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Takeaways from NASCAR’s epic Cup race at Atlanta

Glovegate, Daniel and coming around on the new layout

Implied or otherwise, the pressure had started to mount on Daniel Suárez over the past year.

The driver of the Trackhouse No. 99 entered 2024 on a 56-race winless streak and combined with a teammate in Ross Chastain in the No. 1 that continued to win races, it all felt like Suárez was on the figurative hot seat.

It wasn’t just his performance compared to Chastain but also the crowded house of drivers that team owner Justin Marks had started to accumulate during that stretch.

2022 Truck Series champion Zane Smith, loaned to Spire Motorsports
Three-time Supercars champion Shane Van Gisbergen, loaned to Kaulig Racing
17-year-old prodigy Connor Zilish, who is everywhere these days

On the second year of a two year plus an option contract, it felt like Suárez would have to prove something to retain his ride well into the future, and it’s only getting tougher to contend for a playoff spot right now.

Spire is making major investments
Front Row is now a Tier 1 Ford team
Legacy is now a Tier 1 Toyota team
You can never truly count out Stewart-Haas

But again, whether that perception was fair or not, Marks did not leave Suárez to the status quo and made numerous changes to the No. 99 in the hopes that it would unlock something from his fourth ever hire at the company while also elevating everyone around them.

Trackhouse and Kaulig essentially swapped crew chiefs, with Mack leaving the No. 99 to join that team atop the No. 16 pit box and also serving as technical director, with Matt Swiderski being paired with Suárez in exchange.

“For Daniel personally, he’s a great friend of mine, and I’m a huge, huge believer in his talent and his ability, and he’s a big part of this Trackhouse family,” said Marks on Sunday night. “It’s our job as a company to put the tools and resources and support around him.”

So, while winning at Atlanta, in an epic three-wide superspeedway style race may not portend much for how the rest of the season may go, it’s also money in the bank. Suárez will now return to the playoffs after a one-year absence and now he and Swiderski have a season foundation to build upon.

… not that Suarez intends to relax now.

“I’m happy that we were able to do it early in the season because some people actually told me earlier, ‘hey, now you can relax, you’re in the playoffs.’

“Hell no.

“My goal is not to win one race. I want to head into the playoffs with at least a handful — with a few wins to be able to contend for a championship. This is not relaxing here. This is only the beginning. We have to continue to work, continue to build.”

The only thing Suarez was moderately relaxed about was his future, never believing that his career was at risk, even with how 2023 played out.

“I never felt like I was on the hot seat,” he said. “A lot of people was talking about it. Shane coming on board and then Zane coming on board, but I never felt bad.

“I knew that last year wasn’t the year that I really wanted. The people that actually know me, they know how hard I actually work and last year, we worked hard but we were not efficient. We were missing something.”

That wasn’t a slight on Mack, who actually got a promotion in all of this, but Marks said he just believed his driver would benefit from a fresh set of eyes.

“Daniel is my guy,” Marks said. “I love Daniel, and he’s got incredible talent, and he’s a guy that just needs good people around him and a good process around him, and he can be very successful.”

At least publicly on Sunday, Marks said the hot seat perception wasn’t real, and that all the recent hires are about a much larger organization down the road far beyond the 2025 season. In addition to his talent and résumé, it’s also objectively true that Suárez represents much of the identity of the team.

He represents NASCAR’s global future and was the link that landed Armando ‘Pitbull’ Perez as part of the company ownership group.    

“Yes, this is a contract year for Daniel,” Marks said. “Does that mean that this is Daniel’s audition? No. It means that basically we are working on growing this company and making Trackhouse one of the powerhouse perennial championship-contending companies in this sport.

“On the hot seat? He just didn’t have the year that he wanted last year. But we know that he can get it done, and he’s a guy that can get it done.

“I don’t envision necessarily a situation where Daniel is not a driver for Trackhouse Racing. There’s a lot of things going on behind the scenes, and this is why we made a change at crew chief. This is why we made a change with some of the people around him and the processes is to put him in a position where he can win because Trackhouse is a winning company.”

So even if Suárez wants to keep the pressure on, to keep growing, winning on Sunday absolutely takes some of the immediate edge off because it’s two weeks into the season and they’re already going to race for a championship come September.

Are we having fun?

The three-year-old, still relatively new configuration for Atlanta Motor Speedway is still conceptually a polarizing topic amongst competitors alike.

Speedway Motorsports, whom owns the track, took one of the more beloved driver tracks on the schedule and replaced what was a traditional intermediate track and turned it into something that more closely resembled the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega.

Both the track operators and NASCAR accomplished this goal by raising the banked corners of the 1.5-mile circuit and lowering horsepower in the pursuit of two more pack races.

But something interesting, and somewhat predictable is happening, because the racing surface is rapidly aging and losing grip. Without grip, the wadded-up packs will start to break apart, and NASCAR will need to either lower horsepower again or implement a standard intermediate package at Atlanta.

But since last summer, new Atlanta is in its sweet spot, and is producing something of a cross between superspeedway and short track racing … which kind of sounds absurd until you watch it.

Drivers largely rebelled against reconfiguring Atlanta back in 2021, railing against both the series and track owner for not taking their feedback into consideration. They didn’t want another Daytona and Talladega style race but the surface is aging into something that even one of the concept’s biggest detractors is coming around to.

Kyle Larson.

The 2021 Cup Series champion crashed out for the second time over the past three races at this layout and couldn’t help but admit how much fun he was having on Sunday.

“Actually, I had a lot of fun today that was super intense and it’s been a great race from the start to where we are at now,” Larson said after his early exit. “Opposite of last week (at the Daytona 500) no fuel savings and just guys going at it. So it’s been fun.”

From that standpoint, Larson was kind of treating Atlanta like one of his Sprint Car races.

“It actually was a lot of fun,” Larson said. “I wouldn’t want to do that every week but it was much more fun than last week. I don’t know if there’s ever a lap like, where you weren’t thinking about moves, or trying to block moves. You were just trying to stay in line, the cars were not driving very good.”

And that’s the key, that the car’s handling was in doubt for everyone, because the cars were too hooked-up when the configuration made its debut in 2022.

Sometimes, superspeedway racing at Daytona and Talladega looks easy, because it is full throttle all the way around a big track and drivers are largely coasting until the end. But the tighter confines of a mile and a half and the aging surface, gave the drivers a lot to handle.

Ryan Blaney said ‘it was far from easy’ and that’s what made it a joy for everyone on both sides of the catchfence.

“We were just hanging on,” Blaney said. “And it got better as the race went on. The track cooled off and the handing got better but we were still barely hanging on. The race track is wearing out, the runs are so big down the backstretch, and dirty air is so massive that we are just hanging on for dear life.”

Several drivers spun out all by themselves over an ill-handling car or the change in air flow.

“It shows you how on edge we are and that’s what we want,” Blaney said. “It makes the racing better when teams are making decisions to balance handling and speed. That’s what it’s about. Hopefully that gets even better as the track continues to age.”

Keselowski was one of the drivers who lost control of his car by himself and he still offered nothing but praise for the racing product.

“Super intense racing,” Keselowski said. “You can really, really push hard. I think this is some of the best racing we have ever seen.”

Again, Chase Briscoe literally crashed out of the race, and wasn’t even that mad about it. He was laughing and smiling because he had so much fun.  

“We’re close to crashing but it’s not as sketchy as you’d think,” Briscoe said. “To me, I feel way more sketched out at Daytona or Talladega, and I don’t know if it’s because of the slower speeds or what. … This is the most fun I’ve ever had here.”

All of this is a catch-22 though.

On one hand, all the drivers want Atlanta to keep wearing out and to lose grip. That is going to create separation through the field. So then NASCAR would have to respond by slowing the cars down, caking on downforce or ordering a grippier tire from Goodyear.

That might negatively impact the racing too but Denny Hamlin says those decisions will probably be made soon.  

“I think they are likely to want to keep it this way as long as possible,” Hamlin said before the race. “They’ll make changes to the tire to add more grip. This tire needs to be worked on for the summer and there will be changes for the fall race.

“To make sure they keep the speedway style racing, they’ll keep making the tire grippier and grippier. We’re only two years into this and it hasn’t changed this much. A little bit but we’re still under (the grip) of the tire.”

If the glove fits …

There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding from fans or casual observers over why Joey Logano and the Team Penske No. 22 are in trouble over the left-handed driving glove worn by the driver in qualifying on Saturday afternoon.

There are two elements to this infraction, one (safety) that the driver was already penalized for, and another (competition) that is likely to come later in the week.

First, let’s go to the NASCAR rule book to see the language of Cup Series regulation, a section that regulates protective clothing and equipment. That section states that gloves must adhere to section 2.5 of the SEMA Foundation Inc. 3.3 document, which states, “Any Driver Accessory pertaining to this specification shall remain as constructed by the original manufacturer and shall not be modified or altered by anyone else.”

Translation: Logano and the No. 22 team broke the safety portion of the regulations the moment the glove was altered in any way from its OEM construction.

The SFI 3.3 document also contains language that states “Gloves shall have separate sections for each finger and thumb.”

The left-handed driving glove had a web stitched between the middle and ring fingers fashioned like baseball mitt.

So, the obvious question is why.

The right-side window of a Cup Series car is completely sealed off with a piece of plexiglass that prevents air from getting into the cockpit from that side. That is to maximize aerodynamic efficiency and to minimize drag. On the left side, the driver side, is just a window net.

While the window net deflects air to a degree, there is still a great deal of air that gets into the car and creates drag … therefore incrementally slowing the car down.

Anything a driver could do behind the wheel to minimize that air flow, while also steering the car, would reduce drag and could be the difference in fractions of a second. And in an era where every car is practically identical, teams are only going to get more emboldened to find ways to create an advantage.

Innocent until proven guilty and all, but it appears that Team Penske’s No. 22 team modified a glove that served as a means to deflect air away from the cockpit on the driver side with Logano just having to reach towards the window net. He did this several times during his qualifying lap, an act picked up by television cameras, and drawing the curiosity from NASCAR.

Series officials confiscated the gloves on Sunday morning, put them side-by-side, and immediately spotted the differences.

Logano was sent to the rear for the start of the race, forfeiting his front row starting position, and also had to serve a pass-through down pit road at the start of the race. This was for the safety violation. Of course, this was a moot point because a caution came out two laps into the race before Logano even lost a lap.

But another penalty is expected this week, and this will be for competition purposes, since the glove was altered in a way to obtain a competitive advantage.

Ultimately, there isn’t a precedence for this kind of infraction, so it will be interesting to see the standard the sanctioning body sets this week.  

Superlatives, odds and ends

The finish was the third closest in NASCAR history behind only the Ricky Craven, Kurt Busch thriller at the end of the spring Darlington race in 2003 and the three-wide tandem finish at Talladega in the spring of 2011.

There were 48 lead changes on Sunday, up from 20 in this race a year ago. The summer race last year was rain shorted but was also a thrilling affair for similar and different reasons. This still new iteration of Atlanta is producing an average of 31.8 lead changes per race and 28.8 green flag passes per lap.

And now, this show is going to open the 2024 playoffs in September in a first race round that also includes Watkins Glen and Bristol.

“I’m smiling today because we ran the whole ran, got stage points and finished second,” said Blaney. “There are going to be guys who got crashed on lap 3, who are going to be ticked off and not looking forward to coming back. That’s a byproduct of how these races go, right?

“It’s here, we’ll be here in September to kick off the racing, and you might see different racing. We were really going at it tonight, big moves, four-wide, and we might be more reserved in September because it’s the playoffs.

“But It’s still going to be wild.”

Calculated Rowdy?

Not to insinuate that Kyle Busch intentionally crashed Kaz Grala but being a lap down at that point with 85 laps to go, you can’t help but wonder if bold moves like that against an inexperienced driver was designed to force an error.

Grala spun with only the lightest of contact from Busch and the RCR No. 8 earned the free pass as a result.

The only question is if NASCAR should have placed Busch on the damaged vehicle policy because there was contact and that is typically the standard.

In hindsight, Busch was only in position to win the race because this moment played out the way it did.


Todd Gilliland led 58 laps on Sunday after leading 16 in the Daytona 500.

These are both drafting tracks, of course, and do not directly translate to the downforce tracks that make up a bulk of the schedule but the third-generation racer is feeling really confident, even if all he has to show for it was two DNFs.

“I’m trying to prove it to myself, sponsors, the whole industry, that I can do this for a long time to come,” he said. “And right now, the past two weeks, I just really feel like I’ve belonged.”

Teammate Michael McDowell has won multiple races now over the past three years, scored his first pole this weekend, and is regularly running near the front. Front Row now has a Tier 1 partnership with Ford and Team Penske, and Gilliland just has to start matching his veteran teammate, which he’s done two weeks in a row now.

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter. 

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