Different takes on Year 2 of new surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway

Ross Chastain leads the field during the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 NASCAR Cup Series Race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton on Sunday, March 20, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Ross Chastain leads the field during the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 NASCAR Cup Series Race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton on Sunday, March 20, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The eyes of NASCAR are on Atlanta.

The Ambetter Health 400 will run at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday. It’s the first of the two Cup Series races at the track this season. The Quaker State 400 runs July 9.

Here are some of the storylines to watch:

New surface: Part I

Brandon Hutchinson knows the stats off the top of his head.

The AMS executive vice president and general manager, Hutchinson looked back on the March race last year, the first with a new asphalt surface, and recited that there were 46 lead changes among 20 drivers. That makes for exciting racing.

Hutchinson was effusive in describing this weekend’s race after the two events last year.

“The most compelling, competitive racing on the circuit all year long,” Hutchinson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was just exciting from green flag to checkered flag. Typically, with a race track you will see, as the asphalt begins to age, the racing just get better and better. With a year under our belts, for lack of a better term, with this new racing surface we expect that the racing our fans will see for the Ambetter Health 400 race weekend next week at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be, once again, some of the best racing NASCAR fans will see all year long.

“As we were going through the construction process, it was a tale of two takes. On one hand, as the general manager of the facility, I was as excited as a 6-year-old on Christmas morning. On the other hand, there were days when I was as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. You just know that it’s a massive project. You want so bad for things to be right and for the finished product to produce the most compelling, exciting racing for the fans as it possibly can. At the end of the day, what we saw surpassed all of our expectations and created a product we think fans will enjoy for a long, long time to come.”

New surface: Part II

For the drivers, it takes time to get used to a new surface. Quite frankly, the more worn the better.

“From a driver’s perspective, you hope that the track loses a tremendous amount of grip in a really short amount of time,” Kevin Harvick told the AJC. “I think, for me personally, Atlanta was the race track that I always looked forward to every year because of the surface. I understand that the surface was at a point where it was a lot of work and needed some change. I’m not sure everybody wants to run more superspeedway races, but I think it’s exciting. It’s unique with a mile-and-a-half track configuration, and things happen fast. I think everyone is hoping for a tremendous grip loss in a really short amount of time.”

Chase Elliott is out

Chase Elliott won’t be back at AMS, eight months after he finally recorded his first victory at his home-state NASCAR track. Elliott, of Dawsonville, underwent surgery for a fractured tibia earlier this month after a snowboarding accident. He is expected to miss at least six weeks.

Elliott won the Quaker State 400 on Sunday at AMS in July, finally securing the elusive win at the track.

Elliott missed the race in Las Vegas and then Phoenix last weekend. William Bryon won both races. Josh Berry has driven the No. 9 in Elliott’s absence and is expected to do so at AMS. Berry finished 29th in Las Vegas and 10th in Phoenix.

Berry, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports-affiliate JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, will fill in for Elliott at oval tracks. Jordan Taylor will drive at Circuit of The Americas, the season’s first road course.

One more season for Kevin Harvick

There will be a bigger celebration for Harvick in July, as this is the final season in NASCAR for the 47-year-old. AMS holds a special place in the heart of Harvick. He won for the first time here, in only his third race, taking the Cracker Barrel 500 on March 11, 2001.

Atlanta deserves two races

From 1960-2010, AMS hosted two races a year. And then from 2011-20, the track was limited to one race.

All that changed three years ago, when AMS got back to business with two races per year. This will be the third year that AMS has hosted races in March and July.

“It all started in the mountains of North Georgia,” Hutchinson said. “There are some arguments of where, but North Georgia has history that’s deeper than anybody when it comes to racing. For us to lose the second race was certainly not something we were happy about. Getting it back, if you look at the history of racing you’ve got Daytona, Darlington and Atlanta. We’ve been running races annually since 1960. There aren’t many race tracks out there with a more stories tradition that Atlanta Motor Speedway.”