QuikTrip 500 Preview: A Glimpse into the Season Ahead

QuikTrip 500 Preview: A Glimpse into the Season Ahead

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 the second race of the season. NASCAR pulls into Atlanta Motor Speedway for the one and only visit of the 2019 season. The lightning-fast quad oval will play host to the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 this Sunday afternoon. Racing at Atlanta is a completely different game than the just-completed Daytona 500. The one thing we can rely on is that this typical cookie cutter oval has sister ovals in the Monster Energy Cup Series. Tracks like Charlotte, Texas and even Las Vegas and Kansas bear some resemblance to Atlanta.

This will be our first race of the season with the new intermediate oval aerodynamic package and tapered spacers. So practice this week will play a huge role in determining which drivers have a head start and jump on the field. To a lesser degree, the historical statistics of Atlanta will also play a part for identifying those teams that will make the transition from superspeedway to intermediate 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 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

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 the second race of the season. NASCAR pulls into Atlanta Motor Speedway for the one and only visit of the 2019 season. The lightning-fast quad oval will play host to the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 this Sunday afternoon. Racing at Atlanta is a completely different game than the just-completed Daytona 500. The one thing we can rely on is that this typical cookie cutter oval has sister ovals in the Monster Energy Cup Series. Tracks like Charlotte, Texas and even Las Vegas and Kansas bear some resemblance to Atlanta.

This will be our first race of the season with the new intermediate oval aerodynamic package and tapered spacers. So practice this week will play a huge role in determining which drivers have a head start and jump on the field. To a lesser degree, the historical statistics of Atlanta will also play a part for identifying those teams that will make the transition from superspeedway to intermediate 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 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. Getting a handle on the new aerodynamic package will prove to be a setup for future success, since intermediate oval racing will be dramatically impacted by this new rules package.

The intermediate oval is the most frequent type of track found on the Monster Energy 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 2019 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 20 races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson11.07423615665,130102.8
Kevin Harvick14.06275171,0934,32199.4
Chase Elliott7.714739086596.4
Kurt Busch13.47292946554,12396.1
Brad Keselowski16.5446139972,58595.5
Denny Hamlin18.35873073914,21794.3
Martin Truex Jr.16.68391982824,95693.5
Kyle Busch13.46322694323,81692.7
Kyle Larson14.22131871,08284.8
Joey Logano16.73591651631,97382.6
Clint Bowyer20.45081291153,24581.6
Ryan Newman19.553899443,01378.3
Erik Jones12.5933040878.0
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 18.518919093674.7
Ryan Blaney18.38925055272.8
Daniel Suarez18.0438032567.9
Austin Dillon23.21588081067.3
Aric Almirola18.516124065966.5
Paul Menard19.92843621,22364.9
Ty Dillon20.85100760.0

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 Joe Gibbs Racing 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 SHR, Penske and Gibbs drivers have won four of the last seven events at AMS. It was a Ford driver who won the Atlanta race one year ago. Kevin Harvick outdueled Brad Keselowski in the closing stages of last year's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 and crossed the finish line first over two seconds ahead of the No. 2 Ford. For Harvick it was his second-career victory at the Atlanta oval, and first since his rookie season of 2001. With Ford taking the Top 3 spots that afternoon, and with Keselowski having won the 2017 installment of this event, Atlanta has solidly shifted into the corner of Ford's dominance. It will be up to the Toyota and Chevrolet teams to play catchup this weekend, and attempt to dethrone Ford at Atlanta.

The reason that we believe Atlanta is a bit of field equalizer and a bit different than most of the other 1.5-mile tracks on the circuit is simply because of tire wear. The racing surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway is very abrasive and bumpy. It causes drivers to handle very loose race cars mere laps into a green flag run. Most of the other similar ovals have newer, less abrasive surfaces so the tires don't fall off as quickly as they do in Atlanta. We saw 24 lead changes in this event one year ago, which was dramatically better than the nine lead changes we saw in 2017, and more in line with recent historical norms at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Still, with stage racing being in play, the right fuel and tire strategy here could set up anyone to possibly dominate and win the day. 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 QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick - The Stewart Haas Racing star is a two-time Atlanta winner, and in our most recent race at the mid-Georgia oval. In this event one year ago, the driver of the No. 4 Ford capped what had been five straight dominant runs at AMS with a victory over Brad Keselowski in last season's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Harvick now has over 1,100-career laps led at this facility with a whopping 900+ of those coming in just his last five starts. Right now no one else is as dominant at this oval, and it's really surprising that Harvick doesn't have more than the two-career victories here. The new aero package will be an added wrinkle this weekend, but we expect Harvick and crew chief, Rodney Childers, to be the fastest to adapt.

Martin Truex Jr. -
One of the most dominant drivers of recent seasons on the 1.5-mile oval circuit has been Truex. He grabbed one pole, one victory, and nine Top-5 finishes on those tracks in 2018 alone. The veteran driver has seen his level of performance come to life at Atlanta Motor Speedway in recent seasons. Truex rides a four-race Atlanta Top-10 streak into this weekend's action. His start in this event one year ago yielded a strong fifth-place finish. With the move for he and crew chief, Cole Pearn, to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2019 it's expected that this excellence on cookie cutter ovals will continue. Truex has been really close to nabbing his first Atlanta victory in the last few attempts, and this could be the weekend where he and his new No. 19 Toyota team break through.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star has been dialed-in at Atlanta Motor Speedway the last two seasons. Keselowski won this event two years ago, and he finished runner-up to Kevin Harvick in this event one year ago. That gives the driver of the No. 2 Ford a four-race Atlanta Top-10 streak entering this weekend. He grabbed two victories and nine Top-10 finishes last year on the intermediate oval circuit. Keselowski cracks the Top 10 at this oval at a strong 60-percent rate. After getting knocked around in last weekend's Daytona 500 with a very fast car, the No. 2 team will be hungry to rebound in this event. That makes Keselowski a dangerous driver at Atlanta.

Kyle Busch -
The driver of the No. 18 Toyota will be looking to build on the momentum of his runner-up Daytona 500 finish this weekend. Three of Busch's eight victories last season came on intermediate ovals. He was as dominant at these tracks as anywhere in the series in 2018. 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. Last season's finale at Homestead is a good example. It's the last time the series went racing on an intermediate track, and Busch led 21 laps en route to a strong fourth-place finish.

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

Joey Logano - The resume at Atlanta Motor Speedway has been quickly improving in the last few seasons. More importantly, Logano improved his intermediate oval performance late in last season's Chase with a third-place at Fort Worth and victory at Homestead. The No. 22 Ford team has grabbed one pole position, two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in their last six Atlanta starts. Those efforts have bolstered what was a poor record at the Atlanta oval prior to 2012 for this Penske Racing star. Last season was a good campaign on the intermediate tracks with one win and 10 Top-10 finishes. The good performance at Daytona this past week can only be seen as preview of things to come for Logano this week at Atlanta.

Kyle Larson -
The central Georgia speedway has been an oval to Larson's liking through his first five seasons of competition at NASCAR's top level. The Chip Ganassi Racing star has three Top 10s, including one runner-up finish, in his first five starts at AMS. It works out to a nice 14.2 average finish for the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet. Larson showed some promise in the couple times that NASCAR rolled out the new aero package last season. He grabbed Top-10 finishes both at Kentucky and in the All-Star race where the new tapered spacers and other rules were employed. Larson has always been a top performer in NASCAR's top division on intermediate ovals, and we expect to see that skill and performance on display in this 500-mile battle.

Chase Elliott -
Elliott was caught up in one of the multi-car crashes at Daytona last Sunday. However, before his misfortune he looked like a potential Top-10 finisher in the Great American Race. He should bring that speed to Atlanta this weekend in his No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott loves him home state track. He has Top-10 finishes in all three of his Cup Series starts at the facility, and that bodes well for Sunday. He's very familiar with his home state oval. The Hendrick Motorsports phenom rounded out last season well on the intermediate oval circuit snatching a late-season victory at Kansas and Top 10s at Fort Worth and Homestead. Elliott has to be very optimistic about his chances in Sunday's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin erased a struggle-filled 2018 season with one race last weekend at Daytona. He piloted the No. 11 Toyota Camry to a win in the Great American Race. Hamlin silenced all the critics and claimed his second Daytona 500 victory in the past four seasons. While Atlanta is different than Daytona, we have to rate this driver and team's morale and enthusiasm as high coming to Georgia this week. Hamlin has had a mixed level of performance at best over the years at Atlanta. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran has one win (2012), four Top-5 and seven Top-10 finishes at AMS. The Top-10 rate is low at 37-percent, but we have some good news. Hamlin's start in this race one year ago netted 26 laps led and an impressive fourth-place finish. We believe he's in the midst of redefining his Atlanta resume.

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

Ryan Blaney - This will be Blaney's fourth-career start at the Atlanta oval. Since we only race here once per season, it doesn't allow for the experience and resume-building that other tracks offer. The young driver is showing a good trend line in his first three starts. Blaney has 25th-, 18th- and 12th-place Atlanta finishes so far. That's headed in the right direction. Blaney was one of the drivers who looked super-impressive last year in the opening experiments with the tapered spacer and new aero package. He wheeled his way to a runner-up finish at Kentucky with the package, and looked right at home in the All-Star Race. Texas Motor Speedway is a good comparison to Atlanta, and Blaney racked up a pole position, 40 laps led and runner-up finish there last November.

Kurt Busch -
The Chip Ganassi Racing star is a three-time Atlanta winner and he has over 800 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 13 Top-10 finishes in 27 starts at AMS. That checks in at about a 48-percent rate, but that's been rising in recent years. Busch has seven Top 10s in his last nine visits to Atlanta for a sizzling 78-percent rate. He suffered an ill-timed crash at Daytona this past weekend, so you can bet the No. 1 team's urgency this weekend will be very high. That should motivate Busch to a Top-10 finish in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

Erik Jones -
The Joe Gibbs Racing prodigy had tons of speed at Daytona last week, and he coupled that with good luck to turn in a Top-5 finish. We expect to see the beat keep going for the No. 20 Toyota team at Atlanta. Jones will be making his third-career Cup Series start at Atlanta Motor Speedway this Sunday. The young driver has respectable 14th- and 11th-place finishes in those first two Atlanta starts. That shows there's potential to improve in this Atlanta outing. Jones raced well last season on the cookie cutter tracks with seven Top-10 finishes to his credit. He actually grabbed a pair of fourth-place finishes at Kansas and Fort Worth late in the season, and that's a good impression to carry into 2019.

Aric Almirola -
The 12-season veteran is coming off a career-best campaign in 2018. Almirola racked up one win, and 17 Top-10 finishes en route to a Top-5 points finish. For the encore he'll set his sights higher in 2019. The Stewart Haas Racing driver has eight-career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and just one Top-10 finish to his credit. However, don't let that trick you into not using the South Floridian in this week's fantasy racing contests. Almirola was dialed-in on these style tracks last year. He and the No. 10 SHR team grabbed seven of their 17 Top 10s on these cookie cutter ovals in 2018. That included a trio of Top 10s in the Chase at Kansas, Fort Worth and Homestead. Almirola will be surprisingly good in Sunday's 500-mile battle at Atlanta.

Clint Bowyer -
Despite some lackluster career stats of racing at Atlanta's lightning-fast oval, we believe Bowyer is a good fantasy racing candidate this weekend. The driver of the No. 14 Ford had good speed at Daytona this past week, and was one miscalculation away from a Top-5 finish in the season-opener. AMS gives him a do-over of sorts and opportunity to start the season well. Since moving to the Stewart Haas Racing team, Bowyer's Atlanta numbers have been on the move, and in the right direction. His last two starts with the team have netted 11th- and third-place finishes at Atlanta. The veteran driver flirted with victory in both those outings. The No. 14 team ended last year with the right impression at Homestead, finishing eighth in the season finale. That's a good sign for Sunday afternoon.

Austin Dillon -
The Daytona 500 didn't turn out as well as Dillon would have liked. He was rolled up in the "big one" and didn't get the finish he deserved. The RCR driver will get to hit the reset button on his season this week at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Dillon nabbed a swath of Top-10 and Top-15 finishes on intermediate ovals during the Chase last fall. He piloted the No. 3 Chevrolet to finishes of 11th-, 11th-, 10th- and 11th-place at Las Vegas, Kansas, Fort Worth and Homestead. It was a pretty eye-opening performance for the No. 3 team. Dillon's Atlanta resume is pretty bare to this point, but he has been improving. He has a pair of Top-15 finishes in his last three starts at the Concord, Georgia oval. We believe Dillon has a lot of upside vs. very little risk in Sunday's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson - Johnson is a five-time Atlanta winner, and nearly a NASCAR legend at this point in his career. Sure, he looked pretty racy at Daytona last week, and even came away with the Clash victory, but we need to see more of the seven-time champion before we can advise on his fantasy racing value in 2019. The Hendrick Motorsports star struggled immensely on intermediate ovals last season. His 27th-place finish in this event one year ago is illustrative of this point. There is new optimism in the No. 48 Chevrolet team, and a new crew chief in Kevin Meendering. Let's see how the new team performs at Atlanta this week, and we'll advise going forward. Right now, it's simply too risky to deploy Johnson in your lineups at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Daniel Hemric -
Atlanta Motor Speedway is tough on rookie drivers, and this one is the best of this season's rookie crop. Hemric was rolled up in the crazy pit road crash at Daytona this past week and finished 34th in the season-opener. This week offers a tough proposition to rebound for the young driver and team. Hemric does have some limited racing experience at this oval. He has two Xfinity Series and two truck series starts at Atlanta to mixed results at best. Racing here in a Cup car with the new aerodynamic package will be an entirely different story for the Richard Childress Racing driver. There's simply too many lessons to be learned this weekend to rely on Hemric in fantasy racing contests at Atlanta.

Daniel Suarez -
As far as x-factors go this weekend, Suarez is probably the biggest speculative play. This will be Suarez's third look at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a Cup car. While there were some lessons learned in last season's 15th-place finish for the No. 19 team, we're not certain those are ready to be employed just yet. The young driver has moved to the No. 41 Stewart Haas Racing team this season, and looking to rebound from a subpar 2018 season. Suarez limped down the stretch run last season on the cookie cutter tracks. He finished 24th-, 28th- and 30th-place to round out last year at Kansas, Fort Worth and Homestead. The new fresh start with a new team is probably a good thing for Suarez, but we're not ready to recommend him in fantasy racing lineups in 2019 just yet, until we see some results.

Alex Bowman -
This fantasy racing article has had an overarching theme of "wait and see" and this is yet another driver that fits into that category early in 2019. Bowman was downright terrible on intermediate ovals late last season. The No. 88 team struggled to just one Top-10 finish in the last five 1.5-mile events of last season, and a subpar 22.0 average finish across the span. Bowman has three-career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and his best finish is 20th-place with this same race team a year ago. The Hendrick Motorsports driver showed some real speed and moxie last week at Daytona capturing the outside pole for the Daytona 500. However, this week's Atlanta race with the new aerodynamic package is an entirely different ball game. Keep Bowman on the fantasy racing bench this week.

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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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