NASCAR Cup Series at Atlanta Preview

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will race the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, February 24, 2019, at 2 pm ET. Television coverage on FOX starts at 1:30 pm ET with radio coverage on PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Distance: 500.5 miles (325 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 85),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 170), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 3250)

Preview Quick Hits: 

  • Kevin Harvick swept the Cup and Xfinity Series races last year at Atlanta, a place where he won an emotional first race in 2001, three weeks after replacing the late Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing.
  • For Harvick’s success at the track (two Cup wins, five Xfinity Series wins), it’s seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson who holds the top driver rating (102.8) compared to Harvick’s 99.4. Johnson leads active drivers with five wins at Atlanta. He also has the most top-five finishes (14) and top-tens (16). He is the only driver in this week’s race to have led over 5,000 laps (5,130).
  • Kurt Busch is next on the win column. The new Chip Ganassi Racing driver has three wins and his 13 top-tens ties him with Harvick for second best on Sunday’s starting grid.
  • Chase Elliott has a 7.6 average finish in three Cup races. He has never finished outside the top-ten in NASCAR’s three premier series at Atlanta (three Cup races, two Xfinity races, and one truck race).
  • Ryan Newman leads all drivers in Busch Poles. He’s won seven – including a record streak of six consecutive from 2003-05. Harvick is next on the list with two poles. Newman has the most starts (26) without a win.
  • Eight times the Daytona 500 winner has won at Atlanta in the same season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the last to do so in 2004. This year’s Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin has one win (spring, 2012) at Atlanta.
  • Kyle Busch will be making his 500th career Cup start this week. He has two wins (2008, 2013), and seven top-tens in 20 starts. His 2008 victory was Toyota’s first as a manufacturer in the Cup Series.
  • Martin Truex Jr. is especially looking forward to the Atlanta 1.5-mile high banks. In the last two seasons, he has eight wins, 18 top-fives, and 21 top-tens on 1.5-mile tracks. His best finish at Atlanta is third in 2013.
  • Only two drivers have scored back-to-back wins at Atlanta in the last 20 years. Jimmie Johnson has done it twice – sweeping the 2007 season, and again 2015-16. Carl Edwards swept the 2005 season races.
  • Since 2009, car manufacturers have at least doubled up their wins. Dodge won back-to-back in 2009-10. Chevrolet answered in 2010 (Fall) and 2011. Toyota won in 2011 and 2012. Chevy won three straight 2014-16. And Ford has won the last two races.

Early Points Leaders Coming Out of Daytona

Often times following the Daytona 500, the series championship leaderboard includes names that may not stay there over the course of the season. But that’s not necessarily the case this year, as several familiar names had solid performances on Sunday.

Daytona 500 race winner Denny Hamlin and reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion Joey Logano arrive at Atlanta Motors Speedway for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 tied atop the points standings by virtue of stage points Logano collected in the qualifying races and his fourth-place finish in the 500.

Last year’s eight-race winner Kyle Busch is ranked third, only seven points behind the pair, with Ricky Stenhouse (-13 points) and Erik Jones (-17 points) rounding out the top-five.

Seven-time Monster Energy Series champ Jimmie Johnson is ranked eighth, thanks to a ninth-place finish on Sunday. It marks the first time he’s left a race track ranked among the top-ten since the 2017 season finale at Homestead when he placed tenth in the final championship standings.

Michael McDowell, Ty Dillon, and Brad Keselowski ranked ninth through 11th – are all statistically tied, 20 points off the leaders’ pace.

Defending Atlanta race winner Kevin Harvick, who won eight races in 2018, finished 26th at Daytona after being collected in a crash on lap 194 of the 207-lap race. Stage points and a win in the Duel 150 qualifying race, however, keep him ranked 14th in the standings, 25 points behind Hamlin and Logano.

Picking Up Where He Left Off

Reigning Cup champion Joey Logano made a bold statement to start defense of his 2018 Monster Energy Series trophy. Solid showings throughout Daytona Speedweeks – including a win in his Gander RV Duel qualifying race – helped him match Daytona 500 race winner Denny Hamlin in the points as the series moves to Atlanta this weekend. 

It’s the first time in the last five years that a newly-crowned champion has remained number one in the points standings after the season-opening Daytona 500. The closest in that time was 2014 Monster Energy Series champion Kevin Harvick, who was ranked second following the 2015 Daytona 500.

Atlanta Motor Speedway has statistically been a challenge for Logano. He won the pole there (2015), but he’s never won a race there. Among those with at least ten starts, only Clint Bowyer (81.6) has a lower driver rating than Logano (82.6) among the series top-16 at Atlanta. 

There has been a notable improvement from Logano at Atlanta since joining the Team Penske operation, however. He has four top-ten finishes and an average finish of 7.33 in the six starts for Penske, including a career-best runner-up in 2013, his first with the organization.

Milestone Start Ahead for Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch was – as you might expect – frustrated with a runner-up showing in the Daytona 500.  He enters this week’s race third in the standings – seven behind Hamlin and Logano, who are tied atop the points.

This week’s race is a big statistical start for Busch not only in his quest to stay on championship track, but it marks the 500th Monster Energy Series start of his 51-victory career.

Atlanta has proven to be a positive element of Busch’s resume and he has two wins there. His first in 2008 was the first Monster Energy Series win for Toyota and Busch’s first with Joe Gibbs Racing while his second win was in 2013. And Joe Gibbs Racing team has 11 Cup wins total at the track.

Of the 500-start mark, Busch said, “I think it means that I’m old (laughing).

“But seriously, just makes you reflect on all the great things we’ve been able to accomplish over the years and all the people that have helped me get to where I am and win all the races we’ve been able to win.

“You just think of all the guys at JGR and Toyota and all the guys on my teams that have helped me accomplish everything that I have in my career. Also, Atlanta is a place that has a lot of great memories since we were able to bring home the first win ever for Toyota and for SNICKERS and everyone at Mars back in 2008, that was very special.”

There’s a lot on the line for Busch this weekend. He is also competing in Friday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race and a victory there would make him the truck series’ all-time winningest driver (he is currently tied with Ron Hornaday Jr. with 51 victories).

Truex Jr. Looking to Improve upon Joe Gibbs Racing Debut

The Daytona 500 did not provide the kind of debut 2017 Monster Energy Series champion Martin Truex Jr. had envisioned for his move to Joe Gibbs Racing this year. He finished 35th in the season opener – caught up in a late-race, multi-car accident.

Certainly, the former champ heads to Atlanta this week feeling more optimistic. Although he hasn’t won a Cup race at the track, he has two wins in the prestigious IROC Series there (in 2005 and 2006) and an encouraging record at 1.5-mile venues such as Atlanta.

In 22 races at a 1.5-mile track in the last two years, Truex has eight wins, 18 top-five finishes and 21 top-tens. He’s led 1,442 laps during that time – most among the Cup series. He is still looking for his first Atlanta win. His previous best showing is third in 2013.

New Competition Rules Package Debuts

This weekend’s race marks the highly anticipated debut of NASCAR’s new competition rules package at tracks longer than a mile, such as Atlanta’s 1.5-mile oval. This package includes the adjustment to engine horsepower as well as elements to increase downforce (the inclusion of aero ducts will start next week in Vegas).

“You know, race is really what you have to do to adjust to the package because you don’t really know how it’s going to race until you run a race,’’ said Harvick. “And Daytona is irrelevant to what we’re going to do in Atlanta. And, you know, as we go to Atlanta and start compiling that notebook in the very first practice and put the cars on the race track, obviously our history in Atlanta is pretty strong. And we know what we’re looking for in the race car and how it should handle and so there’s the downforce-versus-drag conversation. 

“How much downforce can you take out of the car and make the thing survive? How much handling will come into play? The restarts are going to be crazy. Are you going be able to get close enough to actually bump draft? Can you actually stay hooked together?

“There are just so many questions to answer that we don’t have any answers to other than theory. And, at this particular point, we just need to race to really start crossing things off the list and have a direction to know what we’re working on past, you know, the theory that we’ve put into everything to put on the track at the beginning of the year.”

Jimmie Johnson’s Prospects Trending Upward

Jimmie Johnson sits tied for seventh in the Monster Energy Series points following his ninth-place finish in the Daytona 500. That finish marked his fourth top-ten effort since that start of last year’s ten-race Playoffs.

He shows up at Atlanta the statistical best among his competitors with a series-high five wins, 14 top-fives and 16 top-tens. His 14 top-fives is double that of any other active competitor. And, he has a series-best four runner-up finishes too.

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports team has a record 58 victories on 1.5-mile tracks – 13 more than the next closest team (Joe Gibbs Racing). And Hendrick drivers have won at 1.5-mile venues for 25 straight years.

Johnson boasts the top driver rating (102.8)  at Atlanta – substantially better than number two on that list, Kevin Harvick (99.4).  Twice Johnson’s efforts have landed on the track’s top-five closest finishes list – he finished second to Carl Edwards by .028-seconds in 2005 and beat Mark Martin by .293-seconds in 2004.

His last win at Atlanta is 2016. Should he answer with a victory on Sunday, it would mark Johnson’s 84th  career win – tying him with the great NASCAR Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for fourth on the all-time wins list.

This weekend, Johnson will also be working in the FOX television booth, helping call the NASCAR Xfinity Series race with fellow Cup driver Kevin Harvick.

“Leaving Daytona, we all certainly have a little spark of energy,’’ Johnson said. “To be able to recover from the wrecks we were involved in and be there at the end is certainly a great start.

“This weekend in Atlanta is a completely different deal as we roll out the 2019 rules package. In my eyes, the cars are going to be faster and we are all going to be closer together, there will be more passing, and there is going to be a lot of excitement with the 2019 package. I was able to test Las Vegas and we had some drafting sessions. It was really racy.

“I’m also looking forward to being in the booth (for the NASCAR Xfinity Series race) with (Kevin) Harvick for FOX. I’ll be doing some homework leading into the weekend for sure, it’s a whole different kind of pressure.”

The Right Start for Ryan

Although Ryan Newman is still looking to celebrate in Atlanta victory lane after a Monster Energy Series race there, he has certainly celebrated plenty before a Cup race there. The veteran is tied with Buddy Baker for winning the most Busch Pole positions all-time at Atlanta (seven).

His 6.8 average starting position over the course of 26 races at the track is one of the most amazing sustained statistical achievements in the series. The next closest active driver at Atlanta is Kyle Larson, who is averaging a 9.000 start through only five races. Next on the list, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (10.333 average start), has only made six starts at the track.

The next active driver on the list of Atlanta pole winners is Kevin Harvick – he’s won two Atlanta pole positions and is ranked 23rd all-time.

Newman holds the record for consecutive pole wins. He won six straight sweeping the 2003-2005 seasons when the series raced twice a year there.  He is still looking for his first Atlanta victory – that 26-race winless mark, the longest for any active driver there.

Harvick Always a Sentimental Favorite at Atlanta

Kevin Harvick’s first trip to Atlanta Motor Speedway Victory Lane was a memorable storybook ending to the race. It was his first career Monster Energy Series win and came only three races into his time replacing the late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, who died of injuries he suffered in the 2001 Daytona 500. Harvick’s .006-second margin of victory over Jeff Gordon in that Atlanta race remains the closest margin of victory there since NASCAR began using electronic scoring in 1993.

Harvick’s second victory at the track came last year after a dominating performance. He led eight times for 181 of the 325 laps pacing a Ford podium sweep that also included Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer. Harvick completed a weekend sweep in races he entered, also earning a win in the Saturday Xfinity Series race – a race in which he won all three stages.

His 1,152 lap total out front at Atlanta is most in the field. His 99.4 driver rating is second only to Jimmie Johnson’s 102.8. He has seven top-fives and 13 top-ten showings – marks also second only to the five-time Atlanta race winner Johnson.

Local Favorites

Chase Elliott, of nearby Dawsonville, Ga. technically owns the best average finish (7.667) of any driver in the field. But even Elliott himself insists that he has had too few starts to have established a true indicator.

He has, however, certainly shown himself among those drivers to beat, regardless. He has three top-tens in three starts, including a best of fifth place in 2017. Elliott is coming off a 17th-place finish in the Daytona 500.

Interestingly in six Atlanta starts – three in the Monster Energy Series, two in the Xfinity Series and one in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series – Elliott has never finished outside the top-ten.

“It’s a special place and there’s definitely a lot of fans around home so I always enjoy going back,’’ Elliott said. “More than that, it’s a fun race track to drive. I’ve enjoyed racing there from a driver standpoint, and glad they didn’t repave it.

“With it being the second race of the year, we can all get back to downforce racing. Big transition and an important week to see how we all stack up. I’m looking forward to getting there.”

Georgia native David Ragan, of Unadilla, finished 30th at Daytona. His best finish in 16 Atlanta starts is eighth in 2008.

Sunoco Rookie of the Year Contenders

Ryan Preece, driver for the JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47 Chevrolet, leads the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings by virtue of his eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500. The series’ other three rookie contenders – Daniel Hemric  Matt Tifft and Cody Ware – were involved in incidents on track and are ranked 32nd-33rd-34th, respectively , in the points standings coming to Atlanta.

Ware is the only driver among the foursome with a Cup start at Atlanta. He started and finished 39th there in 2017.

Preece finished 22nd in his only Xfinity Series start on the Atlanta 1.5-miler in 2016. None of the foursome has raced in the Monster Energy Series at Atlanta. Tifft has a pair of 12th-place finishes in the Xfinity Series there. Hemric has finishes of ninth (2017) and 11th (2018) in Xfinity races there and a career-best fourth place effort in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series in 2016.