Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Preview: Shifting Gears to Atlanta

Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Preview: Shifting Gears to Atlanta

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

With the caution flags, wrecks and twisted sheet metal of the Daytona 500 now well in our rearview mirror, we head this week to a much different venue for race No. 2 of the season. NASCAR pulls into Atlanta Motor Speedway for the one and only visit of the 2017 season. The lightning-fast quad oval will host the Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 this Sunday afternoon. Racing at Atlanta is a completely different game that the just-completed Daytona 500. The one thing we can rely on is that this typical cookie-cutter oval has sister ovals in the Sprint Cup Series. Tracks like Charlotte, Texas and even Las Vegas and Kansas bear some resemblance to Atlanta. So, for many teams it will just be a matter of looking at setup conditions for similar ovals and tweaking as needed through practice. Also, the historical statistics will play a part for identifying those teams that will make the transition from superspeedway to cookie-cutter oval racing the best.

Atlanta Motor Speedway has a good group of drivers that dominate each time we visit central Georgia. The table below illustrates this group well. Considering that the 1.5-mile intermediate speedway is the type of track that NASCAR competes on the most, the trends and marks set at AMS will need to be kept in our memory going forward. Those drivers that pound the pavement in Atlanta will likely be setting the stage for success at other early-season intermediate ovals such as Las Vegas, Texas and

With the caution flags, wrecks and twisted sheet metal of the Daytona 500 now well in our rearview mirror, we head this week to a much different venue for race No. 2 of the season. NASCAR pulls into Atlanta Motor Speedway for the one and only visit of the 2017 season. The lightning-fast quad oval will host the Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 this Sunday afternoon. Racing at Atlanta is a completely different game that the just-completed Daytona 500. The one thing we can rely on is that this typical cookie-cutter oval has sister ovals in the Sprint Cup Series. Tracks like Charlotte, Texas and even Las Vegas and Kansas bear some resemblance to Atlanta. So, for many teams it will just be a matter of looking at setup conditions for similar ovals and tweaking as needed through practice. Also, the historical statistics will play a part for identifying those teams that will make the transition from superspeedway to cookie-cutter oval racing the best.

Atlanta Motor Speedway has a good group of drivers that dominate each time we visit central Georgia. The table below illustrates this group well. Considering that the 1.5-mile intermediate speedway is the type of track that NASCAR competes on the most, the trends and marks set at AMS will need to be kept in our memory going forward. Those drivers that pound the pavement in Atlanta will likely be setting the stage for success at other early-season intermediate ovals such as Las Vegas, Texas and Kansas.

The intermediate oval is the most frequent type of track found on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. This event should set the tone for these style ovals for at least the first third of the season. While Atlanta has some minor differences that set it apart from tracks like Texas and Charlotte, there are still enough similarities to draw some comparisons. Still, we need to take a quick look at the recent loop statistics of AMS and get a feel for our driver group before we make any predictions for this weekend's race. Since this is the first race of 2017 at this track and just the second race of the season, we'll be drawing on some information from last season and beyond. So keep that little tidbit in mind when reviewing these electronic scoring statistics. Here are the loop stats for the last 18 races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson9.67063585644,996107.1
Matt Kenseth9.26102283154,09098.3
Denny Hamlin18.05002903653,74395.5
Chase Elliott8.05516030695.5
Kurt Busch14.16082756033,48095.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.11.26502583014,03095.1
Kevin Harvick14.95663806203,67794.7
Kyle Busch13.65702444233,43393.1
Martin Truex Jr.17.87171832814,32092.4
Brad Keselowski20.335272381,95087.7
Kasey Kahne20.24562633493,20786.1
Clint Bowyer22.14051081152,66779.7
Joey Logano18.82621331621,45079.4
Ryan Newman18.448547242,65276.9
Jamie McMurray 20.65142902,39373.6
A.J. Allmendinger17.23034711,24873.3
Kyle Larson20.01063044572.8
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 20.5888040970.8
Ryan Blaney25.0361025369.6
Aric Almirola18.09821035768.2

Given what has happened at Atlanta Motor Speedway in last season's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, it's almost certain that the Stewart Haas Racing teams, Penske Racing teams and Hendrick Motorsports teams will be battling again for the win this weekend. We expect the race winner to most likely come from one of these three stables since Hendrick, Penske and Gibbs drivers have won the last 10-straight events at AMS. Most recently though, it's been the Hendrick Motorsports show featuring Jimmie Johnson as the man to beat at the Atlanta oval. Johnson has won the last two races at this facility and five total for his career. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet is not the guy that dominates all afternoon long in these races, rather he's the guy that gets stronger as the day goes on and typically peaks at the end. Johnson has played that strategy well and it's the reason why he comes to central Georgia this weekend riding a two-race win streak at AMS. There will only be a few drivers to contend with these super-stables at Atlanta Motor Speedway. We expect the "outside threat" to come from Furniture Row Racing star Martin Truex Jr. The veteran driver has performed well in recent races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and the driver of the No. 78 Toyota finished sixth- and seventh-place in this event over the past two seasons. Truex has been super strong on the intermediate ovals, and we'd expect him to come out of the gates strong in this first intermediate oval event of the season. We'll give you a run down of the drivers you need this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and a few who could surprise in the Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 at Atlanta.a

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Joey Logano –
The resume at Atlanta Motor Speedway isn't the greatest, but it's coming on in recent races. More importantly, Logano was one of the strongest drivers in the series down the stretch last season on the cookie-cutter ovals. The No. 22 Ford team grabbed two runner-up and four Top-5 finishes during last season's Chase for the Cup. Logano's 178 laps led and dominant performance at the similar oval in Fort Worth last November sticks out in our memory. The Penske Racing star has won a pole and collected a pair of Top-5 finishes in his last four Atlanta starts, so his first victory at this oval is drawing near. He'll be one of the top contenders to win the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

Kevin Harvick –
The Stewart Haas Racing star has been painfully close to winning at Atlanta Motor Speedway in his last three attempts. The driver of the No. 4 Ford has led 195, 116 and 131 laps in those starts, but has somehow come away without the trophy. This track has always been special to Harvick. He won his first career Cup victory at AMS in 2001, and he's finished inside the Top 10 in five of his last six trips to Atlanta's oval. Considering that the Stewart Haas Racing star grabbed two poles, one victory and three Top 10's down the stretch on these style ovals last season, the No. 4 team is on their "A-game" on these cookie-cutter ovals. That's something to underscore before making out your fantasy racing lineups this weekend.

Kyle Busch –
The driver of the No. 18 Toyota will be looking to rebound from last weekend's early exit from the Daytona 500. Busch claimed two of his four victories on the intermediate ovals last season. Those were wins early in the season at Fort Worth and Kansas. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a two-time Atlanta winner, including this event in 2013. While AMS has been a mixed bag for Busch over the years, right now he's hitting on all cylinders with his team and particularly on these style ovals. In this event one year ago he led laps and finished a brilliant third-place. We should see a very motivated driver in the M&M's Toyota this Sunday afternoon.

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson owns five-career wins at the oval in Atlanta, including the last two seasons at this oval in central Georgia. These intermediate tracks were good to the No. 48 team in 2016. Three of their five wins last season came on cookie-cutter ovals. As we get the 2017 season underway, this is a great venue for the Hendrick Motorsports star to have second in the schedule. Johnson owns close to 600-career laps led at this facility. That complements his excellent 64-percent career Top-10 rate at AMS. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet had his consistency issues last season, but they didn't come on intermediate ovals. Johnson is poised to extend his success at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Martin Truex Jr. –
One of the more successful drivers of last season on the 1.5-mile oval circuit was Truex and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team. He grabbed two poles, two victories, and five Top-10 finishes on those tracks in 2016. The veteran driver has seen his level of performance come to life at Atlanta Motor Speedway in recent seasons. Truex has four Top-10 finishes in his last five visits to AMS. His start in this event one year ago yielded 34 laps led and a strong seventh-place finish. We would view that as the minimum to expect in this weekend's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Truex is looking to rebound from a poor Speedweeks at Daytona, so we'll see a very motivated driver and team this Sunday afternoon.

Matt Kenseth –
While Kenseth has never visited victory lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway, we can't overlook him in our fantasy racing picks this weekend. The veteran Joe Gibbs Racing driver has always been proficient at AMS, so he should hit the ground running on this intermediate oval. Kenseth was one of the more consistent drivers on these style ovals last season with eight Top 10's in 11 starts. Four of his last six trips to Hampton, Georgia have yielded Top-10 finishes, including a pair of Top-5 efforts. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has 363-career laps led at AMS with a strong 57-percent Top-10 rate at the oval. Kenseth is a very dependable play in this 500-mile event at Atlanta.

Brad Keselowski –
The Penske Racing star was one of the more successful drivers in the Monster Energy Cup Series on intermediate tracks in 2016. He grabbed a pair of victories (Las Vegas and Kentucky) and seven Top 10's in those 11 events. Those seven Top-10 finishes included a ninth-place finish in this event one year ago. Keselowski now has a pair of ninth-place finishes in his last two visits to the central Georgia track. He's quickly turned around his rough luck this oval from earlier in his career. Coming off the disappointment at Daytona this past week, the No. 2 Ford team is sure to rebound. If anyone is coming to Atlanta Motor Speedway with a chip on their shoulder and with something to prove this weekend it's Keselowski and his Penske Racing team.

Kurt Busch –
The Stewart Haas Racing star is a three-time Atlanta winner and he has close to 750 laps led for his career at this facility. Busch has been strong with all the different race teams he's competed with over the years at this Georgia speedway. Aside from the victories, he's posted 11 Top-10 finishes in 25 starts at AMS. That checks in at about a 44-percent rate, but that's been rising in recent years. Busch has five Top 10's in his last seven visits to Atlanta for a sizzling 71-percent rate. He kicked off the season right with the big Daytona 500 victory, so he should ride the momentum right on into Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Atlanta who can provide a solid finish

Denny Hamlin –
Hamlin turned in some of his best intermediate oval performances of last season during the 10-race Chase for the Cup stretch at the end of 2016. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota grabbed three Top-10 finishes in those four events at the end of last year. Couple that with his recent Atlanta success, and you have a perfect storm of sorts brewing for this weekend. Hamlin's recent AMS resume holds 162 laps led, one pole, one win and three Top 10's in his last six trips to Atlanta Motor Speedway. If you're looking for a sleeper pick among the top contenders to win this weekend, you couldn't do any better than Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team.

Chase Elliott –
After a big and impressive performance at Daytona, Elliott is looking to continue showing that same speed at Atlanta this weekend. The Hendrick Motorsports driver made his Cup debut at this track one year ago and impressed with an eighth-place finish. That wasn't the end of the young driver's success on the cookie-cutter ovals last year. Elliott went on to claim three Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in those 11 events. We expect that crew chief Alan Gustafson took some good notes in their Atlanta outing one year ago and that he and Elliott will once again employ those lessons learned this Sunday afternoon. The No. 24 team should be pretty dialed-in when they unload the car, before they even take their first practice lap.

Kyle Larson –
The budding Chip Ganassi Racing star struggled on the 1.5-mile tracks last season, but he showed dramatic improvement as last season drew to a close. Larson would post an impressive fifth-place finish at Charlotte during the Chase, and then drop jaws with a huge performance in the season finale at Homestead. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet led 132 laps and threatened to win that last intermediate oval race of last year before finishing runner-up to Jimmie Johnson. Larson should carry that momentum into the new campaign. He posted a strong eighth-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway in his debut at the track in 2014. We should see that driver in this 500-mile affair.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Earnhardt's return to racing didn't go quite as expected at Daytona last week as he was collected in someone else's wreck. However, he did lead laps and look pretty fast in the Daytona 500. The Hendrick Motorsports star has always liked racing at AMS, and his success here has been pretty recent. Four of Earnhardt's last five visits to Hampton, Georgia have netted Top-10 finishes. That includes third- and second-place efforts the last two seasons. Before Earnhardt's injury last year, he was on pace to post about six Top-10 finishes on the intermediate oval circuit. That places the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet among the best in the Cup Series on these style ovals.

Ryan Newman –
The 16-season veteran has always liked racing at Atlanta. Newman's accomplishments here are pretty impressive when you tally the numbers. He's a seven-time pole winner at the Georgia oval. To go with that, he's grabbed nine Top-10 finishes, with three of those coming in the last four visits. Newman was a dependable performer on these style tacks last season, with five Top-10 finishes to his credit, and two of those coming during the Chase. Like a lot of drivers, the season-opener at Daytona was no bed of roses so this driver and team will be working intently to rebound at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The pressure will be on and we expect Newman and his Richard Childress Racing team to respond to the call.

Kasey Kahne –
The three-time Atlanta winner is just three seasons removed from his last victory at the lighting-fast Georgia speedway. Kahne also has a couple pole positions and nine-career Top-10 finishes at this facility. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran had a tough 2016 season, but he got his act together down the stretch run of last year, especially on the cookie-cutter ovals. The veteran driver notched six Top 10's on the intermediate ovals with four of those coming during last season's Chase for the Cup. The No. 5 team has historically been good performers on these style tracks, and Kahne should pick up right where he left off at the end of last year.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jamie McMurray –
McMurray has been a tough luck case at Atlanta Motor Speedway over the years. With a whopping 23 starts to his credit, he's only managed four Top-10 finishes to-date. The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran hasn't posted a Top 10 at this particular oval since 2008. As a result, McMurray has seen his average finish at AMS balloon to 20.8. Last season's 21st-place finish in this event is almost exactly on that mark. That's well below what we expect for this driver and team in a typical week, and it makes them a high risk/low reward fantasy racing play for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 this Sunday afternoon.

Daniel Suarez –
The rookie driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota didn't make the biggest impression in his debut at Daytona last Sunday afternoon. Suarez played the team's strategy fairly well, but admittedly made some mistakes along the way that led him to going 2 laps down early. While he fought back admirably, Suarez will still get caught in the carnage and finish a disappointing 29th. Things don't get any easier this week with a tough oval like Atlanta on tap. The young driver has only two Xfintiy Series starts at this oval, and no experience in a Cup car at the facility. The lessons that are ahead will undoubtedly make him better, but he's not a driver to rely on for a surprising performance at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Clint Bowyer –
While we're very optimistic about Bowyer's season in general in 2017, we want to take a wait-and-see approach to Atlanta this weekend. The veteran driver didn't have the best stats at this facility before stepping into the Stewart Haas Racing Ford, so there's reason to be reserved. In 16-career starts Bowyer has only five Top-10 finishes (31-percent) at Atlanta Motor Speedway. His last Top 10 came way back in 2010. The rejuvenated driver could easily prove us wrong this weekend, but we believe to risk to deploy him in your fantasy lineups is too high. Let's see what Bowyer does in this 500-mile battle, and if he comes up spades, we'll raise the bar of expectations when the series visits ovals like Las Vegas and Fort Worth in the coming weeks.

Austin Dillon –
Dillon has only four-career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but they've been difficult performances to say the least. He has two Top-20 finishes and one outside the Top 35. The third lies somewhere in between and works out to a 23.2 average finish across the span. The Richard Childress Racing driver had a spotty season on the cookie-cutter ovals in 2016. Dillon posted three Top-10 finishes and only one during the four events of the Chase for the Cup. He's gotten better each time he's visited at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but not enough to encourage a fantasy racing start in this event. The indicators don't look very good for Dillon coming into this Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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