been failures and successes, and for certain, one of those successes was made evident Sunday night in the Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Atlanta has a history. It was once a rough and worn down old “cookie cutter” track where the tire drop off and strategy would be the only saving grace for the otherwise dull racing. Following the July race in 2021, the 60+ year old facility underwent a major “fix”.
It was reconfigured and re-paved, turning it into a superspeedway. While it was made a super speedway, it did not become a 3rd restrictor plate track. Instead, they use tapered spacers to restrict airflow, but still allow for horsepower. In spite of that small change, Atlanta for the last 3 races, has run a lot like Daytona and Talladega with cars running side by side and having to switch lines for position based on which lane had the momentum at the time. It also had all the wrecks.
Sunday’s race was different. In pre-race, Kyle Larson was asked about how much the track has changed/worn since it was re-paved and if the racing was any better. His response was that it seemed the track had not aged at all in the 2 years since it was “fixed”, and that the quality of paving seems to be so good that it may not even begin to wear for a long time.
If Sunday night’s race was any indication, fans will hope that is the case.
The expectation after qualifying on Saturday was that the Fords were going to dominate. The Penske and RFK cars made the Chevys and Toyotas look like they had cinder blocks for wheels. For over half the race, that looked like it was going to be the case as the lead flipped between Aric Almirola, Joey Logano, Austin Cindric, Ryan Blaney, and Brad Keselowski.
It was the amount of flipping that stands out. In all, there were 13 lead changes and 12 different leaders in the race, which was shortened due to inclement weather, being called at lap 185 with 75 laps to go. Almirola led the most with 46, but in addition to those mentioned above, Bubba Wallace, Aj Allmendinger, Chris Buescher, Martin Truex Jr, and Kyle Larson also led at least a lap.
In addition to the numerous lead changes, the race also had its fair share of cautions and drama on pit road.
There were 7 cautions, including 1 big pile up involving 7 cars at lap 122 when Erik Jones got into the left rear of Corey LaJoie, causing him to turn sideways up the track and collect Tyler Reddick, Ty Gibbs, Martin Truex Jr, and Ross Chastain.
On the stage break caution after the opening stanza, the pit road drama was in full effect as Truex Jr was turned around by the 34 of Michael McDowell, who made contact as he was leaving his box. That same stop cycle saw Denny Hamlin penalized for equipment interference, Christopher Bell hit for removing equipment from his pit box, and the first of a lot of adversity for the eventual race winner.
William Byron took the lead with 92 to go and was P1 when the final caution came out after Bubba Wallace and Ryan Preece got together for a spin between turns 3 and 4 with 80 some-odd laps to go. During that yellow, it began to drizzle in turn 1. After a lightning strike in the area, the cars were brought to pit road, and about 10 minutes later, William Byron was declared the winner.
But, to get there, he had to overcome a lot. He was hit with a pit road safety violation on his first stop at the 1st stage break caution. On lap 79, he went for a spin at the end of the front stretch and brought out the yellow. In the process of trying to save it, he blew a tire, causing significant damage to his crush panel and the front of the rear diffuser, both crucial components for aerodynamics, handling, and downforce for the NextGen car.
How did he get to the front? Strategy. As the race went on and the looming threat of rain grew ever bigger, teams began gambling with their pit strategy as it was evident this was a race, not to beat the rain, but to get to the rain. It was evident once the race hit the halfway point, making it official, that it would not go the scheduled distance. They were just trying to see how much more they could get in before the rain arrived.
On the penultimate caution, Byron had already come down to pit before that. The leaders all came in, and so as Byron had recovered from the spin and the penalty to be in position to gamble, crew chief Rudy Fugle had an easy choice, taking just 2 tires and fuel to come out near the front.
On the next caution, Fugle once again rolled the dice and decided to stay out with Byron in the lead, which would end up paying off.
“Our car wasn’t handling great. So we saw a bunch of cars come – half of the field in front of us. About 10 of the top 20 came down, so we copied them. We had already just pitted, so we took rights and jumped those (drivers ahead of them). So then we ran that next run to the end of the stage and we stayed in our position okay. It made it easy to stay out because we were projecting we could go to lap 210 (before needing to stop again), but then as he took the lead and ran wide open for those 20 laps, it was closer to being lap 200”, said Fugle.
Byron had this to say about his 4th win of 2023, which comes just a little past the halfway mark of the season.
“We went through so much throughout the night, spinning through the infield, destroying the bottom of the car by dragging it around the apron trying to stay on the lead lap. At that point you just don’t have the grip, so I was really edgy back in traffic. Rudy made a good call to pit there and then stay out, and once we got towards the front it was okay. We made the right decisions, blocked okay, and got the lead from AJ and just were able to manage the run. I felt like the first stage was really fun. I was able to make some moves on the bottom, and you’re lifting every corner, so it’s really different from a 550 (horsepower) old style race. It’s more pack racing. But still, handling matters and guys can make aggressive moves. Like I said, Rudy made a good call, and we got it towards the front, and sometimes that’s what it takes. I’m just thankful for the whole team and for staying in it because we were a lap down and it could have been over.”
Asked about what he was thinking when the weather started to loom, Byron had this to say.
“I honestly don’t get too excited. I feel like, you know, for me I’ve never got a rain win, so I was like, sure enough. This isn’t going to happen like this.So I’m just thinking about what lane I’m going to choose. As soon as the caution came out, I asked what lane we were going to choose? I didn’t even want to think about the possibility of rain. All that was secondary to me. I was just thinking about how we can control the race. When it started to rain, I was like, okay, we’re probably going to get some drops and then it’s going to stall. And then we’re going to go back again. So I just kept thinking that way. And then even when I got out of the car, I kept thinking. Eventually when we got over there, I knew it was official and started to feel better about it.”
Byron’s 4th win of the season marks the 2000th victory in NASCAR for Goodyear tires, which is ironic because the 1000th was also won by the 24 car, driven by Jeff Gordon at the time. In addition, this is the most wins by the Hendrick 24 team since Jeff Gordon’s 4 win back in 2014.
With the win, Byron also took the lead in the points standings, going up 21 over Martin Truex Jr.
Other notable performances were Kyle Busch snagging a quiet top 5 via a P5 finish. Daniel Suarez finished 2nd. Michael McDowell finished 4th, and had the race gone the distance, he would have been well to do on fuel over everyone else with an estimated 91 laps left in the tank when the race was called. Justin Haley logged his 2nd straight top 10 finish with a P8 run to go with his 2nd place finish at the Chicago street course. Ryan Blaney finished in 9th, while Chase Elliott overcame a pit road mishap and lack of speed to finish 13th.
The cup series will head north next week to the Magic Mile at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Crayon 301.