Anyone who has ever driven on the highways of Atlanta knows that driving through the ATL can be an intense experience. The roads are wide and fast, and yet somehow traffic is always tightly packed with cars right on top of one another.
It is this sort of experience that has informed what the next generation Atlanta Motor Speedway has become. And for the third time since its reprofiling in 2022, the NASCAR Cup Series will visit Atlanta this weekend for the Ambetter Health 400. One year ago, this classic racetrack's new era began with a bang, as William Byron won an intense superspeedway-style pack race that featured 46 lead changes among 20 different drivers across 500 miles.
Now, this year's spring race has been shortened to 400 miles to match Atlanta's July race, putting even more of a premium on the drafting saavy and quick decision making that this condensed superspeedway proved it requires.
How to watch the NASCAR Cup Series at Atlanta
- Date: Sun., Mar. 19
- Location: Atlanta Motor Speedway -- Hampton, Ga.
- Time: 3 p.m. ET
- TV: Fox
- Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
What to watch
- In 2022, Hendrick Motorsports christened the reprofiled Atlanta Motor Speedway by going two-for-two in 2022. William Byron won the spring race after leading 111 laps, while Georgia's own Chase Elliott led 96 laps in July to score his first win at his home track. This year, Hendrick enters Atlanta on a two-race win streak with Byron, which would bode well for them, had it not been for the events of "Penalty Day."
On Wednesday, NASCAR ruled that Hendrick Motorsports had illegally modified the hood louvers on their cars, and rocked the organization with a series of stiff penalties and a cumulative $400,000 fine to each of its four crew chiefs -- the largest combined fine ever assessed by NASCAR to one organization.
All four Hendrick crew chiefs have been suspended for the next four races, which is another blow to an organization that has already lost Chase Elliott to a leg injury. And considering the indomitable poise that Hendrick cars have shown off in the past two races, there is a certain burden that the organization has to dispel any idea that their speed had come from any modifications to their hood louvers. The level playing field of a superspeedway-style race may not be the platform to prove otherwise, but it certainly wouldn't hurt Hendrick to keep up their early season dominance this weekend.
- The level playing field is not only something that non-Hendrick teams have looked forward to, but also Ford and Toyota. For the first time since 2001, a single manufacturer has swept the opening four races of the year, with Chevy monopolizing Victory Lane and shutting its rival automakers out.
This weekend, Chevy now has a chance to extend their season-opening winning streak to five-straight, something that a single manufacturer has not done since 1995 when the bow-tie brand wound up winning the first seven races of the season from Sterling Marlin's Daytona 500 win to Dale Earnhardt's win at North Wilkesboro.
A Ford (Rusty Wallace in 1995 and Elliott Sadler in 2001) broke those streaks both times, and they won at Atlanta five years in a row prior from 2017 until the final year of Atlanta's old configuration in 2021. As for Toyota, they're facing a 10-year winless streak at the track where they got their first-ever Cup win in 2008. The last time a Toyota won at Atlanta was 2013, when Kyle Busch drove to Victory Lane.
- While one manufacturer's winning streak is currently active, there is another active winning streak on the other end of the spectrum: The last six Atlanta races have featured six different winners, and another new winner this weekend will extend that streak to seven.
Of the last six drivers to win at Atlanta, only four -- Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney and William Byron -- are in the field this weekend. July 2021 winner Kurt Busch retired from full-time racing at the end of last season due to concussion symptoms, while July 2022 winner Chase Elliott will miss this weekend's race as he continues to recover from injury. Past Atlanta winners Kyle Busch (2008, 2013) and Denny Hamlin (2012) are also in the field.
The fact that Atlanta has become a superspeedway-style race, however, has thrust the door wide open for new winners. That was clear last summer, when Corey LaJoie almost pulled what would have been a stunning upset. LaJoie returns to Atlanta this weekend looking to finish the job, and he recently spoke to CBS Sports about what's been a career-best start to the 2023 season.
Pick to win
(Odds via Caesars Sportsbook)
Ross Chastain (+1100): Those who have an axe to grind against drafting tracks have been known to insist that superspeedway racing doesn't take skill and that its results are usually determined by luck. But that completely discounts those drivers who always seem to find a way to finish at the front -- as Ross Chastain did in both Atlanta races last year.
The new Atlanta has suited Chastain well, as he led 42 laps in the spring before cutting a tire and then came all the way back through the field to finish second anyway. Chastain was just as aggressive in July, leading 32 laps and charging to the front to finish second again. That's trending towards Chastain finishing one spot better on Sunday and showing that watermelons and peaches suit each other nicely.