Now the real guessing game begins

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The Daytona 500 marked the end of the restrictor-plate era and Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta ushers in the future with a new engine and aero package.

The tapered spacer package takes slows the Cup cars from 750 horsepower we’re used to seeing at tracks like Atlanta down to 550 horsepower. The idea with the new package is to have pack racing — bunched together — like we saw Sunday at Daytona at every track.

NASCAR wants the racing to be close to keep fans interested throughout the race. They don’t want any single driver dominating as we saw at different stages last season. And of course, they want the drivers to be safer.

I’m really not sure what to expect. This package will be similar to what we saw in the All-Star race last season. Each team had a representative test the new package out in Las Vegas last month and the top speed in the last of three sessions was 178 mph by Brad Keselowski. The fast lap in September’s qualifying last season at Las Vegas was 188 mph.

Because of going slower, the drivers should be able to mash the gas pedal all the way around the track with little lifting and hardly any breaking. It’ll be interesting to watch, and I’ll eventually pick up more of the nuances along the way. But it’s not just me. More than half of the Cup drivers haven’t even tested the new package yet.  

“I haven’t driven it,” Chase Elliott said last week of the new package. “I didn’t have any of the tests through the off-season. I really don’t know what to expect. I spoke to my teammates a little bit who did have it. But I have not had a chance to go drive it or see firsthand, so we’ll see.”

The Hendrick Motorsports representative at the Las Vegas test was Jimmie Johnson and he was fastest in the first test session at 178.8 mph which means that all those notes will be given to Elliott’s team along with teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a resurgence from the Hendrick stable because they’ve always been ahead of the curve anytime NASCAR has made package changes. Owner Rick Hendrick has always outspent his counterparts to gain that edge.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes,” said Bowman, driver of the HMS No. 88. “I’m really interested to see how it races. I don’t think we really know what to expect until we get going with it. I wouldn’t say it suits my driving style. I kind of grew up driving light horsepower cars and now we have a heavy low-horsepower car with a lot of down force. So, it’s different. I’m going to have to adapt to it and learn it. But, so does everybody else.”

Kevin Harvick won at Atlanta last season and also won the All-Star race. He wasn’t at the Vegas test, but his Stewart Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer was and proved to be fast at 177.9 mph. The 1.5-mile tracks have proven to be Harvick’s best. He’s got two wins at Atlanta and his 1,152 laps led are the most among all active drivers.

The active leader in wins at Atlanta is Johnson with five, the last coming in 2016. in 27 starts he has 14 top-five finishes and has averaged an 11th-place finish. The only driver with a better average is Dawsonville, Georgia’s own Chase Elliott with a 7.6 average in three starts. His father, Bill Elliott, won on their home track five times. Look for Elliott to have some great home cooking and race for the win.

The betting strategy this week is to watch the practices closely before making a wager. However, I think you can get a good price on drivers like Johnson and Elliott before practice. Once they show they’re fast, the number will drop. Once the average speeds are known after the final practice, bet a few of the fastest in match-ups.

I’m still skeptical of some of the lower level teams, but I do believe they’ll be closer to the elite teams than we’ve seen in the past on these type of tracks. This is all a wait, watch and learn deal, not just for fans and bettors, but also the drivers and crew chiefs. 

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