The first NASCAR Monster Energy race of 2017 is in the books. The crash-filled Daytona 500 is over, and teams can now prepare for a more “normal” race with more stability and less volatility. According to the analysts on NASCAR America, the Atlanta race is the real start of the season, where the hard work and preparation during the off-season will start showing some results. The crazy restrictor plate Daytona race had multiple crashes and only shows what drivers were lucky and what drivers survived. With Atlanta, “the regular season starts now, and the pressure really starts to mount”, says former driver Jeff Burton and NASCAR America analyst. Former Roush Fenway driver, Greg Biffle, chimed in, saying that the next few races at Atlanta, Phoenix and Las Vegas, “is your report card for your first quarter performance”.
Atlanta Motor Speedway(AMS) has an old surface that will be repaved later this spring. This means that the surface is particularly hard on tires, so drivers and crew chiefs must work together to have a sound tire/pit strategy to preserve the tires. AMS is an intermediate track like sister tracks Texas Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. It is a quad-oval track, that is 1.54 miles long. This race will contain 325 laps, meaning that there will be 81.25 Laps Lead points up for grabs.
Here are my driver picks and notes for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The Top 5 Drivers
1. Kyle Busch ($10,400):
Kyle Busch performs well at all intermediate tracks and has two wins at AMS. This week, his car was fast and ran well, qualifying for the 3rd starting position. Last year, he finished 3rd in this race, after starting 39th getting some big time Place Differential points.
2. Matt Kenseth ($8,600):
Kenseth has the 2nd highest driver rating at Atlanta behind only Jimmie Johnson. Last year, he led 47 laps at AMS before a penalty doomed him and he never recovered. He finished 19th. Kenseth has ten Top 5 finishes, and sixteen Top 10 finishes at Atlanta Motor Speedway. His highest AMS finish was 2nd, and he has proven he can run well on this track.
3. Denny Hamlin ($8,900):
Hamlin has one win, three Top 5’s, and six Top 10 finishes at AMS. His driver’s rating at AMS is 3rd overall and will start 10th in this race.
4. Jimmie Johnson ($10,600):
Jimmie Johnson did not practice well, and performed even worse in qualifying. In a post-qualifying interview, Johnson admitted that he didn’t qualify well the past two years either. However, even with the poor qualifying starting positions, Johnson still went on to win the last two AMS races. For this race, he will start at 22nd, giving the reigning Monster Energy champion some Place Differential upside. He is a must start for cash games.
5. Kurt Busch($8,800):
Last week’s Daytona 500 winner carries some big time momentum coming into a track where he performs extremely well. He has three wins, six Top 5’s, and eleven Top 10 finishes. Out of all of the active NASCAR drivers, Kurt Busch has led the most laps at AMS, even more than the five-time AMS winner in Jimmie Johnson. Kurt Busch has the potential be a dominator and lead the most laps in this race.
The Value Picks
Jamie McMurray ($7800):
Ryan Newman ($7600):
Newman was the fastest in Practice 1 but was narrowly beat out by Kevin Harvick for the Pole Position. He will start 2nd and boasts an impressive seven Pole Position starts at AMS, the highest among active drivers. Kasey Kahne and Dale Earhardt Jr. are next with two Pole Positions each.
The Sleeper Pick
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ($6900):
Stenhouse Jr. had the 5th highest speed in Practice 1 and performed well in qualifying for the 4th position. At $6900, he is a very affordable option for lineups. In four starts, his highest finish is 10th.
The Roster Filler
Matt Dibenedetto ($5100):
Dibenedetto is a low-risk roster filler at $5100. He starts 22nd and offers some Place Differential upside if his team puts together a nice run.