AMS throws cold glass of water on the youth movement
Atlanta Motor Speedway is almost every driver's favorite track. You hear that every time NASCAR's circus pitches tents in Hampton, Georgia. Drivers love the 21-year old surface at the legendary 58-year old track because it causes tire wear and forces drivers to search all over for grip. Old pavement puts the race back in the drivers' hands and every driver I spoke to - from young William Byron to Sunday's race-winner and longest-tenured Cup driver Kevin Harvick - say it's fun.
But since drivers matter so much, NASCAR's youth movement had to sit on the carpet and hear from the teachers this week. The only two drivers in the top 10 of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 with less than eight years' experience were Kyle Larson in 9th and Chase Elliott in 10th. Not a single driver in the canon of the next generation led a lap. Even Larson, who excels in this kind of racing discipline, barely sniffed the top 5 all day long. Elliott took almost all race to battle from his 27th place starting spot and was only ever in contention when he was on a strategy to pit one less time than the dominant cars of Harvick and Keselowski.
Harvick skunked the field, leading 181 of 325 laps. He would have led more, if not for a problem with a pit gun that caused him to pit a second time after the Stage 1 caution. Second-place-finisher Brad Keselowski won Stage 2 and led 38 laps. Kurt Busch showed muscle and led 52 laps. Denny Hamlin led a bunch while playing that one-less-stop-strategy. Clint Bowyer was sporty all race long and finished 3rd. Martin Truex Jr. drove from the back of the pack and rebounded from pit gun issues to place 4th. And 27-year-old Joey Logano, now in his 10th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, was a fixture in the top 10 all night and finished 5th. These guys have some years and
Saving you having to read all their quotes, the aforementioned drivers, when asked about veterans excelling at AMS, said post-race that the difficulty in managing the tires and the old surface plays into their hands. They have had years behind the wheels of these cars to know what they are feeling and how to manage it. And looking at the AMS results the past few years, this fact holds true in those races also. Harvick even quipped about Talladega being in May, meaning that's the next time the kids could show him up - another plate race.
Harvick also put on a clinic for the kids in Saturday's Xfinity Series race, dominating it and lapping into the top 10.
The allure of the Daytona 500 wore off for the youngsters. Last week's winner Austin Dillon was a lap down in 14th. Daytona 500 runner-up Bubba Wallace struggled to crack the top 25 and rammed into the back of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. when Trevor Bayne blew an engine late. Elliott, Erik Jones, and Ryan Blaney all had to claw their way to top 15 finishes. William Byron didn't know how to use his trackbar adjuster properly and lost two laps early, but made one up to finish 18th. His teammate and Daytona 500 pole sitter Alex Bowman struggled in the back of the top 20 and then cut a tire. You get the picture.
Another notion that fizzled like Sunday's rain was that the Fords are dead meat. The Blue Ovals took the top 3 spots and five of the top 10. Fords led 272 of the 325 laps. And Ryan Newman's Chevy is the only one of the new Camaro ZL1s that led at Atlanta when he paced the first 17 laps.
When asked about Fords being dominant, Hamlin sarcastically said, "The Fords have an unfair advantage," sitting next to Keselowski, who had said the same thing about Toyotas last summer. Atlanta is its own beast and teams should get an even better read of where they stand when the grace Las Vegas Motor Speedway next weekend.