Major Implications: Five Questions for Atlanta

Credit: Sarah Glenn/NASCAR via Getty Images
By Kristen Schneider

Who’s ready for some real racing?
I’m not discrediting what we saw at Daytona International Speedway—I’ll discuss that later on. However, the second race of the season is when teams start flexing their muscle. It’s a better gauge of who will be strong throughout the year since the schedule is comprised of so many 1.5-mile tracks.
We’re switching gears to Atlanta Motor Speedway, and it’s going to be a gorgeous weekend, weather- and racing-wise. Here are my five questions ahead of this race weekend.

Which XFINITY team will make a statement this weekend? With Chase Elliott winning the XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway, one has to look at the point standings to get a feel for the current situation. The current top 10 in points includes seasoned drivers like Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier while newcomers Brandon Jones and Blake Koch also make an appearance. Between these drivers and the others high in the standings, who will have a strong showing?

Koch will continue to shock people, as his newly-formed Kaulig Racing has an alliance with Richard Childress Racing and runs ECR engines, which explains how they’re so good right out of the gate. I don’t see that strength fading anytime soon. As Sadler, Allgaier, and Jones shake out their new cars and teams, a driver who has remained with a single team may be ready to strike. Darrel Wallace, Jr. is second in points, and his record in XFINITY and the Camping World Truck Series assures his talents on tracks between one and two miles. Atlanta fits right in there. It may take a few races to get a true feel on who will seriously contend throughout 2016, but Koch and Wallace stick out in my mind.

Will the low downforce package shine? This is the weekend we’ve all been waiting for; Sprint Cup Series teams are slated to run the low downforce package at all 1.5-mile tracks, and Hotlanta is the first on the list. There’s a lot of buzz, and it’s all for good reason. This weekend will give us a glimpse of what to expect at mile-and-a-half tracks this year. Will we be disappointed or thrilled? I’m leaning toward the latter. After the fantastic races at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington Raceway last year, there’s no doubt that low downforce works. With the aged surface at Atlanta, you have the potential for intense racing and the factor of tire wear. Those elements make for a great weekend of racing, and I have high hopes.

Did the Daytona 500 sizzle or fizzle? The sport’s prestigious race left a bad taste in some people’s mouths because it wasn't as chaotic as many had hoped, making it a hot-button topic this week. Even as we near another race, it hangs in fans’ minds. The question hanging in my mind is, what’s the big deal? The race played out to all my expectations—it went from pack racing to single-file, had a few spins, and was calm overall. Last week, I got the sense that the Daytona 500 would be a bit mundane, and it was. However, I can’t say I expected that remarkable finish. All in all, I think the Daytona 500 was decent; it had a memorable moment (the finish) and good racing, yet it fell short with many fans. I may not agree with them, but I understand their point of view.

Can Toyota harness their momentum? Speaking of Daytona, it was a Toyota driver’s dream. Joe Gibbs Racing took up most of the spotlight, with their racers winning the Sprint Unlimited, a Duel race, and the big kahuna. However, Furniture Row Racing -- who is now aligned with JGR -- gave winner Denny Hamlin a run for his money on the way to the checkered flag.

Many would say Toyota is the manufacturer to beat, but I’m not so quick to agree. Sure, they were dominant for the second half of 2015, leading to Kyle Busch’s first Sprint Cup Series championship. But we have to remember that there was an off-season—no matter how short it was—and teams used that time to dissect JGR’s dominance. The organization, and Toyota as a whole, is in the garage’s crosshairs. Atlanta will be the real tell if we are in for another year of Toyotas in victory lane.

Will Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ford announcement have major implications for 2016? While Toyota and Hamlin took over headlines on Monday, Stewart-Haas Racing blew them out of the water Tuesday. The long-time Hendrick Motorsports satellite team will switch to Ford in 2017, building their own chassis and running Roush-Yates motors. To say this made waves within the industry is an understatement; it took everyone off guard.

Although this doesn’t start until next season, there are consequences this season as well. As AP journalist Jenna Fryer wondered on Twitter, when does HMS stop sharing information? Probably last week. No matter what they say about sharing, that relationship has been altered. In many people's eyes, that’s a bad thing for SHR. However, Hendrick is at a disadvantage as well—they’re losing a prized ally, and the Chevrolet camp is shrinking. Tony Stewart assured us that there’s no bad blood between him and Rick Hendrick, and I believe him; business is business, you know. Despite this, one would think their professional relationship would go through a major shift as soon as the news broke. Will it affect either team’s performance? We’ll have to wait and see.

Major Implications: Five Questions for Atlanta Major Implications: Five Questions for Atlanta Reviewed by Anonymous on Friday, February 26, 2016 Rating: 5