There are a lot of unknowns this week as NASCAR heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the first test of the new rules package in race conditions. After two practices and qualification, not many questions were answered.
Qualification can often be anomalous. The ability to lay down one fast lap is not the same as running 500 perfect miles, so fantasy owners want to battle the temptation to read too much into the session. The cream often finds a way to rise to the top as the milk settles.
Compounding the difficulty factor this week is that race trim practice was effected by a persistent, steady mist that made the track slippery. Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 is scheduled to run under sunny skies, but the speculation is that it will still make the track slick, so the conditions might be close to what was experienced on Saturday.
Aric Almirola was second in the Friday morning session when most drivers worked on qualification trim. He backed that up with a lap of 181.473 mph to win his second career pole. His other top spot came in the 2012 Coke 600 on another similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks: Charlotte Motor Speedway. In that race, he lost two laps and finished 16th. One suspects he will not fare as poorly this week, however, because he ended the 2018 season with four consecutive top-10s on this track type.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. lines up on the outside pole. That would seem to be good news until one looks at his Atlanta record. This is a track on which he has always been successful in time trials. He won the pole for his inaugural attempt in 2013, but faded to 16th. He has started on one of the first three rows during the past three years, but he has only one top-10 to his credit. In games that offer place-differential points, he is almost guaranteed to subtract 10 markers from his total.
Clint Bowyer was fastest in the Friday morning session. He led the first two rounds of qualification and came up a little short in Round 3 with the third-best time. He came back on Saturday and jumped to the top of the leaderboard one more time with a lap .400 faster than the remainder of the field. He seems to have hit on something with his setup that works well for the new rules package and is the most likely driver to lead early.
Meanwhile, several big names qualified outside of the top 20. Chase Elliott (22nd), Ryan Blaney (26th), and Joey Logano (27th) all bobbled early in their runs and have a steep hill to climb at the start of the race. The good news is they will earn place-differential points that help them become a good value.
Kevin Harvick struggled badly in Friday’s practice. He had a steering issue that the team was not able to correct and took only two laps before landing 29th on the speed chart. He wasn’t much better in time trials with the 18th-best lap. By Saturday, the team began to make progress. His raw speed does not show it because he logged the 21st fastest time, but he seemed happier with the car. His value is questionable this week – but only because one suspects he is going be get back to his dominant form quickly and be more predictable in the next few races.
Kyle Busch posted the second fastest lap in Happy Hour, but almost immediately after doing so, he backed into the wall and destroyed his primary. He will have to roll out a backup car and lose his sixth-place position on the grid. Busch likes to drive a loose car, but it can occasionally bite him and that might be what happened on Saturday. If it happens in the race, he is going to take a lot of fantasy owners down with him.
Austin Dillon was strong in both practice sessions. He posted the third-fastest lap on both Friday and Saturday. In qualification, he was hindered by a battle with Bowyer as the pair exited the pits and that might be part of the reason he posted only the 10th-best time. If he can keep his head about him on Sunday, he could be a surprisingly good value in light of the fact that he scored only one top-10 last year on this track type.