This weekend marks the first repeat track visit of the 2022 season for the NASCAR Cup Series with the highly anticipated Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron won the first race at the newly reconfigured 1.54-mile Atlanta oval back in March — a race that featured track records in number of race leaders (20), lead changes (46) and green flag passes for the lead (141). Kurt Busch is the defending race winner, taking his victory last year before the track remodel.
Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are the co-favorites heading into the race at +1000 by BetMGM. They are followed by Byron and Denny Hamlin at +1100.
With eight races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field, the building intensity is palpable.
Last week Tyler Reddick became the season’s fifth first-time NASCAR Cup Series winner — tying the record for new winners in a season in the Modern Era (1972-2022) — taking the victory over the road course master and series driver standings leader Elliott at Wisconsin’s Road America.
This week the competition returns to Elliott’s “home track” outside Atlanta and the question is quickly becoming, “How many winners will the 2022 season feature?” The number is currently at 13 race winners with only 16 drivers advancing to the Playoffs in September. And there are notably still a handful of former champions and perennial winners still looking for a shot to earn that automatic Playoff nod.
Interestingly, there are eight 2021 race winners — Blaney, Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Aric Almirola, A.J. Allmendinger and Bubba Wallace — still looking for their first victory of 2022.
Three former series champions Truex, Keselowski and Kevin Harvick are among those without a win, as is Blaney, who is currently ranked second in the driver standings with a 112-point cushion inside the top 16.
Truex holds a 61-point advantage above the postseason cutline, but Harvick actually fell out of Playoff eligibility in the standings after Reddick’s win last week. Harvick trails Bell by 20 points for that final Playoff transfer position should he not earn an automatic berth with a win.
Kurt Busch is the winningest active driver at Atlanta with four wins. Harvick is next with three — scoring his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory at Atlanta in 2001. It was an emotional triumph in the weeks after he took over the Richard Childress Racing car for NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Keselowski and Kyle Busch, each have two wins at Atlanta with Byron, Blaney and Denny Hamlin having earned one trophy apiece.
Harvick, who was best in multiple statistical categories at Atlanta before the recent track modifications, said he’s still trying to get a handle on the new layout which includes higher banking, a narrower track surface and new asphalt.
“It’s just a superspeedway now on a mile-and-a-half racetrack,” said Harvick, who drives the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “Things just happen a lot faster, so the decisions have to happen faster, the cars move around a lot more, the corners come up a lot quicker. A lot more seat-of-your pants, just ‘go here, go there, do this and do that.’ I think the way the lines formed and moved, and everything happened, you just had to get used to a different style of race than we’ve had before.”
Kyle Larson is BetMGM’s biggest liability this week. He leads the sportsbook with 11.0 percent of the handle backing him at +1200. That are the same odds as Kyle Busch and Ross Chastain.
Larson has also drawn 7.2 percent of the total tickets, second behind only Blaney with 8.7 percent. Blaney, who has been backed by 10.3 percent of the handle, is the next-biggest liability.
Third is Kurt Busch, who has been backed by 6.0 percent of the bets and 6.3 percent of the handle. He opened at +2500 but his odds had shortened to +1800 by Saturday.
NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Quaker State 400 Presented By Walmart
The Place: Atlanta Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, July 10
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,034,869
TV: USA, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400.4 miles (260 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 160), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 260)
–Field Level Media (NASCAR NewsWire contributed to this story)