NASCAR Making “Seconds”

Joey Logano & Chase Elliott

As the NASCAR Cup Series begins its series of “second” stops at many tracks, the championship push has a distinctively different feel. Sunday’s Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will undoubtedly help firm-up the haves and have-nots with six races left to set the 16-driver Playoff field.

Hendrick Motorsports drivers have won seven of the last eight races on the schedule. The team’s four drivers – Kyle Larson, William Byron, Alex Bowman and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott – all scoring trophies.

The Georgia-native Elliott heads to his “home track” this week with a second trophy, thanks to his work at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisc., last weekend. The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is winless in six tries at Atlanta, however, and finished an especially disappointing 38th this March – his car suffering engine problems.

His teammate Larson finished runner-up to Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney at Atlanta in March – after leading a dominant 269 of the 325 laps. Since that win for Blaney, all three Penske drivers – Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski – have hoisted a trophy, but none since Keselowski’s victory at Talladega, Ala. back on April 25.

Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, is statistically one of the best at Atlanta – which announced this week a new re-pave and renovation is coming for its 1.5-mile speedway. Keselowski has two wins – earning one in 2017 and the other in 2019. A good result on Sunday would right a wobbling path toward the Playoffs. He’s scored only two top-10 finishes in the season’s last nine races and was 28th in Atlanta this Spring.

Blaney, who drives the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, has only six top-10 finishes in the 14 races since his Atlanta win, none at 1.5-mile tracks during that time. His only top five was fifth at Pocono two weeks ago.

Logano, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, has only a single top 10 in the five races at 1.5-mile tracks this year – a ninth-place run at Las Vegas in the third race of the season. He’s never won at Atlanta and has only five top-10 finishes in 15 previous races there.

Judging solely off past performance, Atlanta should be a place Kevin Harvick feels extremely optimistic. The 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion won a series high nine races last year but has yet to hoist a trophy this season.

Certainly, Atlanta is a special place for the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Harvick scored a dramatic first career NASCAR Cup Series win there in 2001 only three races after taking over the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet after Dale Earnhardt passed away in the Daytona 500. He has since added two more wins.

In all, Harvick has 16 top-10 and nine top-five finishes in 31 starts and his series best 1,348 laps at Atlanta is an amazing 500 laps more than any other driver. Add to that success, five Xfinity Series wins too.

“We’re 100 percent bought into the feel in the race car at Atlanta and we’re going to chase that feel and what we want because we know that it’s just different than everywhere else that we go to,” Harvick said. “You’re looking for a different reaction out of the car that allows you to be able to run fast for a long time.

“It’s a different type of race track, but in the end, those guys are bought into knowing that if we don’t win at Atlanta, it’s a letdown because of the [high] expectations we have going in there.”

As with Harvick, another of last year’s dominant drivers, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin is still looking for this first win of 2021. Although he’s yet to celebrate in Victory Lane, Hamlin’s work in the No. 11 JGR Toyota – 14 top-10 and 11 top-five finishes – has kept him atop the championship standings. He’d prefer to be there with a trophy to his name, however.

Hamlin has nine top-10 finishes in 22 Atlanta starts with a win there in 2012. He’s earned three top-10 finishes in five starts at 1.5-mile tracks this year and with five finishes of second or third, it has long felt like Hamlin is due for a win. He’s been top five in the last four Atlanta races.

TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!

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