No spectators but no lack of speed as racing resumes at AMS

Racing returned to Atlanta Motor Speedway Saturday, a made-for-TV varietal that brought with it all the speed and some of the last-lap drama – minus the roar of a crowd.

A racing weekend unlike any other here opened with trucks in the afternoon and Xfinity cars running toward dusk, prelims to Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. It was the resumption of the March racing that was scraped as sports shut down around the country due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Following the restrictions that NASCAR installed three weeks ago, no fans will be allowed on site this weekend. The only cars in the parking lot just beyond the AMS backstretch – hundreds of them – will belong to rental companies that had nothing else to do but store them here until business picked up again.

First on Saturday’s undercard, in the Vet Tix Camping World 200 truck race, was a scenario all too familiar to certain local football fans, Alabama coming back to beat Georgia at the end in overtime. Austin Hill of Winston, Ga., was out in front and uncatchable with just three laps to go when Chase Elliott’s ride spun after blowing a tire, bringing out a caution flag. That bunched the field going into a two-lap shootout. And it was Fairhope, Alabama’s Grant Enfinger going high to pass for the lead while leaning into Turn 2 of the final lap, then holding on for the win.

The two favorites in the race – Cup stars Elliott and Kyle Busch – battled at the front early but were shuffled back following misplays on pit row. Busch was penalized twice for excessive speed while pitting and Elliott overshot his pit stall on one stop, prior to the tire blowout. Elliott finished 21st, Busch 22nd.

Of his pass to win the race, Enfinger credited timing as much as skill. “I knew Austin was strong and was going to make it difficult on me. When I saw him blocking to the bottom I said, ‘Alright, have it’,” he said. “We had enough grip (on fresh tires) on a short run to hold it. I don’t think that same move would have worked if we had 10 laps on the tires. It was awesome to be able to pull it off like that.”

For Hill, the points leader in the truck series, it was a bitter finish. “It being my hometown this is one of the race tracks I’ve wanted to win at ever since I was a little kid racing here when I was eight years old on the frontstretch. It hurts. It’s really frustrating.”

The stage was quickly cleared for the NASCAR’s Triple-A series, and the EchoPark 250 Xfinity race. That one lacked the closing drama of its predecessor, as veteran campaigner A.J. Allmendinger led for the final 37 laps on way to his first NASCAR victory on an oval track. In finishing second, Noah Gragson claimed a $100,000 bonus in the first of a four-race Xfinity Series Dash 4 Cash program.

The joyous Allmendinger, 38, emerged from his car at the finish line and kissed the lens of the camera there to capture his solo celebration. The camera lodged no complaint about any lapse in social distancing guidelines.

Coming into Saturday Allmendinger had one Cup win and three Xfinity victories, all on road courses.

“Heck, I might retire, man. I just wanted to win on a damn oval,” he said afterward.

“I wanted to win on an oval where we really had to drive and get after it. I always pushed myself and questioned myself a lot - can I do it on these race tracks? It was a challenge each time I was in the race car with myself mentally to push myself and try to be better.”

Bye-Bye Jimmie

Because of all the restrictions forced on NASCAR by the coronavirus outbreak, the ceremonial Atlanta farewell to seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson Sunday will be barely a whisper.

There’ll be no fans in the grandstand near Turn 1 that has just been named after Johnson. There’ll be no grand colorful scene for Johnson to take in during his presumptive last ride at AMS. No chance to exchange love and best wishes with his followers.

The 44-year-old Johnson has deemed this his last year in a car, and fittingly AMS has added his name to a section of stands, joining the other two seven-time champions – Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt – to be so honored.

“To have my name be on the grandstands there at the speedway, alongside all the other greats, is just super meaningful to me,” Johnson said earlier this week.

“My final full-time year in Cup is a little different than I imagined; our whole world is different than we imagined with Covid. I know there were other plans to kind of go with the events in Atlanta this weekend that won’t be seen through, but it’s still amazing to have my name on the grandstands there.”

Five of Johnson’s 83 career wins have come at Atlanta, the last coming in 2016. Altogether he has 14 top-five finishes in 28 AMS starts. Barring the unforeseen, his 29th start here will be his last.

Brad Keselowski, Mr. Lucky 

You’ll get no apologies from the defending Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 champion for the way fortune has smiled upon him these last two weeks.

Benefitting from late caution in Charlotte and a late collision that took out leaders Joey Logano and Elliott at Bristol, Keselowski has two wins in his last three races.

“Our team is just really clicking well,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate for sure, no getting away from that, but we’ve been in position to capitalize with good cars and well-prepared strategies.

“(Luck) has always been a big part of the sport and it always will be. I’ve been on the bad side. Now we’re on the good side and we’re going to try to ride it as long as we can.”

Atlanta mistreated Keselowski early in his career, with only one top-five finish in his first eight races here (average finish 20th). But his last three finishes: First, second and first.

“I can’t tell you what we found, but we certainly got a lot better there. We hope to keep it up,” Keselowski said. “You find things over time and you try to apply them and be the best you can be. Certain drivers seem to take to certain tracks. Lately we’ve been taking to Atlanta.”