By Jared Turner
Tony Stewart is mending
Guess who showed up on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the first time since injuring his back in a recreational incident late last month? If you guessed Tony Stewart, you nailed it. The three-time Sprint Cup Series champion provided one of the truly feel-good stories of the weekend when he was spotted in the AMS garage talking with his substitute driver, Ty Dillon, moments after Friday’s rounds of Sprint Cup Series qualifying. While Stewart has not been medically cleared to race, his presence at the track can only mean one thing: His recovery is going well, perhaps even better than initially expected. Stewart said he also plans to attend the three upcoming West Coast races. Here’s betting it won’t be long at all before he’s back behind the wheel of his No. 14 Chevy.
Kenseth is frustrated
For the second week in a row, Matt Kenseth saw a potential victory go by the wayside. Only unlike in the Daytona 500, where he simply was out-maneuvered by teammate Denny Hamlin on the last lap, Kenseth’s problems at Atlanta were a result of his own team’s shortcomings. Armed with a car that led the race early and often, Kenseth saw his hopes of a win evaporate rapidly when he was penalized for a violation his gasman committed on pit road, and then penalized a second time for not heeding a black flag, which he apparently couldn’t see and wasn’t told about. He finished 20th on a day when he had a real opportunity to go to Victory Lane. Understandably, Kenseth was not happy with his team. “It was just a lack of communication,” he said.
The new rules package is popular
Even though Sunday’s race produced minimal passing at the front of the field, just three cautions and lots of spread-out racing, drivers by and large were satisfied with the debut of the Sprint Cup Series’ new low-downforce aero package – which was created with the goal of improving the quality of the racing. The biggest positive that the package has to offer, numerous driver said, is that it harkens back to days of old when race cars were hard to drive and really required drivers to stay up on the wheel. Increased passing opportunities seemed to be less of a priority for the drivers who were asked to assess the new rules after Sunday’s race. So maybe lots of passing and jockeying for position near the front aren’t what constitute an exciting race after all.
Soft walls are working
In the closing laps of Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, two drivers – two-time series champion Matt Crafton and rookie Christopher Bell – literally clobbered the outside wall in separate incidents that looked equally frightening. But thankfully, both men walked away uninjured. Call it luck, good fortune or whatever one wishes, but the bottom line is that NASCAR’s safety interventions – particularly the increase in the number of SAFER Barriers – are accomplishing what they set out to accomplish. Had Crafton or Bell hit an unprotected wall at the speed and angle at which they both did at AMS, the outcome could have been tragic in the absence of a SAFER Barrier to dramatically soften the blow.
The Roush Fenway cars are better
Coming off one the company’s worst seasons ever, Roush Fenway Racing entered 2016 with high hopes of a major turnaround. While it’s probably too early to pop the celebratory champagne just yet, Sunday’s race was certainly a good sign as RFR’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Greg Biffle finished 10th and 13th, respectively. Particularly notable was that mile-and-a-half tracks like at Atlanta have been hugely problematic for RFR in recent years. As Biffle, team co-owner Jack Roush and others predicted before the season, however, it seems that – at least so far – the new low-downforce rules package is playing to the advantage of the RFR drivers. If the RFR drivers perform equally well if not better this weekend at Las Vegas, another mile-and-a-half, expect them to be strong all year.