Now that the Daytona 500 is in the rear view mirror, the real challenge of the 2015 Sprint Cup Season begins.
With this weekend’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, it marks not only the first downforce race of the season but also the new aero and engine packages as well. With 150 horsepower less to play with by way of a tapered spacer (i.e., restrictor plate), drivers will also be able to adjust the track bar from inside the cockpit – legally. With worn out asphalt and corner entry speeds still in the 200mph range, it should be an eventful race – particularly as temperatures struggle to reach 50 degrees on Sunday.
While I used the excuse of restrictor plate races being crap shoots last week, this week is going to be a similar shot in the dark affair. Writing this in the midst of Thursday’s open test session, I would tend to lean towards proven Atlanta performers for any fantasy or wagering considerations. And those whose teams have a crew chief with an XFINITY Series background given the similarities between the Sprint Cup cars and those in their sister series given the new rules package designed to slow things down.
@JamieMcMurray paced the first session with a fast lap of 191.549mph, while @JeffGordonWeb was fastest in the second session, knocking off a lap of 188.424mph. Gordon made his series debut here in November of 1992 and would love to close out his career on a higher note than he did at Daytona last weekend. Gordon (who has a series-high five wins at AMS among full-time drivers) also had the fastest 10-lap average in session two, while @KevinHarvick took the fastest 10-lap honors in session one. It should also be noted that Harvick led 195 laps here last September before a series of late-race cautions and restarts saw him relegated to a 19th place finish.
Factor in the usual suspects from Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports obviously. They’re all in the top-10 in speed and as usual, solid picks at a 1.5-miler – or, in this case, 1.54 miles.
While they were fastest on race day last weekend sweeping Friday, Saturday and Sunday’s events in Daytona, those representing the Blue Oval camp may end up resembling the other moniker that Ford is teased with by their fellow competitors.
Daytona 500 champion @JoeyLogano was the fastest Ford in Thursday’s first practice session at 17th while @GBiffle was 12th fastest in session two. Even Brad @Keselowski, who is often dominant at downforce tracks in the XFINITY Series could only muster 21st on the speed charts despite running 81 laps in the second session.
Not to bash the Ford camp, but I’d look elsewhere for fantasy fodder this weekend.
While Smoke would love to turn things around here, I’m not sure even @TonyStewart’s stellar record at AMS, which includes three wins and an average finishing position of 12.7 will be a threat to win given his speeds of 20th and 25th in the two test sessions. @DanicaPatrick fans take heart; she was faster than her boss in both sessions at 19th and 14th. Despite a career-best sixth place finish here in September, she’s not a threat to win, so I’d hold off on selecting her in fantasy until a race or two at these high-speed/high-downforce tracks gives us some real race data to go off of.
While there’s no rain in the forecast for Sunday, I will be putting a damper on things for those who surprised last weekend in the closing craziness. While @DavidGilliland, @SamHornish and @MichaelAnnett put together surprisingly solid runs coming home 11th, 12th and 13th respectively, the party ends this weekend sadly, and reality sets in. Hornish might find some speed in practice over the weekend, but Annett and Gilliland were in the 30s during the test sessions on Thursday. They will likely get a lot of TV time however, as they will be lapped multiple times on Sunday given Atlanta’s penchant for long green-flag runs.
Unless you’re desperate for a cheap driver to fill a slot in a salary capped league or need one from a lower tier, don’t even bother – there are better choices out there still and better values to be found.
Dark Horse Favorites
@DavidRagan was pick last week as a fantasy bargain and worth throwing $5.00 on as a long shot to win. This weekend Ragan rolls into his home track with a legitimate chance to win for the first time since 2011, when he was behind the wheel of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford.
On Wednesday, it was announced he would replace @KyleBusch for the next six weeks in the No. 18 Toyotas for Joe Gibbs Racing. While Atlanta hasn’t been his best track historically (one top-10 finish in 2008 – eighth), it’s been quite lucrative for JGR over the years. Thursday he spent the afternoon getting comfortable in his new ride, placing 19th and 15th in the two practice sessions while the other JGR Toyotas were in the top-10. By Sunday, however, he should be up to speed and on pace with his teammates, and is a fantasy bargain for sure over the next few months.
Coming to the Line …
While this weekend’s race is still a toss-up, I do believe it will help set the tone for the first quarter of the season. It will take teams a few weeks to acclimate to the new rules packages, and there will be sure to be some stumbling blocks along the way. The two practice sessions did provide valuable insight and trends to watch for during the practice sessions this weekend, before you ultimately lock in your picks for Sunday’s race.
While Jamie McMurray was atop the speed charts in the first session, his teammate @KyleLarsonRacin was just a tick off in second. In the second session, Larson was fourth fastest and posted the 10th fastest 10-lap average. Atlanta is a multi-groove track, but with the 2015 spoiler reduction, downforce will not be what it once was. Mechanical grip will be at a premium and that No. 42 has a habit of finding the fast way around the high-side of the race track, even if it means using the wall for leverage.
While I think it’s a coin flip between Harvick and Larson, I’m going to lean towards youth this weekend, and give the nod to Kyle Larson celebrating his first Sprint Cup Series win.
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