It’s been a long time since we saw racing on a high-banked 1.5-mile track like we’ll see this Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the AdvoCare 500.
The 1.5-mile tracks litter the schedule more than any type, but it’s been since June 29 at Kentucky one has been raced on, and it’s been since May 26 at Charlotte that a race has been run on a track similar to Atlanta.
We can lump Las Vegas, Texas and Charlotte into the same group as Atlanta, and all of those races ran in the early portion of the season. So the question is how much has changed from then to now? Are the results and data gained from early in the season still relevant now that so many other types of tracks have been run on with such a large gap in between on the schedule?
It’s probably a good idea to go with a 50-50 mindset on all of the questions. Keep what happened from March through May on the similar tracks in the back of your mind, while also staying in touch with what’s happening now, even though some of the tracks don’t apply. For instance, you can use what happened recently at the five races between Michigan, Pocono and Indianapolis just because of those tracks requiring pure horsepower that will be applicable at a place like Atlanta.
We also have to acknowledge that the Toyota teams, most notably the Joe Gibbs racing cars, have gone through all kinds of testing on their engines from early in the season – when they dominated on the horsepower tracks – to now, where the horsepower is a little less, but has more durability.
The timeline for the Gibbs engines was to only be a two or three race experiment that would have the best performing and most durable engine ready for their cars in the Chase, where engine failure is not an option, at least if wanting to win a Championship.
So when we look at Las Vegas, where Matt Kenseth won, and Texas, where Kyle Busch won, we have to consider these Gibbs cars aren’t the same. Kenseth also won on the flatter 1.5-mile tracks of Kansas and Kentucky. The Kentucky win for Kenseth came during their experimental stage with their engines.
When looking over the entire season of winners on tracks that can be scoured for details to help this week at Atlanta, the one name missing consistently is Jimmie Johnson. His four wins in the season have come between two wins at Daytona with a restrictor-plate, the short track at Martinsville and the fast track at Pocono. No wins on a 1.5- or 2-mile track during a season would be a first for the five-time champion over his 12-year career.
Johnson is a three-time winner at Atlanta with a 10.3 average finish. His last win there came in 2007, when he swept the season – back when Atlanta had two races a season. He’s currently in a funk we have rarely seen out of Johnson, where he’s finished 36th or worse in his last two starts coming in.
It was an odd sight watching the No. 48 go around much of last week’s race at Bristol with no hood or fenders, feebly limping around the track to complete laps for position points.
While we should be dialing in on drivers on the upswing like Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr, or Kasey Kahne, for some reason, with everything looking bad for Johnson, Atlanta has the look of being a race he’ll challenge his team and himself to conquer.
The motivation is simple: there are two races to go before the chase and Kenseth has passed Johnson with five wins on the season to his four, which means more bonus points to start the Chase. Johnson still leads the points at this juncture, but there is no way this team settles for mediocrity heading into the Chase on their quest to win their sixth Sprint Cup Championship.
The drivers who have to make an immediate impact for the final two weeks are Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon. All three have no wins on the season and sit 11-13 in points respectively, which means they would be out if the Chase started this week. Keselowski and Busch both dropped three positions last week at Bristol and will need good runs this week.
Gordon actually moved up a position last week and is 12 points away from passing Joey Logano in 10th-place. Gordon raced himself into the Chase last season with runner-up finishes at Atlanta and Richmond and will need a run similar this time around. This is the track where Gordon made his Cup debut in 1992, which also happened to be the final race of Richard Petty’s great career. He’s won at Atlanta five times over his career, the last coming in 2011.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].