NASCAR at Atlanta 2014: Complete Preview and Prediction for Oral-B USA 500
Sunday night's Oral-B USA 500 is not only the penultimate race of the regular season, but it takes place at one of the fastest, trickiest and oldest tracks that the Sprint Cup Series races on, Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"The asphalt is worn out and the tires have a hard time maintaining pace," former Atlanta winner Kurt Busch said in a pre-race media release. “Those factors combined make this a very challenging race.”
Busch won back-to-back races here in 2009-10.
"It’s an intermediate track because of its size and the banking, but it really is more of a driver’s track because you have a lot to balance there—aerodynamics, pit strategy and tire management."
Busch is in the Chase field, but he is also one of the favorites to win Sunday. He is one of several drivers to consider when picking a winner.
Greg Biffle sits just inside the Chase cutoff, without the insurance of a win. Just outside the line is rookie sensation Kyle Larson, who could slide into the field of 16 if he either wins or if one of the four drivers (Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Biffle) without one has a bad night Sunday night.
Kevin Harvick won his sixth pole of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season with a lap of 29.118 seconds, 190.398 mph. He’ll lead the field of 43 cars to the green flag Sunday night in the Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the penultimate race before the start of the Chase.
Harvick wasn’t fast in the first of three rounds of knockout qualifying, but he was fast enough to advance to the final round.
“I just messed the first round up really bad trying to do something that I wasn’t doing in practice,” said Harvick in a post-qualifying interview with his manufacturer’s representative. “Luckily we were fast enough to be able to get through the first round into the second round. The second round we got into a little better rhythm where I wanted to run on the race track.”
For the final round, Harvick relied on some advice from his team owner, Tony Stewart, which was relayed via his car’s radio.
“Well, after the second run he went out and radioed to me that I needed to go back and do what I was doing in practice,” added Harvick. "(It’s) just good to have that reassurance on the radio next to you.”
It was the 12th pole of Harvick’s Sprint Cup career. The other six were spread out over a 13-year tenure at Richard Childress Racing.
Joining Harvick on the front row is Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski with a lap of 29.180 seconds, 190.058 mph. Although disappointed, Keselowski was looking ahead.
“We’re having a phenomenal season, but I just wish it would have been one more spot instead of second to first place, but that’s the way it goes and hopefully we can find that one more spot here Sunday night,” he said in a post-qualifying media release. “The car has been really fast so far and the weekend is just getting started here on Friday.”
Rookie Kyle Larson starts third, Ryan Newman is fourth and Matt Kenseth rounds out the top five. All three are winless but currently sit in the Chase field of 16 based on points.
Notable starts: Defending race winner Kyle Busch (8th), points leader Jeff Gordon (9th), Carl Edwards (11th), Tony Stewart (12th), Joey Logano (14th), Jimmie Johnson (16th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (20th).
There are two Sprint Cup practices sessions Saturday—at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET. Green flag is on Sunday night at 7:40 p.m.
Atlanta Motor Speedway: A Southern Tradition for over 50 Years
Atlanta Motor Speedway is 1.5 miles of high-banked sandpaper disguised as a race track surface. Sure, it looks like regular asphalt, but looks can be deceiving. The surface wears out the Goodyear Eagle tires on a Sprint Cup car at an astounding rate. And did I mention that if it's hot (and it will be) the surface gets very greasy too?
Combine those two factors with speeds over 200 mph entering the corners and racing at AMS requires the patience and skill that favors the veterans in the field, especially those drivers who like a race car on the loose side.
Five-time Atlanta race winner Jeff Gordon said in a pre-race media release:
You have to manage wheel spin, you’ll have to manage tire wear, the team has to have a setup that is quick but doesn’t abuse the tires, and the driver has to drive it hard but not overdrive it. And you’re going to be searching all over the track for the groove that works best for you and your car.
Built in 1958, Atlanta Motor Speedway was constructed at a time when few men other than the founder of NASCAR, Bill France Sr., had a real vision of the future of stock car racing. A group of local businessmen, led by Garland Bagley, did. Unfortunately, as was prone to happen in those days, the track went bankrupt even before it was completed. When it finally opened for competition in 1960, it was nothing like the modern sports facility it is today.
The track went through many changes in management in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, although it continued to host races from NASCAR's premier series annually.
Today’s Atlanta Motor Speedway is actually a mirror image of its original layout. After Bruton Smith bought it in 1990, he first modernized the track and then in 1997 turned the backstretch into the front and vice versa. At the same time, he took the track’s near-oval layout and had it changed to be just like his track in North Carolina, Charlotte Motor Speedway, with a distinctive D-shaped oval.
NASCAR's schedule hasn’t been all that kind to Atlanta, especially when you consider that it is one of the oldest tracks it races on. The season-ending race used to be held at AMS, but that went away when the finale was moved to Homestead in 2002. The powers that be even took away one of Atlanta’s two races in 2011, but that hasn’t stopped the fans from turning out every year. And now in 2015, Atlanta’s one race will be in April.
Atlanta Motor Speedway is to NASCAR racing like Soldier Field is to the NFL or Fenway Park is to Major League Baseball. Many of the greatest in the sport have raced within its walls. While the layout may have changed since those early days, its degree of difficulty in winning hasn’t change a bit.
In fact, AMS may just be one of the most challenging tracks the teams of the Sprint Cup Series will face all season.
Historical information courtesy of Atlanta Motor Speedway website
Just Win Baby, or Maybe We Can Get in on Points
Yes, we know. Everyone is tired of being reminded of how many races are left before the start of the Chase—especially the four drivers who sit inside the field but without a win. There are two.
“Well it’s crunch time. We are in it (the Chase) now but we’re not locked in and that’s the goal,” Clint Bowyer said in a pre-race media release. Bowyer is currently the 15th seed.
He’s not just looking for a win, he’s got one eye on the points too.
“We just have to go out and run our race. Like I’ve said, you can’t have any mistakes. We can’t do that these next two races. A win is what we are looking for but right now every point counts too.”
Tire Management Critical to Success at Atlanta
The single most repeated word in nearly every driver’s pre-race release for Atlanta is “tires.”
Atlanta Motor Speedway’s track surface is brutal on tires and may well be one of the most difficult tracks when it comes to tire management. Speeds drop off dramatically after only a handful of laps.
Matt Kenseth said in a pre-race release:
We only go there once a year and it’s really, really worn out so you don’t get a lot of time to get ready. It’s a lot different than any other track we go to with the pavement and the tire combination and all that. I guess the challenge there is to be decent on new tires and still be decent on old tires and be able to get your car to work in every lane and to be able to be versatile enough to search around and find some grip.
Teams will use the same combination of left- and right-side tires that they ran at this track last season. The left-side tire has been run at Atlanta since 2012. The right-side tire uses Goodyear Racing’s multi-zone tread technology, which debuted at Atlanta last year. It is a tire that features two different tread compounds—one for endurance and heat resistance on the inboard three inches of the tread and one for traction on the outboard nine inches.
Final Tune-up for 1.5-mile Tracks in the Chase
Although Atlanta’s slippery and abrasive surface makes it unique in its own right, it still is a 1.5-mile track. Drivers and, more importantly, the crew chiefs of the teams already in the Chase field welcome the opportunity to fine-tune their setup for the 1.5-mile tracks, which make up half of the 10-race Chase schedule.
"Atlanta is our last shot before the Chase to work on our mile and a half program,” Carl Edwards said in a pre-race release. “It's fun, the track's got character, and it's fast.”
For Edwards, Atlanta is a special place. It is the track where he earned both his first Nationwide and his first Cup win.
Ryan Newman echoes Edwards in a pre-race media release from Richard Childress Racing.
“It’s the final mile-and-a-half before the Chase and all mile-and-a-halves you kind of use as a test,” said Newman, who sits 14th in the Chase. “Every weekend is a test of what you try, what you want to do differently, and see if you can find anything else that works for you.”
Weather a Threat
As often happens during the summer, thunderstorms are a threat to pop up, especially later in the afternoon. Sunday's race is a night race, and forecasts call for a slight chance of thunderstorms when the green flag is scheduled, per Weather.com.
Atlanta obviously has lights and a very late curfew, so if there is a delay, the race could run well into the early hours of Labor Day morning. A delayed start due to rain translates into a changed track surface and lower temperatures. Crew chiefs are prepared for such eventualities but are limited as to what changes they can make to the car on pit road during the race.
Atlanta is where Edwards scored his first career NNS and Sprint Cup wins. It is not only a special place for him, but a track where he does well. This Jimmy Fennig-led team would like to know if the changes the RFR teams have made to their 1.5-mile setup are working, and a win Sunday would answer that question.
Along with his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, Logano has become a threat to win every weekend. He convincingly out-drove his teammate at Bristol last weekend and will likely do the same again Sunday night. The championship could come down to a battle between the generations—as in Logano vs. Gordon.
If Gordon weren’t on such a hot streak, his five wins at Atlanta wouldn’t mean a whole lot. Be he is and they do. Very few drivers can master the art of tire management like Gordon can. It could make all the difference in the late stages of Sunday’s race.
Another driver who is a master at tire management, Busch won back to back here in 2009 and 2010. He’s been a bit off his game as of late, but he’s shown that when the car is even halfway good, he’s a top-five driver. Can crew chief Daniel Knost give him a great car this weekend and have Busch challenging for the win?
Crew chief Steve Letarte brings a brand new race car to Atlanta this weekend. AMS hasn’t been one of Junior’s best tracks, but it’s not one of his worst, either.
In 26 Cup starts at AMS, Earnhardt has one win, two pole positions, eight top-five finishes and 12 top-10s.
Atlanta has been a good track for Harvick. He won his first Cup race there three weeks after Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001. Its slick and unpredictable surface suits his driving style.
“The asphalt is really worn out and the speed of the car changes a lot from the start of a run to the finish of the run,” Harvick said in a pre-race release. “It makes for some good racing as the cars start moving and sliding around the track.”
Dark-Horse Driver: Paul Menard
Although the journeyman driver is winless at Atlanta, that statistic could change this weekend.
Paul Menard and his Slugger Labbe-led Richard Childress Racing team have done quite well the past two weekends, scoring top-10 finishes at both Michigan (fourth) and Bristol (ninth).
He considers AMS to be one of his favorite tracks.
Menard said in a pre-race release:
Yeah, if you took a poll of all the drivers, the number one track to race at is going to be Atlanta for everyone's vote. It's abrasive, it wears out tires and we slide around the track. It's really fast for one lap, then it progressively gets worse from there. All of these factors make it really fun for drivers.
This team has been getting very close every weekend, and everything it needs for a win could come together Sunday night.
And the Winner Is...
It seems it was a couple of weeks ago that Joey Logano started to get that look in his eye and a slight smirk to his smile that says he believes he can win it all this season.
The last five races have all been top-six-or-better finishes. He scored his third win of the season last week at Bristol, putting him in the same league as Junior, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and teammate Brad Keselowski.
What more can you say about this hot young driver who isn't about to back down from fender-to-fender battles with anyone?
This is a team ready to take on the rest in the Chase.
“We just need to keep doing what we are doing and working together as a team," Logano said in a Team Penske pre-race release. "I don’t know if there is a more cohesive team right now than the 22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford team.”
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis