HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — NASCAR rolled into Atlanta Motor Speedway ready to begin a new era of racing that is shrouded in unknowns.
Will it be racier? That’s the point.
Will it make Sunday’s event at Atlanta exciting? That remains to be seen.
“We don’t have that answer. I can tell you that it will be drastically different than what we have done before,” said Kevin Harvick, who routed the field to win last year’s race.
“I would hate to speculate on what the direction of it is going to be and what we are going to do because we don’t know. That is good for everyone watching. We have more questions with zero answers, actually.”
The competition package for 2019 was not used in last week’s season-opening Daytona 500 and a version of it will debut Sunday on Atlanta’s abrasive 1.54-mile quad oval. The lower-horsepower, high-downforce and high-drag formula is designed to slow the cars, bunch them together and create a more entertaining product.
But Atlanta is an anomaly in that its racing surface is one of the oldest in the series and was last repaved in 1997. It is rough and bumpy, quickly eats away at tires and is typically a handful even for the veterans.
In simplest terms, Sunday’s race may look nothing like how the package races the rest of the season.
“This track is unlike any other track, as we all know, with the surface and bumps and the character,” said Jimmie Johnson, who leads all active drivers with five previous wins at Atlanta.
“My focus has been to get drivability right and then make speed a secondary item. We’ll see how it all plays out. This package is so new to all of us.”
An early version of the package was used in last year’s All-Star race to rave reviews from fans that prompted NASCAR to implement it for this season.
Roughly half the field tested the package last month at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where NASCAR races next week, and the venue that is expected to be a truer indicator of what the competition might look like the rest of the season.
It’s made Atlanta a mystery as teams spent Friday trying to figure out how to attack the track with this competition package.
“Sunday you will find out, I guess, if somebody spanks the field,” said Atlanta native Chase Elliott. “Until then, I am really not sure what we are going to have. I’m sure there is going to be guys that get it better than others to start, but I think as time goes, everybody is going to continue to develop and make it better and improve their cars and their packages for these race tracks.
“I think Atlanta, too, is a little different than some other mile-and-a-half tracks we are going to visit with the surface. I think your car is probably going to have to drive a little better here than it might at other places.”
The field Sunday will be three drivers short of the 40-car limit, with Gaunt Brothers Racing the only team without one of the charters that guarantees a spot in the field to come from Daytona to Atlanta. Parker Kligerman, the NBC Sports reporter who is trying to get back into a full-time ride, is back in the car after successfully making last week’s Daytona 500.
The 37 cars is the lowest since the road course at Watkins Glen last August, but up one car from the field at the Atlanta race last February.
Corey LaJoie came to Atlanta with bonus funding from Old Spice, which got a strong return on its investment from its Daytona sponsorship that featured LaJoie’s entire face on the hood of his car. Acorns, an online investment app, is making its NASCAR debut as sponsor for Ryan Newman and Bubba Wallace, driving for cash-strapped Richard Petty Motorsports, has a one-race deal at Atlanta with McDonalds.
Garrett Smithley, with three previous Cup starts, is making his season debut in the car owned by new team Spire Motorsports. Spire at the end of last year bought the charter held by defunct Furniture Row Racing — and its one of the most valuable entrants in the series. Furniture Row won the 2017 championship with Truex Jr. to rank that charter, now owned by startup Spire, on the top end of the financial payouts in NASCAR’s system.