Posted: 9:40 am Tuesday, January 30th, 2018
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
On a sunny, windy Monday, Atlanta Motor Speedway went green with even greener drivers making their first 2018 laps. Xfinity Series rookies Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick and Camping World Truck Series yellow-striper Dalton Sargeant had more on the line than just learning a new track with new vehicles. They began the synergy with their new teams and in different ways.
They began the two-day test the way most of many testing days unfold – waiting. The rains from Sunday kept the track damp all Monday morning, thanks to weepers in the 21-year-old surface. But rubber hit the road in the lunchtime hour, with Bell and Reddick making the first laps. Sargeant hit up Bell, who won the 2017 NCWTS race at AMS, for some tips.
“I’ve run a couple of laps on the sim here, but I’m looking forward to going out and seeing how it is in real life.” After two or three runs, Sargeant said he ran nearly wide open and that the track didn’t seem as difficult as he had heard. Of course, he had yet to make a full tire or fuel run, so the 19-year-old Boca Raton, Florida native did not experience the severe lack of grip that race conditions bring.
But Sargeant is learning much more than about a track where he had never made a lap. He joins GMS Racing’s No. 25 Performance Plus Motor Oil Chevy team after two seasons in ARCA and some spot NCWTS starts. “This is pretty much a whole new team,” Sargeant said as his new guys prepared his truck for its first run. “It’s a bit of a mix and match. With Doug [Randolph] coming over from BKR [the now-defunct Brad Keselowski Racing], he pretty much assembled a group of guys that he can trust and lean on. Definitely got a great group of guys working on the 25 and I’m looking forward to it.”
Reddick ran more than half of last season for Chip Ganassi Racing, before making the move to a full-time ride replacing last year’s NXS champion, then-rookie William Byron, in the JR Motorsports No. 9 Armour Foods Chevy. After winning his first race last season, he’s joining a team used to winning even more.
“It’s good pressure. Obviously the team just won the championship and the 9 has won multiple championships for JR Motorsports,” Reddick explained after two early runs in the black, blank test car. “So you know, there’s a level of expectation coming in for this team and what they expect from me and what we should be able to accomplish this year.”
After a test run, Reddick typed some notes into his laptop, flanking a team of five or six engineers doing the same – their software a bit more technical.
“I’m trying to make notes for myself, too. We don’t get to test very often, so I’m trying to take full advantage of it. I’m taking a little bit of notes through the day to try to help us,” Reddick explained. “It’s good to write down what you feel from the start of the day to the end of the day, to get a good recap. It’s hard to test all day and remember every single run and what you said afterwards about it, so it’s important to take notes after every single run.”
Reddick is joining a team mostly intact from the previous year. The only changes are his joining the team and JRM switching two engineers on the 5 and 9 teams. He said that he has run some in the Chevy test simulator in the last year, trying to improve his craft, but that nothing replaces real track time.
“I try to take the best advantage of it. They’ve been making it better and better. It’s incredible to see how far the simulator has come in one year. It’s really cool to feel like I have a small part in making it better.”
Reddick, the Corning, California native, who just celebrated his 22nd birthday, has a dirt racing background like Bell, last year’s NCWTS champ. Both believe Atlanta’s unique track surface reflects dirt racing.
“Definitely car control is really important here, because you slide a lot – from one point in the beginning in the run to the end. You have to fight that the whole race.You’ve got to be able to hold onto it, be able to manage it,” said Reddick. And Bell agreed.
“One thing that dirt teaches you is how to move around and find grip,” the 23-year-old, two time-defending Chili Bowl winner Bell preached. “At Atlanta, there’s not a lot of grip out there. The way the surface is, I guess a dirt racer has a slight advantage here, because we have to search around and find where we’re best at. And Atlanta is one of the few places that we go anymore that you can run from the wall to the yellow line. It pays dividends if you hit your mark and your line every lap.And that’s definitely something you learn from the other side.”
Bell is looking to replicate his successful NCWTS campaign. Like Reddick, he too won his first NXS race last season and in a part-time role. They will compete for both Rookie of the Year and the championship. And the Norman, Oklahoma driver said that the NXS cars are actually not very different from the Trucks.
“They relate a lot. We’re on the same tires and, for the most part the same motor package [from last year]. The biggest thing is just the aero differences. The trucks have a lot of downforce, so they drive really good by themselves, but they don’t drive as good in traffic, as the Xfinity cars.”
And while Bell is working with a team almost totally intact from the year before, it is a team foreign to him. This year, the No. 20 Rheem Toyota team is last year’s No. 19 team, which had Matt Tifft at the helm. Both Bell and crew chief Jason Ratcliff are new to the team, as Ratcliff led Matt Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Monster Energy Cup Series team for five seasons.
“It’s really good to get to a place like this, where we can test a lot of different things,” Bell said after three or four runs. “We’re testing setups on the racecar. It’s good practice for me as a driver, how [the guys on the team] work, how they have chemistry – and build that chemistry with them.”
And Bell, like Sargeant and Reddick, is the only rookie on his multi-car team, so the other JGR teams can learn from what he takes from the test. “I’m the only driver eligible to test, so we kind of brought an all-star team here to gather as much info as we can.” This included former MENCS crew chief Dave Rogers, now the technical director for JGR’s NXS operation.
Reddick echoed that sentiment, as the info he accrues will help teammates Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier, and Michael Annett. “It’ll be interesting to see how much they get better from the test and we get better from the test.”
Testing is very mundane to watch, but the process is crucial as these new teams build for the grueling 2018 season and posture to help their teammates. And for rookie drivers on teams new to them, these rare tests mean even more than they would to other drivers.
Atlanta Motor Speedway’s NASCAR races are second on the calendar for all three series on the weekend of February 24th and 25th.
Listen to WSB’s full interviews from the Atlanta Motor Speedway test with: