Nobody really knows what to expect Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway with the debut of the new Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rules package designed to bunch the field closer on the ultra-fast, 1.5-mile speedways like the Atlanta oval.
Clint Bowyer doesn’t know what to expect, but expects something different.
“Well, everybody’s got their opinion on what we’re going see, but only time will paint that picture,” said the driver of Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 Haas Automation Ford Mustang. “I think it could be drastically different than what we have ever seen. My opinion is, it’s going to be different. I don’t know how much different, I don’t know what kind of different, I just know it’s going to be different than what we know as the norm on a mile-and-a-half. Um, will they be drafting? I think. How much drafting? I don’t know.”
NASCAR officials in October announced two baseline rules packages for the 2019 season, making a move to bolster competition with enhanced aerodynamic and engine configurations. The different packages are tailored to the specific tracks on the Cup Series circuit, with a combination of a smaller tapered spacer to reduce engine horsepower to a target goal of 550 – from 750 – and aero ducts to foster tighter racing on a majority of speedways measuring longer than 1 mile. Both features are in place for 17 of the 36 races, the lone exception being last week’s Daytona 500, which ran with traditional restrictor-plate rules. Five other races will be run with the smaller spacer, but without ducts.
Bowyer said the key to success Sunday in Georgia, as well as the rest of the season, could be adaptability.
“I think it’s extremely important to have some adjustability built into that racecar,” Bowyer said. “We do have that in our Mustangs. But that’s no different than anybody else. Everybody’s putting the work in to try to figure it out.”
Bowyer and his crew chief Mike Bugarewicz-led team tested the new rule package on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway track last month. So he’ll have some idea of what to expect once practice begins Friday in Atlanta. In addition to the new rule package, drivers will also have to overcome the challenge of the 22-year-old racing surface that often provides some of the best racing of the season. New pavement usually creates much better grip and faster speeds that often result in a one-groove racetrack on which passing is difficult. That typically results in single-file racing, something Bowyer says neither drivers nor fans enjoy for 500 miles. He says the Atlanta track is just the opposite. Its slick surface is difficult to navigate but offers several grooves and plenty of passing opportunities.
“Ever since I have been in the sport, it seems like Atlanta is the most worn-out track but always produced some of the best racing,” Bowyer said. “It’s crazy how worn out the track is, but that is what makes for good racing and it lets us put on such a great show for a long time.”
Bowyer and SHR’s No. 14 team are sure to improve upon their 20th-place finish at last weekend’s Daytona 500. A daring move in the final laps saw Bowyer’s bid for the lead and trophy end in an accident.
“That’s last week and we are on to Atlanta now,” he said. “It’s a very long season but we’re confident. We had a good Speedweeks in Daytona and I think that will continue this weekend in Atlanta and on the West Coast swing in the coming weeks.”
Bowyer goes to battle at Atlanta carrying the black-and-red paint scheme of Haas Automation, Inc. Haas Automation is America’s leading builder of CNC machine tools. Founded by Gene Haas in 1983, Haas Automation manufactures a complete line of vertical and horizontal machining centers, turning centers and rotary tables and indexers. All Haas products are built in the company’s 1.1 million-square-foot manufacturing facility in Oxnard, California, and distributed through a worldwide network of Haas Factory Outlets.
Bowyer hopes he can replicate last year’s success at Atlanta when he scored a third-place finish – his first top-five finish at the track. He’s always run well at Atlanta, leading 52 laps in the March 2008 race before finishing sixth. The most heartbreaking moment at the track came in September 2013, when he led 48 of the first 192 laps before engine failure. In total, Bowyer has led 115 laps at Atlanta but only has last year’s third-place finish and four other sixth-place finishes to show for the effort.
All things considered, Bowyer said history won’t mean much this weekend.
“I think you can throw out all the stats,” he said. “It’s going to be a whole new ballgame at Atlanta this weekend.”
CLINT BOWYER, Driver of the No. 14 Haas Automation Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What will an organization have to do to gain the advantage with the new rules package?
“The team, the organization, the manufacturer that can beat the next one and figure it out the fastest is going to prevail. It seems like once you get ahead, you ride that wave all the way through the season. Everybody else is playing catchup because you don’t just figure it out and stop there – you know, we’re weeks, months, in advance. So, if you can beat them to the punch right off the bat, nine times out of 10 you’re able to keep that advantage all the way through the season.”
What is the mindset of drivers and team after leaving Daytona?
“Once we get the Daytona 500 out of the way, it’s Atlanta and it’s down-to-business time. I know it’s weird to say that. Yes, the Daytona 500 is the first race of the year and certainly the biggest race of the year, but it’s so unique from any other racetrack. We get to Atlanta and it’s that mile-and-a-half, fast track, but even it is very unique because it’s so worn out and we don’t have anything like that anywhere we go, anymore. We just have to get through that, have a good balance on your racecar because it’s so slick you can’t afford to be tight, loose or anything else. We’ll just go and hopefully have another good run there.”