Five drivers to watch in Atlanta Cup race

Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 could be one of the last, great races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Five drivers to watch in Atlanta Cup race
Race action
Restart action
Race action
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Polesitter Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Alan Gustafson

With the race track planning to repave the 1.5-mile circuit following the Monster Energy Cup race, it could be a while before the new pavement provides the slipping and sliding the drivers have come to know — and love.

Couple the worn out asphalt with a new lower downforce aerodynamic package and there’s no telling what will happen.  

“I can tell you it is a challenging track and Goodyear has brought an excellent tire to allow us to race really hard,” said Brad Keselowski, who will roll of fifth on Sunday. “We are going to have our hands full and this is what a race track should be. Atlanta is going to be its ornery old self after you get a few laps on the tires for sure.”

Atlanta has always been a handful for Keselowski. Of the 23 tracks on the Cup circuit, Keselowski’s second-worse average finish (20.2) is at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Despite his immense talent, the 2012 Cup champion is still looking for his first win at Atlanta Motor Speedway. In eight starts at AMS, Keselowski’s best finish is third — his only top-five result.    

But Keselowski lobbied for less downforce on the 2017 Cup car and he got his wish. This year’s model has 1,600 pounds of downforce — a 500-pound reduction from last year. The spoiler has been lowered from 3.5-inches in 2016 to 2.375. The deck fin now matches the spoiler height. And the front splitter has been tapered by three inches on the outboard regions. 

“It just makes it harder to drive,” Keselowski said. “Downforce is an assist. Sometimes we need an assist and it helps us go faster but we don’t always like it as drivers.”

Here are five other drivers to watch on Sunday:

Jimmie Johnson

J.J. leads the Cup series with five wins among active drivers at Atlanta — including the last two races. After a disappointing Speedweeks, Johnson, who left Daytona 34th in the standings, is looking for maximum points on Sunday. During Happy Hour, the No. 48 Chevy ranked 23rd among 34 drivers that posted Best 10 Consecutive Lap Averages. And on Sunday, Johnson starts 18th — a bit off from Johnson’s average qualifying effort. Only Ryan Newman (7.2), Kyle Larson (9.7) and Kasey Kahne (9.8) have better starting averages than Johnson’s 10.5. But it’s where a driver finishes that counts as Johnson well knows. He qualified 37th and 19th, respectively, in his last two start and still cam home victorious. When it comes to drivers with multiple starts at Atlanta, Johnson’s average finish of 10.7 tops the tour. 

“This track is so fun and so interesting and so challenging, I hate that it’s our last run on this asphalt,” Johnson said. “But, the practice session didn’t disappoint. It still threw plenty of challenges at the teams and certainly ours. We are learning as we go here with this new package, start of a new season. I’m ready to go collect some points and get some wins.”

Kurt Busch

Busch is coming off of the biggest win of his career in last week’s Daytona 500.  Busch is one of two drivers with three wins (Kasey Kahne is the other). Busch’s 749 laps led are the most in Atlanta. In 25 starts, he has six top fives — including two in the last three races — and 11 top 10s. He posted the third fastest lap in Happy Hour (187.576mph), but ranked 20th in the Best Consecutive Lap Average category (178.445mph).

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt considers Atlanta one of his favorite race tracks — and the proof is in the results. His average finish of 11.6 ranks second only to Johnson. In 29 starts, Earnhardt boasts one win, 10 top fives and 14 top 10s. He’s led the third most laps (633) among active drivers at AMS. Earnhardt qualified 12th for Sunday. He posted the eight fastest lap (186.472mph) and ranked second in Best 10 Consecutive Lap Averages (181.398mph) in Happy Hour. 

Kevin Harvick

Harvick said coming down to Atlanta he felt “good about the race car and good about the race team” so it wasn’t surprising when he won the pole in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Entering the weekend, the No. 4 team had to adopt a different setup to accommodate the car and the track. And Harvick knows that handling will be challenge. Still, Harvick has led 543 laps in the last five races. With his history of six top fives and 11 top 10 finishes — including nine in the last 11 races — Harvick will be a threat on Sunday.

Chase Elliott

After leading 39 laps before running out of gas and finishing 14th at Daytona, Elliott is looking for revenge this weekend at Atlanta. Elliott posted the fastest lap in Happy Hour (188.015mph)and was ninth (179.803mph) on the Best 10 Consecutive Average chart. Although the Dawsonville, Georgia native has just one Cup start at his home track, he finished eighth in his debut last year. In the Xfinity Series, the former champion finished fifth in both of his Atlanta starts. He rolls off 11th. 

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