Posted: 7:16 pm Friday, February 23rd, 2018
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Busch takes MENCS pole, Truex Jr.’s team in hot water
Kyle Busch claimed his first-ever Atlanta Motor Speedway pole in Friday qualifying. Busch actually was fastest at AMS in 2016, but NASCAR disqualified his time. His 184.652 mph lap in Round 3 this year put the No 18 Snickers Toyota on the front row for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, alongside seven-time AMS pole winner Ryan Newman.
Kevin Harvick, who dominated last year’s race, was fastest in Round 2 and starts 3rd. Brad Keselowski, who won this race a year ago, was another fast Ford, but could only muster 5th in Round 3, after leading Round 1.
The Fords seemed to have a game plan to go out early in each round, which helped them until the last round. Busch’s Toyota, however, laid a late lap and took the pole.
Busch, by the way is running is own No. 4 Truck Saturday, but said he did not have the sponsorship package to run the Xfinity Series race. Cup drivers with five or more years’ experience can only run seven NXS races and five in the NCWTS.
On the other end of the spectrum, defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. failed pre-qualifying inspection three times, so NASCAR took away his car chief Blake Harris for the weekend. If the team fails inspection another time this weekend, NASCAR will take away another of the 78’s road crew. Truex Jr. will also serve a 30 minute practice penalty Saturday.
Jimmie Johnson, winner of two of the last three Atlanta races, went thru inspection three times, but was able to get on the grid to make a run. Inspection issues for Harrison Rhodes, who will make his MENCS debut Sunday, also cost the No. 51 team a qualifying run. They will start 40th.
Georgia drivers Chase Elliott and David Ragan struggled heavily Friday and did not advance from the first round. They will start 27th and 29th, respectively.
Back to the real grind…but this is just the start
The schedule is jam packed this weekend, with rolling practices for the top three series Friday and qualifying for the MENCS topping the day. Atlanta Motor Speedway is the first big test for teams, as it races much more similar to the rest of NASCAR’s schedule than Daytona. But Dawsonville’s Chase Elliott says don’t rush to judgment about how fast these teams are after these races. Paraphrasing his Friday comments, he said that teams are also having their first tries at competing with these setups.
Elliott said that “other manufacturers,” as he called it, really struggled early, but then were the best by the end of the season. Toyotas are whom Elliott was referring to, as the automaker led zero laps in the 2017 race and only three finished in the top 15. Really, they ran worse than that, as star driver Kyle Busch fell off the lead lap early. But then Toyotas rebounded to dominate the last two thirds of the schedule.
On the contrary, Ford was dominant in last year’s AMS race. Kevin Harvick led 292 of the 325 laps, but pit road issues cost him the win. Then Brad Keselowski led 23 laps to take the victory. Ford went on to struggle later in the season, as Toyotas became dominant.
Elliott and all the Chevrolet drivers have new Camaro ZL1 bodies that shaped up well in the Daytona 500. He said that big things they learn from this weekend’s race really cannot be fully applied to the cars they are taking to the west coast races, simply because those cars have already been built.
Predicting who will run well at Atlanta is hard – its old pavement chews up tires and makes cars a handful much more than surfaces at other tracks do. Combine that factor with the earliness in the season, Atlanta is really only a small barometer of things to come in the 2018 season.
Weather likely an issue Sunday and contorts a tight calendar
Most forecasts call for a 60-80% chance of rain sometime Sunday, though WSB Radio meteorologist Kirk Mellish says the day isn’t a total washout. But the chance for rain goes up mid-morning and stays fairly constant on into the night and even Monday. Even if dry hours open up on Sunday, AMS’ 21-year-old pavement is porous, takes longer to dry than other tracks, and has some weepers that allow water up even after the surface moisture is dried. The inability to keep the track dry could be a big determinant on if the surface gets repaved after this race. Track crews have 15 patches on the surface and lots of tar in the cracks.
AMS does have the unique Perfect Race Weather Guarantee, which assures fans that if the high temperature on the day of the race (as observed by the National Weather Service) is 50 degrees, or if the event is postponed for weather, fans get a voucher to use again in 2018 or at the 2019 race, providing they did not already scan to get into the grandstands.
If the Atlanta race does run late, the change puts teams in a scheduling bind. The rain doesn’t leave town until late Monday, so if a race runs that late, the turnaround to get the haulers and teams out to Las Vegas Motor Speedway is extremely tight. Everyone in the sport is crossing their fingers that the race runs on time. NASCAR says they will begin meeting Saturday to determine how Sunday’s schedule may change.
The temps are great here at AMS this weekend, but rain will almost certainly come into play. Weather forecasts, of course, can change, so stay tuned for Mellish’s updates on News 95.5/AM750 WSB.
Bring Lupton a sponsor, he will tattoo it
24-year-old Dylan Lupton has had a few cups of coffee in NASCAR’s top series and now is slated for 21 races with mid-level Xfinity Series team JGL Racing. Lupton ran 14 races in the team’s No. 24 car last season and is campaigning the No. 28 ThinQ Technology Partners Ford this year.
But Lupton wants to run the full season and will throw in extra incentive for a backer.
“Hey, if any company wants to come on board, I’ll tattoo them on my arm.”
The California driver says its his west coast background that has led him to get big series of ink on his chest, leg, and arm. That is certainly uncommon in the NASCAR driver fraternity, but tattoos got some ink (pun intended) this week. Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon and some of his crew got some late night, post-race prints on their posteriors. Dillon got a Daytona 500 champion’s logo and the crew members got “wolfpack” designs, based on “The Hangover” movie series. Other crew members reportedly had gotten those same tattoos after Dillon’s breakthrough win in last year’s Coca-Cola 600.
But to reiterate – if any sponsor wants to back Dylan Lupton, he will give them more than a handshake agreement.
Grala explains rejuvenated JGL team
Lupton’s teammate Kaz Grala survived five overtime finishes to place 4th in last week’s Daytona NXS race in his first race both in the series and with the No. 24 team. Grala achieved a similar feat a year ago, when he won Daytona with a GMS Racing truck. Now the 19-year-old graduates a series higher up the ladder.
“I do think that this will be a big step up for me, but probably not too foreign, because last year was my first year in the Trucks,” Grala said before Friday’s first NXS practice. Grala noted that he only ran 23 races last season, but the NXS schedule is 33 and that may be the biggest change for him – and in a good way. “About 16 races in to the Truck Series seemed to be my turning point and that’s not even halfway into this series.”
Grala ended last season 7th in the NCWTS points last year. Marlow’s Tavern sponsors him this weekend and he made a Midtown Atlanta appearance Friday, giving away some pit passes to some fans.
Grala said that his team is partnered with Roush Fenway Racing, which fields the No. 60 Ford in the series. JGL Racing will use Roush-Yates Racing engines and, Grala said, should be running Roush chassis a bit later in the year. Shane Wilson, a longtime Brendan Gaughan crew chief, is the head wrench on Grala’s team.
Ragan celebrates 400 and shows class on Valentine’s Day
David Ragan will crank up Sunday (we hope on Sunday) for the 400th time in a MENCS car. He has made 398 of those starts consecutively and is in his second year back with Front Row Motorsports, a team he also drove full-time for from 2012-2014. To commemorate the effort, the Georgia State Legislature and Governor Nathan Deal gave Ragan a proclamation Thursday at the State Capitol.
“Being from Georgia, that’s a real neat honor to go to your State Capitol and spend some time with the governor, he’s a big NASCAR fan,” Ragan said a day later in his No. 38 team’s hauler.
Ragan joins an exclusive club of only 61 drivers in Cup history to have run that many races. He began running full-time in the series in 2007 and has driven for Roush-Fenway Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, and BK Racing.
Ragan also continues to show great homage to his racing roots. As a kid running in Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Thursday Thunder Legend’s series, a program that his dad manages now, Ragan appeared on the late WSB legend Captain Herb Emory’s racing show. After one early appearance, Emory sent Ragan a handwritten note on WSB stationary and an audio cassette of the interview.
For the past few Valentine’s Days since Emory’s passing, Ragan has sent flowers to Emory’s widow. This year, Ragan included that note and picture dated from 1999, when Ragan was just 14.
“[Emory] sent me the audio copy, probably on cassette tape and we got to listen to it. That was probably one of my first interviews.
I don’t know why we held onto that, but I thought it was neat and that Miss Karen should see that. I think of Captain Herb a lot at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He was a fixture and we miss him. It was good to reconnect and stay in touch with Karen.”
Ragan has taken those interview skills to significant heights in the sport and now makes appearances on FS1’s “NASCAR Race Hub” TV show as a studio analyst. He has also been a booth analyst for MRN at some races. So Emory’s tutelage has paid off for Ragan.