After a fast race, with an average speed of 155.865 mph and only three cautions, here was what was surprising and not surprising from the 57th Annual Folds of Honor Quiktrip 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Surprising: After falling behind Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske for much of the last half of last season in performance, Hendrick Motorsports seems to have finally bounced back.
The team has won four of the last six Sprint Cup points races, beginning with the final NASCAR victory for the legendary Jeff Gordon at Martinsville and continuing on Sunday with a one-two finish at Atlanta.
Jimmie Johnson won his second straight Cup race and his fifth overall at the Georgia racetrack. More significantly, however, it was his 76th career Sprint Cup victory, tying “The Intimidator,” the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Finishing in second, fittingly, was Earnhardt Sr.’s namesake Dale Earnhardt Jr. After the race, Johnson paid his respects to the legendary “Man in Black.”
“Gosh, it’s hard to — I entered the sport just hoping I could win a race and keep a job for a few years, and to have 76 and tie Dale Earnhardt Sr. is something I’m very, very proud of,” said Johnson, whose 76th victory came 161 less races and nine less years in age before Earnhardt Sr.’s. “I didn’t have a chance to race against him, unfortunately, but today — there’s been a big void in my mind about not having that chance to race against him, and it was literally a handful of months away from having that opportunity.
“I didn’t have a chance to race against him, unfortunately, but today — there’s been a big void in my mind about not having that chance to race against him, and it was literally a handful of months away from having that opportunity.
“So to tie him today, for myself personally, it gives me a little something — it’s a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt and something I’m very proud of.”
It wasn’t an easy win for the driver of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet. Short pitting and a strategy call by crew chief Chad Knaus got the El Cajon, California native out front in the late going by taking one less pit stop for tires than the rest of the field. After Ryan Newman blew a tire and spun with just two laps to go, a fast pit stop gave Johnson the fresh tires he needed to survive NASCAR Overtime. Overtime ended prematurely when a handful of drivers, most notably Aric Almirola, David Ragan and Ryan Blaney, had a major wreck in turn three. The yellow flag came out right as Johnson crossed the start-finish line and Earnhardt Jr. was able to nip Kyle Busch for second.
Not Surprising: After an off-season full of build-up for the new 2015 Sprint Cup aero package and softer tire compounds, it definitely produced a different kind of racing in its debut on Sunday.
Instead of follow-the-leader type racing brought on by “aero push” giving race leaders huge leads almost automatically as has been the case for years, cars could pass easier and even take the lead late in runs. The softer tire compound Goodyear brought to the track led to drivers really having to wrestle their cars around the track, slipping and sliding all the way. And all of this wasn’t due to multiple restarts either; with one of the longest green flag runs in years (208 laps or roughly 312 miles) and only two restarts the entire day, it was one of the more unique races in years.
Drivers continue to praise the lower downforce package after being introduced to similar concepts last season at Kentucky and Darlington.
“I loved the way the cars drive,” said ninth place finisher Brad Keselowski. “I understand that it takes more than my opinion to make the sport go round, but I thought it was awesome.”
“They just need to keep taking more [downforce],” said Carl Edwards, a long-time proponent of the lower downforce package. “This is real racing. We’re driving hard.
“You can see the guys out here just digging for everything they’re worth. I’m worn out. That’s a tough race and just a lot of fun.”
Possibly some of the strongest words in support of the lower downforce package came from the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I loved it,” the driver of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet said. “We were sliding around and driving the hell out of the car. I had a blast..
“Man, it was so much fun. And I post old pictures online all the time of the ‘80s and ‘90s and that’s when racing was racing. That’s when it was good. That’s what they saw today.”
Surprising: An odd sort of circumstances had Matt Kenseth go from being a front-runner in the race to not being scored for a couple of laps.
A lap 117 pit stop featured Kenseth’s fuel man (Listed by PitTalks.com to be named John Eicher) set the wedge adjustment wrench on the deck lid of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota while fueling the car. According to NASCAR rules, the fuel man cannot do two things at once while fueling the car, and Kenseth was hit with a drive-through penalty.
Kenseth’s crew chief Jason Ratcliff argued the penalty while not informing Kenseth of the black flag. Kenseth got a rare black flag with a white strip after not serving his penalty in a timely matter, which means that NASCAR no longer scores the car.
Kenseth eventually served his penalty and ended the day recovering to finish 19th.
Not Surprising: Once again, Kevin Harvick led for most of the day but ended up not sealing the deal late in the running. After spinning his tires out on the final restart of the race, the driver of the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet ended the day sixth.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, however. Before the final caution period, Harvick drove the wheels off his loose race car, sliding around and trying to make up an 11-second gap in the final forty laps.
“We had issues about the last three runs,” said Harvick after the race, it (the spring race at Atlanta) marking fifteen years since his very first Sprint Cup victory. “I had to start driving the car different. It just required a little bit different handling. We got way behind and the No. 48 was way out front and I had to drive the car really hard and got the right rear burned up.”
Surprising: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. started the year off right with a great day at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The 28-year-old recorded only his 12th top-10 in his so far underwhelming Sprint Cup career. The 10th place finish came after a strong day where Stenhouse never fell out of the top 15.
“I’m really happy with all the hard work that these guys put in,” said the two-time XFINITY Series champion. “It’s only one weekend. I hope to get consistent with that and I’m looking forward to going to Vegas next week.”
Not Surprising: Chase Elliott’s first Sprint Cup start at home track Atlanta wasn’t surprising, with an eighth place finish after a good day. It is the driver of the No. 24 NAPA Chevrolet’s first top-10 finish and a nice rebound after his bad day at Daytona last week.
What was surprising, however, was the somewhat bittersweet feeling Elliott had on Twitter after teammate and idol Jimmie Johnson won the race.
The Sprint Cup series heads to Las Vegas next week. Expect plenty of gambling with strategy after the finish of Sunday’s race and plenty of fanfare as defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch races at his home track for the first time since winning the championship. Race coverage for the Kobalt 400 begins at 3 p.m. Eastern on FOX.