Welcome to the 2018 season and welcome back to our post-race takeaways column. Per usual, we’ll have some random thoughts to espouse after Cup Series races and this column will be the landing spot for them. Can you believe the season has already started?!
• Much of the discussion surrounding NASCAR’s new inspection system for 2018 was about its increased accuracy and the hope, at least from some Ford teams, that the playing field would be leveled a bit.
It’s no secret Toyota was the dominant team of 2017. The manufacturer won eight of 10 playoff races and 16 of the final 19 races of the season a year ago in its first season with a redesigned Camry.
Sunday’s race at Atlanta was the first on a 1.5-mile track, the type of track where Toyota dominated in 2017. It was far from a Toyota show, however, even with Kyle Busch starting on the pole. Ford driver Kevin Harvick won while Ford drivers Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer finished second and third.
Denny Hamlin was the highest-finishing Toyota driver in fourth and he had a quip ready when he hit the media center after the race.
— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) February 26, 2018
Ford was strong throughout Sunday’s race. All four Stewart-Haas cars ran in the top 10 and finished in the top 13 while Team Penske’s three cars also finished in the top 15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was 16th and that finish came after he sustained some significant damage to the back of his car from contact with Darrell Wallace Jr. after Trevor Bayne’s engine expired.
Was Sunday’s race proof that Ford’s found something and will compete with the Toyotas and Chevrolet’s new Camaro throughout the 2018 season? It’s way too early to tell.
Ford was the dominant manufacturer at Atlanta a year ago, though that was thanks to Harvick, who led 292 laps. Race-winner Keselowski led 21 of the remaining 32 laps. Seven Fords finished in the top 13.
With SHR and Penske in the fold, Ford was always going to be a championship contender in 2018, new inspection system or not. The two teams are too good and have too many resources to fall that much behind Toyota and Chevrolet even if the Ford Fusion body is in its final year in the Cup Series.
And Atlanta is a pretty unique case anyway. The track’s got the oldest pavement in NASCAR (for now, anyway) and Chevrolet, much like Toyota a year ago, is still trying to figure out what it has aerodynamically with its new car design. Ford teams know what they have. And it’s something that works at Atlanta.
Next week’s race at Las Vegas will be a better early-season barometer of how all three manufacturers stack up against each other.
• Sunday’s race was originally scheduled to be the first race on a newly-repaved Atlanta Motor Speedway. But after pleas from drivers following the 2017 race weekend, Atlanta got a one-year reprieve. There will be new pavement at the track in 2019 and hopefully it adds some progressive banking too.
• At least three teams — Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman — had air gun issues during pit stops on Sunday. That’s significant as teams are all using standard air guns issued from NASCAR to change tires. If the equipment teams are leasing from NASCAR proves to be unreliable over the next few races as well, expect to hear some understandable complaints from the garage.
It’s going to be awkward when the inevitable air gun malfunction costs a leading car a chance at a win in a late-race pit stop.
• We’ve got an inquiry in to NASCAR about the sport’s position regarding the NRA’s sponsorship of the August Bristol night race in light of corporations dropping their associations with the NRA after the Parkland high school shooting. We’ll update when we hear back from the sport.
• Chase Elliott didn’t have the greatest of races on Sunday. He qualified poorly at his home track and wasn’t a threat for the win. But damn, this restart with 21 laps to go was impressive as hell.
He briefly got to fourth, though he quickly faded back and finished 10th, about where he was for most of the second half of the race.
• Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon finished 14th. Second-place finisher Darrell Wallace’s follow-up wasn’t nearly as good. Wallace was off the pace all day and made contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. late in the race. He finished 32nd.
Wallace is going to show flashes in 2018. However, he’s going to have races like he did on Sunday, especially considering how Richard Petty Motorsports is still a single-car team and adjusting to a new manufacturer in Chevrolet. Wallace has star potential. It’s just going to take a little bit to recognize it, at least on the track.
• The forecast for Sunday was absolutely dire as rain hit the track Sunday morning. It was a minor miracle that NASCAR was able to get the complete race in, albeit about 90 minutes after the originally scheduled start time.
As rain pelted the track, meteorologists who pay attention to NASCAR were not optimistic about the chances of getting the race finished on Sunday because of the weather setup. Those paid to promote and televise the sport were for obvious reasons. And what do you know, the optimists won out over the realists.
Sometimes that happens. But sometimes a No. 15 seed beats a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. I went to Missouri. I can vouch for that happening.
But the percentages typically play out like they’re supposed to. NASCAR got lucky on Sunday as the rain dissipated enough over the afternoon. It probably won’t get lucky at another point this season. Keep trusting those trained in weather science over those paid to promote NASCAR.
• Speaking of those paid to promote NASCAR, Darrell Waltrip compared Ryan Blaney to a dial tone during Sunday’s broadcast. I’m really not sure what to say to that.
Audio proof Darrell Waltrip compared Ryan Blaney to a dial tone pic.twitter.com/0JUVKvVxBP
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) February 25, 2018
– – – – – – –