NASCAR at Atlanta 2015: Complete Preview and Prediction for the QuikTrip 500

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 25, 2015

NASCAR at Atlanta 2015: Complete Preview and Prediction for the QuikTrip 500

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    It now may be in March instead, but Kasey Kahne is still defending champ at Atlanta Motor Speedway from last August's race there.
    It now may be in March instead, but Kasey Kahne is still defending champ at Atlanta Motor Speedway from last August's race there.USA TODAY Sports

    Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway will almost be like having a new race and new race track on the Sprint Cup schedule

    Atlanta used to have two races per season until 2010, when one of its races was taken away to make room for fellow Speedway Motorsports Inc. track Kentucky Speedway on the Sprint Cup schedule.

    What makes this race unique is that the last five Cup races at the 1.5-mile track, one of the fastest in the sport, have been held in either early September or late August. Now, the track hosts the second race of the 2015 season, and pre-spring weather in Atlanta is always unpredictable. It could be 75 or 80 degrees and sunny, or it could be 45 degrees and rainy.

    Or, God forbid, there could even be snow or ice (although not likely).

    Sunday marks the first time AMS has held an early-season race since 2010. Teams will have to get readjusted to the track, because the conditions will be significantly different than they’ve been in the late-summer events.

    Who wins this race? Whichever driver, crew chief and team listen most to the weatherman.

By the Numbers: Atlanta Motor Speedway

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    Photo courtesy Atlanta Motor Speedway

    Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

    Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway

    Date: Sunday, March 1

    Time: 1 p.m. ET

    TV: Fox, 12 p.m. ET

    Radio: Performance Radio Network, Sirius XM Ch. 90

    Distance: 500.5 miles (325 laps)

    Defending race winner: Kasey Kahne

    Youngest Atlanta winner: Kyle Busch (03/09/2008—22 years, 10 months, 7 days).

    Oldest Atlanta winner: Morgan Shepherd (03/20/1993—51 years, 5 months, 8 days).

    Defending pole winner: Kevin Harvick 190.398 mph, 29.118 seconds.

    Youngest Atlanta pole winner: Terry Labonte (03/15/1991—24 years, 3 months, 37 days).

    Oldest Atlanta pole winner: Harry Gant (11/14/1993—53 years, 10 months, 4 days).

    Also:

    —Forty-eight drivers have won poles at Atlanta, led by Buddy Baker and Ryan Newman, each with seven.

    —Race record: Bobby Labonte (159.904 mph, 11/16/1997)

    —Qualifying record: Geoff Bodine (197.478 mph, 11/16/1997).

    —There have been 107 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Atlanta Motor Speedway from 1960 through 2014.

    —Forty-three different drivers have won at Atlanta Motor Speedway, led by the late Dale Earnhardt with nine victories.

    —Dale Earnhardt has the most top-five finishes (26), while Richard Petty has the most top-10 finishes (33) at Atlanta.

Key Storylines (Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500)

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    This was not how Jeff Gordon wanted his last Daytona 500 to end.  Now it's on to Atlanta and a fresh start.
    This was not how Jeff Gordon wanted his last Daytona 500 to end. Now it's on to Atlanta and a fresh start.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press/Associated Press

    How Does Joey Logano Follow Up Daytona Victory?

    So, where does Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano go from here? Given that 1.5-mile tracks like Atlanta are the kinds of places Logano excels on, could he make it two wins in a row in as many races?

    Even though he’ll likely be tired from the national media tour he went on after winning the 500, Logano will still come into Atlanta riding perhaps the most momentum after the biggest win he’s ever had in his Sprint Cup career.

    Logano’s win will not only inspire his own team, but his Penske Racing teammate, Brad Keselowski, who considers Atlanta Motor Speedway among his favorite tracks on the circuit.

    It would not be surprising to see a one-two Logano-Keselowski finish Sunday...or a one-two Keselowski-Logano finish.

    Will Jeff Gordon Bounce Back From Last-Lap Crash at Daytona?

    You have to feel for Jeff Gordon. After starting from the pole, Gordon was en route to likely a top-10 finish in the 23rd and final Daytona 500 start of his storied career, only to be involved in a multicar last-lap crash that left him with a disappointing 33rd-place finish.

    Gordon is bound and determined to go out on top in his final season in the Sprint Cup Series. And now that we’re on a “regular” track (in other words, a non-restrictor-plate track), he is likely eager to get an early-season victory to assure his spot in the final Chase for the Sprint Cup of his career.

    Gordon can’t fall too far behind in the points early in the season, as it gets harder and harder with each passing race to mount a comeback.

    Honestly, we would not be surprised to see him earn the pole at Atlanta, just like he did at Daytona, and hold on most of the way during the race to take the win.

    Will Drivers be More Aggressive Than They Were at Daytona?

    Where was the typical aggression we normally see at Daytona in Sunday’s Daytona 500?

    Other than the eight-car wreck on the final lap of the green-white-checkered finish, where were the typical wrecks or “Big Ones”?

    Frankly, there was very little aggression in the 500. It could have been because drivers were still getting used to a different aero package or the loss of about 100 horsepower from last season.

    After seeing Kyle Busch’s frightening wreck in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, in which he sustained a broken right leg and fractured left foot, it would not be surprising if the Sprint Cup drivers decided to play it safe on Sunday as a result.

    Atlanta is one of the fastest tracks on the circuit. Will we see guys go back to their old ways, or will there still be a Busch carryover effect for the second straight race?

    Does the Season Really Start Sunday?

    There’s a couple of adages in NASCAR that definitely apply to Sunday’s race.

    First, the season doesn’t really start until the second race, because the Daytona 500 is such an unpredictable wild-card event. Second, it’s long been a NASCAR axiom that as a driver’s first five races go, so will go the rest of his season.

    For example, if he has three or more bad finishes in the first five races, a driver is likely destined to have a mediocre—or worse—season overall. But if a driver has strong outings in three or four or all of the first five races, it’s likely he’s going to have a good season overall.

    The biggest key that drivers learned from last season was to get a win early in the season, not only likely qualifying them for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but also allowing them to relax slightly and not have to be so aggressive.

    Will Weather Impact the Race?

    Like I said in a prior slide, weather could be one of the most significant factors in Sunday’s race—or at least the run-up to it.

    It was kind of befuddling when NASCAR decided to give Atlanta the second race of the 2015 season due to the unpredictability of the weather. But it isn’t anything that Atlanta hasn’t experienced before. Back in the days (before 2011) when AMS had two races per season, its first race was typically in March.

    The fact that the Sprint Cup Series hasn’t raced at AMS this early in a season for the last five years doesn’t really mean that much. After all, if one driver has to endure the weather, all drivers have to endure it as well.

Drivers to Watch

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    Ryan Newman has the most poles of any active driver at Atlanta. If he can start in the front again Sunday, perhaps he can finish in front as well,.
    Ryan Newman has the most poles of any active driver at Atlanta. If he can start in the front again Sunday, perhaps he can finish in front as well,.Terry Renna/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Ryan Newman

    As the most prolific active pole winner (seven) at Atlanta, look for Newman to go for the pole once again this weekend. After all, if he starts from the front, it could go a long way toward him not only winning his first race since the 2013 Brickyard 400, but it would also likely qualify him for this year’s Chase.

    Sure, he finished second in the championship battle last season without a win, but having a win in the bank going into this year’s Chase would make things a lot less stressful in the long run for the driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet.

    Matt Kenseth

    In much the same boat as Newman, Kenseth continues to seek his first win since 2013, when he led the entire Sprint Cup Series with seven victories. He also made last year’s Chase without a win, but he was eventually eliminated. Kenseth’s forte is mile-and-a-half tracks like AMS, and he has a good shot to get back in Victory Lane on Sunday.

    Regan Smith

    Replacing the suspended Kurt Busch for the second straight race, Smith is another driver whose specialty is mile-and-a-half tracks. After finishing a very respectable 16th in Sunday’s Daytona 500 as Busch’s fill-in, it’s likely that Smith will continue to replace Busch for as long as the latter remains suspended by NASCAR in the wake of the domestic violence allegations against him.

    Smith will embrace this opportunity for as many races as he can be behind the wheel of the No. 41, as if he does well, it could lead to a full-time Cup ride in 2016 (perhaps as a permanent replacement for Busch if Stewart-Haas Racing decides to cut ties with him).

    Carl Edwards

    Like Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, Edwards has to help pick up the slack with Kyle Busch out indefinitely with a broken right leg and fractured left foot. Before the season, Edwards said he hoped to win 10 races and cap the season off by capturing the championship. There’s no better time to get started on that agenda than Sunday.

    Jeff Gordon

    Atlanta has long been one of Gordon’s favorite tracks. It’s a mid-range-sized track, is very fast and allows plenty of room to move high and low on the racing surface.

    After his disappointing finish at Daytona, having been wrecked on the final lap, Gordon will likely come into Atlanta with a full head of steam, wanting to avenge that poor end result this past Sunday. Gordon is in a very unique position this season: With it being the last of his career, he has nothing to lose. And if he wins one race, don’t be surprised if he comes right back and wins the next one.

    With Atlanta and Las Vegas back-to-back 1.5-mile tracks, he’s primed for a win Sunday...and potentially next Sunday as well.

Favorites

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    Kevin Harvick typically does well at Atlanta.
    Kevin Harvick typically does well at Atlanta.Associated Press

    Joey Logano

    How can you pick against the guy who not only won the last race, but also won the biggest race of his career and the biggest race every season in NASCAR? While we’re not going to go out on a limb and say Logano will definitely win Sunday, he’ll be in the mix for sure.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    After coming up short of becoming the first back-to-back winner of the Daytona in 20 years (Sterling Marlin in 1994 and 1995), Earnhardt is back to business as usual this weekend. His father won at Atlanta a record nine times, and AMS is one of Junior’s favorite tracks. He’ll definitely be in the mix as well.

    Brad Keselowski

    Do you honestly think Bad Brad is going to let teammate Joey Logano have all the fun? After Logano won at Daytona, Keselowski likely said to himself that the next race would be his turn. He’s done very well over the years at Atlanta, and there’s no reason why he won’t do well again Sunday.

    Kevin Harvick

    The defending Sprint Cup champion has a strong history at Atlanta, a track that fits his driving style with its high speed and wide expanse. Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet looked very strong during the recent Speedweeks, an indicator that he’s definitely picking up where he left off after winning last season’s championship. It would not be a surprise to see Harvick win Sunday’s race at all.

    Jimmie Johnson

    Given how many laps he led in Sunday’s Daytona 500 and how he looked overall in Speedweeks, it would be fair to say Johnson is back. Even with four wins last season, he ultimately wound up 11th in the final standings, the worst season he’s had in his Sprint Cup career.

    With Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports both coming up short and being shut out of the championship round in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November, that’s more than enough incentive for Johnson to start winning early and winning often this season, potentially starting this weekend.

Dark-Horse Pick

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    Tony Stewart (No. 14) made a big -- and uncharacteristic for him -- mistake that proved very costly in Sunday's Daytona 500.
    Tony Stewart (No. 14) made a big -- and uncharacteristic for him -- mistake that proved very costly in Sunday's Daytona 500.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Tony Stewart

    It may be repetitive to pick Stewart as a dark horse for the second race in a row, but there’s some method to our madness. The way we see it, if we keep picking Smoke as a dark horse, eventually he’ll come through and win a race.

    Well, at least in theory.

    There are certain tracks that favor Stewart, places like Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix early this season.

    Sure, he made a rookie mistake in Sunday's Daytona 500 that cost him dearly, knocking him out of the race and costing him a chance at his first-ever 500 win (after 17 tries). Stewart will not make that same mistake again this season, mark my word.

    Stewart has long been a thoroughbred in the Cup Series, and until he shows us otherwise, I'm going to keep riding that dark horse until he breaks through and sees the light of Victory Lane.

And the Winner Is: Jimmie Johnson

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    Jimmie Johnson's last win at Atlanta was nearly eight years ago. He's way overdue.
    Jimmie Johnson's last win at Atlanta was nearly eight years ago. He's way overdue.John Amis/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Johnson has three career wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway but none in the last 10 races there, dating back to fall of 2007. That's nearly eight years! When was the last time he went eight years without a win at any track? Not very often, that's for sure.

    What we saw in Sunday’s Daytona 500 was vintage and classic Johnson. He drove his No. 48 Chevrolet like he stole it. He was bound and determined to get out ahead of everybody and did just that, leading the second-most laps (39) in the Great American Race.

    We saw a hunger in Johnson that we haven’t seen since, well, since he won his sixth career Cup crown in 2013.

    Finishing 11th in the season standings, not reaching the Championship Round of the Chase and essentially being a forgotten man during much of last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup likely did not sit well with Johnson. A ticked-off JJ—especially when he places the blame upon himself for coming up short and faltering—is the most dangerous type of JJ.

    While he can’t change what happened last season, Johnson can certainly learn from it and move forward—and I believe he'll do that not only in Sunday’s race, but for the entire season.

    Watch this race very closely, because it could be the true beginning of Johnson’s run to championship No. 7.

    All statistics included in this report were provided by NASCAR media relations staff.

    Follow me @JerryBonkowski

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