The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was never going to provide a true reflection of the new high downforce, high drag and lower horsepower competition package.
That has been the message all winter long, with race teams and league executives collectively saying the real test will begin next weekend at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
That’s because the very abrasive intermediate track in Hampton, Georgia was never going to allow cars to race together in groups for longer than 5-10 laps. Once tires fell off, drivers were always going to have to lift, and that would separate the field.
The final result was a race that pretty much resembled the 2018 version, albeit slower and making track position even more valuable since passing appeared to be more challenging deeper in a run.
With that said, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s vice president and chief racing development officer seemed fairly pleased with Sunday’s early offering.
"Like we said going into this race, we didn't know what to expect, but we felt this package would showcase itself more as we got to the west coast," O'Donnell said. "But as we got into a long green flag run, we saw the ability to get back up to the leader and pass. That was encouraging. All in all, I think we are satisfied with the outcome."
It’s probably a stretch to suggest that cars could fall back and race their way to the front. Several would-be contenders, such as Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola, struggled to get back to the front after penalties sent them to the rear.
NASCAR believes the racing at Las Vegas and California will keep cars closer together, maybe even something resembling pack racing, since those tracks do not provide the tire wear of Atlanta — the league’s oldest racing surface.
It was last paved in 1997, when it was reconfigured into its current D-Shaped layout.
O’Donnell said no issues immediately come to mind.
"I thought we saw a pretty entertaining race," O'Donnell said. "We saw a good battle at the end that wasn’t precipitated by a late caution and that’s what we wanted to see."
The end of the race saw Martin Truex Jr. methodically chase down Brad Keselowski over the final laps but was ultimately unable to complete the pass.
At one point during the race, Truex radioed to his crew and said second was the worst place to be on the track. Clean air was still important and trailing cars developed tight conditions, especially as they fell further back into the field.
"It’s not really a lot different honestly than what I thought old Atlanta was a lot like," Erik Jones said after finishing seventh. "I don’t think there was any more passing. I don’t think there was any less passing. I think it was kind of the same. It’s just different. Just a different way of going about it."
To that point, the 2019 race at Atlanta featured 25 lead changes amongst eight different leaders. The 2018 race featured 24 lead changes amongst eight different leaders. The 2019 race did have 12 more passes for the lead but 300 less overall passes.
It was basically the same race, not that it means anything moving forward, as Clint Bowyer pointed out.
"You have to remember, this is a one-off race," Bowyer said. "There is no track that we go to anymore that is as slick as this and as hard on tires. It will be interesting to see what Las Vegas brings."
And not that he’s impartial but winning team owner Roger Penske liked what he saw, too.
"I have to give NASCAR a real good grade on the racing today because you could race, you could come up, you could fall back," he said. "Some people obviously maybe didn't like that maybe you couldn't pass, but I felt overall it made a big difference."
O’Donnell said the race accomplished its stated goals, even if it’s not a reflection of what the next month could bring.
"All in all, we wanted to have a good race and get to the west coast," he said. "That's what we did. The storyline again was the battle at the end of the race."
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