Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Chase Eliot became the first three-time winner of 2022, passing Corey LaJoie with just two laps remaining to take the checkered flag in the Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. There was a bit of luck involved for Elliott as Martin Truex Jr. was collected in front of Elliott in a late incident and gave him a clear shot at leader LaJoie on the restart.
Elliott’s second break came when LaJoie ran wide on the final lap. Elliott was able to throw a block, and while it wasn’t perfectly clean, it was enough for the driver to get free. The resulting caution for LaJoie stopped a run by Ross Chastain.
Elliott had the best car, winning the first two stages and the dominoes fell in his favor at the end. Is his hot streak right on schedule as the series heads into the playoffs?
By now LaJoie has certainly shown his skill when the cars are more equal. Will he finish what he started at Daytona International Speedway?
And do not forget Eric Jones. Jones led 10 laps and finished fifth on Sunday, his sixth top 10 of 2022. Despite some bad luck (remember when the wheel got stuck on his car?), Jones had some very good moments this year. He had a shot at the win on Sunday and although he came close it was a solid performance from Jones and his Petty GMS team. He’s already surpassed his top 5 of 2021, leading laps and making his top 10. Jones might not be a favorite to win the stretch, but he’s certainly a dark horse.
Where were all the fans? The grandstands were particularly sparse on Sunday in Atlanta, a track that has only completed a second race in recent years. Once reconfigured for the 2022 season, the track is set to run like a smaller Talladega Superspeedway, wrecks and all, so what’s up?
Summer heat aside, why didn’t fans flock to Atlanta to see superspeedway-style racing? It turned out to be relatively chilly for Atlanta in July, but folks planning ahead couldn’t count on it being tolerable.
For one, full-size Talladega is just a few hours from Atlanta. The two are essentially competing in one big market. Fall Talladega race features cooler weather and playoff implications.
A Saturday night race might be a better draw for Atlanta in the summer because of the usual heat and humidity, but area fans who want Talladega can just go there. Meanwhile, fans who don’t like the big packs can take a weekend trip to Charlotte Motor Speedway or Darlington Raceway.
Speedway Motorsports got the racing it envisioned with the reconfiguration. It just got it into a market that didn’t really want or need it.
Where… did the other key characters end up?
Last week’s winner Tyler Reddick spent the first half looking like he could ride back-to-back, sitting between the leaders and finishing second in stage two. What Reddick couldn’t control were the other cars. He was conceded after Ty Dillon turned a slower Garrett Smithley and that ended his bid for a second win in as many weeks. Reddick was 29.
Spring Atlanta Winner William Byron has almost the same story to tell as Reddick. After scoring some stage points and finishing fifth and eighth, he was involved in the same incident as Reddick and finished 30th for the day.
Active victory leader in Atlanta Kurt Busch also had a good day until the last lap. Busch showed he can ride whatever the configuration of the track in Atlanta, finishing seventh and fifth in the first two stages. He rode with the front runners on the final laps, and while he wasn’t close enough to challenge for the win, he was aiming for the top five. Instead, he was caught by LaJoie’s spin and finished just a lap behind 22nd. Place.
When… was the moment of truth?
Chastain was involved in two incidents on Sunday. One of them was random at worst, but the second could be what stands between Chastain and a title.
In the first incident with Truex, Chastain tried to give Truex space and Truex failed to hold his line at the same time. Could Chastain have backed out? Secure. But we saw how well a slower car handles traffic at speed when Ty Dillon ran at Smithley. Atlanta isn’t quite Daytona or Talladega, but it’s close enough that reversing is foreign territory for motorists.
However, Chastain’s second incident was avoidable. It was also with Denny Hamlin, who earlier this year clashed with Chastain and vowed revenge. Chastain didn’t intentionally destroy Hamlin, but he didn’t avoid contact like he should. And Hamlin can’t let this one go. Deliberately destroying Chastain in the playoffs would be a pretty dirty move by Hamlin and could have consequences (ask Matt Kenseth about that), but it’s not off the table.
Chastain is a worker driver used to racing for his life. Racing for a title is a different animal. Chastain has shown that he is absolutely capable. But he still has to learn the long game.
Why… should you pay attention this week?
Last year’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway created a playoff scenario similar to this year’s and added another new winner to the list in Aric Almirola, his only hope of a playoff spot in 2021. It was also a surprisingly good race despite early rain. New Hampshire is a hit-and-miss track in terms of quality of racing and even being one of the best in 2021 was a pleasant surprise.
But the Next Gen struggles on short flat stretches, so New Hampshire is a test in that regard. Can Almirola repeat? Can another winless rider find the winning lane? Truex has enjoyed success there since his ARCA Menards Series East days but has yet to take home the huge Hummer trophy for a cup race.
Ryan Blaney is also strong in New Hampshire, having recorded four top-five finishes in the last five races there. He even led 64 laps en route to a fifth place finish at the track last season. Meanwhile, it’s harder to read based on just a few races, but Custer has been solid there in his two Cup starts. He finished eighth in his rookie season and finished 14th last year.
And don’t count the most successful active driver on the track: Kevin Harvick. He has four wins at the track and has only finished outside the top six once in the last eight races.
If the teams figure out the car, this race is just another joker in the season.
How… will the regular season end?
So there are still seven races to go Absolutely nothing is decided as far as the playoffs go. In fact, the waters might get muddier, as these seven races include a flat mile, a flat two mile, two street courses, whatever Pocono Raceway is, a flat three-quarters mile, and to top it off, Daytona.
The next generation car was at its weakest in terms of flat track racing. The spring race at Richmond Raceway was not particularly convincing. The larger but still flat Michigan International Speedway might be the better race. Still, the spring race at the similarly styled Auto Club Speedway was good. New Hampshire falls somewhere in between, so who knows. Last summer’s race was one of the best of the regular season.
In three road races so far we have had three different winners, all first winners. We may not have realistic starters left for 2022, but there are many riders for whom a win would be a good story with big playoff implications. Daytona is Daytona, so expect carnage and maybe a final playoff entry.
All in all, it will be worth watching. Will the flat tracks be better than in spring? Will we see more winners until there is a playoff winner? Currently, this would make Chase Briscoe look inside from the outside.
There’s still a lot of racing.
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