By Brennen McCall, NASCAR Contributor

Race Preview: Atlanta

Martin Truex Jr. rallied from scrubbing the wall early to earning his first victory of the 2021 season. Phoenix proved all day to be a bit of a challenge for drivers particularly with passing. The PJ1 traction compound on the top side of both corners was the dominant groove which forced every car in the field to run that area of the racetrack. With the lower level of grip on the bottom lane, passing was difficult. The traction compound itself was difficult to manage especially off the corners. The 2017 Champion Truex found the wall off turn two trying to put the power down off the corner. The traction compound thinned out and his #19 Toyota picked up some blue wall paint. Truex wasn’t the only driver to have trouble early. Hendrick Motorsport teammates Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson both received pit road speeding penalties early, an issue that would continue to haunt them throughout the day. While other drivers struggled, Truex’s team stayed focused and worked on their car back to competitive speed. By the end of the stage two he was back racing in the top five with a car that seemed better than it was before he contacted the wall. Penske Racing seemed to have the cars to beat early with drivers Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano taking the first two stages. Stage three however saw Truex’s car really take off. Once he took the lead he never looked back.

Now, the Cup series returns to the East Coast where they take on the famed Atlanta Motor Speedway. The 1.5-mile oval is known for its high speeds and high tire wear. Like Homestead, Atlanta’s worn out surface chews up tires like a cheese grater. Multiple grooves have formed over the years and drivers can run competitive lap times on the bottom, middle, and top lanes right up against the wall. There’s also the signature “Harvick line” where the driver of the #4 Ford seems to find extra speed every year by sticking his left front tire just below the white line in all four corners.

Last year Kevin Harvick won this race as part of a dominant 2020 season. However, that magic seems to have been dormant in 2021. Harvick did put together strong sixth-place run at Phoenix, his fourth top-10 of the season, but if you want to make a run for a championship you’ve got to find victory lane. Atlanta has been one of Harvick’s best tracks since 2014 with over 1,000 laps led and two wins. His 2021 performance would suggest a win is very close. Putting aside a rough race at Las Vegas, Atlanta seems like a solid bet for the #4 car.

Harvick’s competition is going to be tough. Hendrick Motorsports has won both 1.5-mile tracks so far with William Byron and Kyle Larson. Martin Truex Jr. has run well all season and this recent win will only be a shot in the arm. Denny Hamlin has been a contender for top-5s all year and Kyle Busch looks to rebound after a spin at Phoenix. Team Penske as whole has shown speed everywhere. Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Ryan Blaney should all play a factor in who wins on Sunday.

The Playoff picture is still an interesting one. Atlanta is a tough racetrack for smaller teams and could prove problematic for JTG Daugherty Racing teammates of Ryan Preece and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who currently hold the last two playoff spots. While a win isn’t totally out of the question, maximizing points should be their weekly goal. Just outside the cutline sits the #48 of Alex Bowman who suffered a crash a Phoenix and looks to rebound at Atlanta. Just behind Bowman are names like Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Cole Custer, and Ross Chastain. All of which are driving cars capable of running in the top-10 but likely must go through each other to get there. Then there are the drivers who are in a bit of a hole. Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Chase Briscoe and Aric Almirola are looking to turn their season around. Almirola has suffered some rough luck this season while rookie Briscoe seems to struggle with adapting to the Cup cars after his fantastic Xfinity Series campaign a year ago. And then there is everyone’s favorite underdog Matt DiBenedetto. The Team Penske satellite operation has had something go wrong in just about every race this season. DiBenedetto’s best finish at Atlanta is 25th, but with how good the Penske cars have run this season luck should turn around soon for the driver of the #21 Ford.

Atlanta should give us long green flag runs with tires being very valuable. Restarts will be chaotic with the high-downforce package returning this week. Despite the added downforce, Atlanta’s worn out surface should still be a handful for drivers as they work different lanes as the tires degrade more with every lap. The winner of this race will maintain consistent speed throughout the corner. Whoever can keep the throttle down the longest especially near the end of tire life should find themselves in victory lane. Let’s have ourselves a race!

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