With several of the sport’s biggest names starting from the back of the field, from missing qualifying sessions to missing driver introductions, here is what else was surprising and not surprising from the 56th annual Folds of Honor QuickTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Surprising: The top ten finishers at Atlanta were a fascinating mixture of everything from four past champions to two one-car team drivers and one young replacement driver.
The four past champions included winner Jimmie Johnson, runner up and immediate past champ Kevin Harvick, fifth place finisher Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski, who finished ninth. And in the midst of those champions ran young Brett Moffitt, who replaced Brian Vickers in the No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine for Michael Waltrip Racing to finish eighth, as well as the single car teams of Martin Truex Jr. and AJ Allmendinger, who finished sixth and seventh respectively.
“This thing was just bad fast,” the race winner and driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet said. “I had a blast racing with the No. 4 (Kevin Harvick). He was awfully strong today. I think track position there at the end just kind of set things in place. We had the restart we needed to and off we went.”
“This is truly amazing,” Moffitt said after finishing top-ten in his No. 55 replacement ride. “We showed good speed all weekend long. We just couldn’t bust off a quick lap on fresh tires and we kept adjusting on the car during the race. It wasn’t where we needed it to start and I kept learning how to be more aggressive on the restarts and use other people’s air to benefit me.”
“I can’t thank Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota and Aaron’s enough for this opportunity. Definitely learned a lot out there. Wish I could be in the car more often.”
Not Surprising: Jeff Gordon had an immediate partner in commiseration after again hitting hard into a wall sans a safer barrier.
“Pretty convenient to see that SAFER Barrier end just before @jeffgordonweb pounds wall,” Kyle Busch tweeted ironically from his home while recuperating from his lack of safer barrier crash injuries. “Hope he’s healthy! When will this end @NASCARsafer barrier.”
“I’m very frustrated the fact that there was no SAFER barrier down there,’’ Gordon said after exiting the infield care center. “I know it was a hard hit. I didn’t expect it to be that hard. I go out and looked and ‘Oh well, big surprise I found the one wall on the back straightaway that doesn’t have a SAFER barrier.’ ‘’
“I don’t think we can say any more after Kyle’s incident at Daytona. Everybody knows they’ve got to do something. It should have been done a long time ago. All we can do now is hope they do it as fast as they possibly can and get it done.’’
Surprising: While he treasured his former crew chief Steve Letarte in the role, there is apparently a new cheerleader on top of the box for fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. And this new cheerleader helped his driver right to a 3rd place finish at Atlanta, backing up his 3rd place finish at Daytona the week before.
“The communication is great and he’s actually a pretty good cheerleader to be honest with you,” Dale Jr. said. “Who knew? I think he’s going to be awesome to work with and he’s got a hell of a future and I’m glad to be able to have a few years with him here while he’s sort of learning the ropes.”
Not Surprising: Reviews were mixed on the use of track bar adjustability, from drivers who loved it and felt it made a tremendous difference to those that did not use it at all.
“I thought it was great,” Martin Truex, Jr., driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet said about his track bar use after finishing sixth. “I used it all day. I thought it was something neat to play with.”
“We made a decision last night to drop ours a little bit for the start of the race. Had we not had that adjustment we would have been in big trouble. It helped us a lot today just having that. We were up and down, back and forth with it.”
“I thought it was a great little tool. It wasn’t like you were going to go from a 10th-place car to winning the race with it. But it was something there that you could tune on to make your car more comfortable on shorter and longer runs.”
“My crew chief Brian Burns says I’m not smart enough to have one in there right now,” AJ Allmendinger, driver of the No. 47 Better Than Bouillon Chevrolet, said about the track bar. “We never had one all weekend. We were letting everybody get the bugs worked out of it.”
“I don’t like having it in there because it gives me one less excuse to yell at my crew chief about why my car is not very good (laughs),” the seventh place finisher continued. “We will work on that.”
Surprising: For Danica Patrick, it was all about the tape, ‘bout the tape.
“I’d have to say one of our biggest problems today – aside from getting going on the start and getting the car tuned in – was that the tape kept coming off the front,” the driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet said after finishing 16th. “The tape was making me handle. It wasn’t only running pretty cool but the tape helps front downforce.”
“It was pretty noticeable when the tape came off. That was our biggest problem today as far as a better result goes. I believe we wouldn’t have been a lap down if we had kept that tape on.”
Not Surprising: For many drivers, it is sometimes where you are happy not to be that makes all the difference.
“That’s kind of been our goal going into the season is to not start in such a big hole like we did last year,” Aric Almirola said after finishing 11th in his No. 43 Fresh From Florida Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports. “We got a little bit behind right before halfway and then we got it back, so I’m proud of this run and proud to start this season off with two top-15 finishes.”
“Last year I think going into the third or fourth race we were outside the top 30 in points, so so far, so good. “
Surprising: While not a superspeedway per se, Atlanta did see the ‘big one’ late in the race when Greg Biffle got loose and collected five other cars.
“I think the 16 and 34 got together, something up front there,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the No. 17 Fifth Third Bank Ford, said after being involved in the crash. “I was committed to the top and got in the brakes and got in the back of the 15, which was down on power I guess.”
“And then a lot of smoke and somebody was in front of me as I was still on the brake and went ahead and ended our day.”
Not Surprising: Replacement drivers Regan and Ragan had solid runs but were not stellar, finishing in 17th and 18th place respectively.
“It was a battle all day,” Regan Smith, replacement driver for Kurt Busch, said. “We kind of struggled with the handling on the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS. Finally when we got it where I was happy with it, we were a lap down already. It was kind of too late at that point.”
“Right after we got it where I was happy, we got damage on the nose. I don’t know… somebody up there wrecked and everybody stopped. Tony (Gibson, crew chief) made some great pit calls to somehow get us back to one lap down. I still don’t know how that happened. It was a good job by him to salvage the day for the team.”
“The first 100 laps of the race, our M&M’s Crispy Camry was fast, had speed and track position means a lot at any race and as we fell back a little bit and I think it was a snowball effect,” David Ragan said, in for the recovering Kyle Busch, said. “We just really probably were a little behind on our adjustment and that’s probably just my inexperience with these guys and being a little timid on making a few adjustments.”
“We had some good speed, but we had lost too much ground. We learned a lot, brought the car back in one piece, but we can run better than that.”
Surprising: Landon Cassill experienced déjà vu all over again. For the second time in two races, his engine let go in the No. 40 Snap Fitness Chevrolet. Cassill finished the race dead last in the 43rd spot and fell to the basement as far as the points standings.
Not Surprising: Although the Team Penske drivers described their race day as being up, down and all over the place, both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski managed to finish top-ten at Atlanta. In fact, Logano, who started from the pole position, finished fourth in his 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford, while teammate Keselowski finished ninth in his No. 2 Detroit Genuine Parts Ford.
“We raced hard and raced up toward the front all day,” Logano said. “Those Hendrick cars are fast, and obviously the 4 car, but the other guys would just take off and leave me. I did everything I could to maintain on restarts and be aggressive and that’s where we ended up.”
“We were just kind of up and down and floating all day long,” Keselowski said. “At one point, I thought we were gonna have a 15th-place day and towards the end I thought we were gonna have a fifth-place day.”
“We cycled out to a ninth-place finish, which wasn’t our best and wasn’t our worst today. It just was what it was.”