By Jared Turner
From the glory of Daytona to the beginning of the grind that is the remainder of the schedule, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season gets in full swing with Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Aside from Atlanta being one of the fastest tracks on the NASCAR tour, the high-banked, 1.54-mile quad-oval couldn’t be much different from Daytona International Speedway — the world-famous site of last weekend’s season-opening race.
Atlanta is the first of 32 “normal” races on the 36-race schedule, meaning that drivers won’t be bunched in tight packs all day by the horsepower-choking restrictor plates that make racing at both Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway so treacherous.
This weekend, handling and speed will matter, and the possibility of an underdog coming out of nowhere to win is far less than it was at Daytona — where the restrictor plates give drivers with even the smallest teams a chance at pulling a proverbial rabbit out of the hat.
No driver will be more excited to get to Atlanta than reigning and seven-time premier series champion Jimmie Johnson, who endured a tumultuous Daytona Speedweeks. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is seeking to make history in 2017 by becoming the first eight-time champion of NASCAR’s premier series, and he can take the first major step toward that end this weekend at a track where he’s a five-time winner and winner of the past two premier series races.
“Expectations are high,” Johnson said. “We are very excited to get to a 1.5-mile track. I’ve always had great success here. It’s been a lot of fun. I think this track with the high tire wear and the bumpy conditions and the fact that you have to search around for lines really suits my style, and suits my upbringing racing on the dirt. It’s been a great racetrack for me. Looking forward to a strong performance.”
Johnson’s Hendrick teammate, Kasey Kahne, carries a similarly optimistic sentiment into Atlanta. Kahne, a three-time Atlanta winner, trails only Johnson in Atlanta victories among active drivers. But, unlike Johnson, Kahne carries some momentum into AMS on the heels a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500.
“Atlanta is one of the tracks that I really enjoy,” Kahne said. “It has been one of my favorite tracks for years and still is, so I’m looking forward to Atlanta early in the season. I’m hoping that it’s clear and we don’t have rain or snow, or anything like that. I think that it will be a good one to get some momentum rolling at. We’ve ran great there a lot of times over the seasons and I have three wins and a few top-five finishes, so it has been one of my better racetracks. It’s a nice place to get going on our more traditional style of racetracks.”
Looking for another Atlanta favorite? Look no further than newly minted Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch, who is tied with Kahne for Atlanta victories.
Fresh off his triumph in the sport’s biggest race, Busch would like to join an elite club of drivers who’ve opened the season with back-to-back victories. The 2004 premier series champ is fully cognizant of how difficult of a task that will be, however.
“It’s a tough, tough race,” Busch said of Atlanta. “The asphalt is worn out and the tires have a hard time maintaining pace. All of those factors combined make this a very challenging race. I won a couple of spring races in a row at Atlanta in 2009 and 2010 — races when it was nice and cool out. It’s a very different racetrack in cool and hot conditions. The practice sessions seem very limited when we’re there, so you’ve got to unload fast and stay fast.”