Donald Warr
Donald Warr | Atlanta Motor Speedway

Drivers ‘starting from a blank sheet’ after Goodyear test at new-look Atlanta track

Drivers in all three NASCAR national series got a taste of the new-look Atlanta Motor Speedway during Goodyear tire testing this week. Judging by the early reviews, trying to make direct comparisons with the new track and its former 1.54-mile layout won’t be an easy draw.

Cup Series drivers explained their early impressions Thursday during a break in the second of two days of tire testing. Those runs came after Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series drivers got a feel for the high-banked circuit in their own combined tire test on Tuesday.

RELATED: Photos: Atlanta test | Next Gen timeline

Atlanta now features fresh pavement for the first time since 1997. But in laying down the new asphalt surface, track officials also reshaped the turns with steeper banking – 28 degrees, up from the existing 24. All three series will compete on the new layout March 19-20, with the Cup Series making the first of two Atlanta visits next year with the Next Gen car that debuts this season.

“Basically, let’s just call this a new race track,” said Chris Buescher, driver of the No. 17 RFK Racing Ford. “With the new car, with the new surface, with the new configuration, it’s not even something where you’re trying to compare it. It’s starting over. It’s a brand-new race track, and we’re making notes and starting from a blank sheet.”

So are NASCAR officials, who are leaning toward adding Atlanta to the short list of Cup Series tracks (Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway) where speeds are kept in check by the superspeedway rules package and where the aerodynamic draft looms large. For the two-day test, NASCAR officials set a target of 510 horsepower (down from the base 670) and used a 7-inch rear spoiler (an increase from the 4-inch rear spoiler that will be standard on most tracks).

RELATED: Base rules package for Next Gen set

Buescher took his third stint behind the wheel of the Next Gen racer this week, but it marked his first drive on an intermediate-sized track after previous tests at Daytona and the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course. Wednesday evening, he joined fellow Cup Series test drivers Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain in forming a three-car draft. Busch said that lap times in the slipstream improved from an unofficial 31.60 seconds (175.443 mph) to 30.60 seconds (181.176), with the anticipation that a sub-30-second lap was within reach.

“Things are going to be moving quicker,” said Busch, who is readying for his first season with 23XI Racing. He’s also the last Cup Series winner on the old layout, prevailing at the Georgia track last July. “You’re going to be digesting things much faster and you’re going to have that Daytona-Talladega style feel here at a mile and a half. So it’s just going to change the game in the way you have to absorb it. Maybe I’m just saying that because I’m an old guy and the young kids will think nothing of it, but things are moving quick on a mile and a half with a superspeedway feel.”

Said Chastain, who joins Trackhouse Racing for 2022: “It’s superspeedway style with the banking and the (asphalt) smoothness, but the corners are tighter. We lost a mile from Daytona across the board around the whole track, so the corners are tighter, the straightaways are shorter. That was the biggest thing for me was getting to the corner on entry, it feels like Daytona, but then you have to turn a lot sharper than we do at Daytona, Talladega. So it’s going to be a bit of a mix.”

MORE: 2022 Cup Series schedule

Brandon Hutchison, Atlanta’s executive vice president and general manager, has been with the track since he was a public relations intern in 1995. His time with the track has spanned all three of its configurations, and he says this version has the chance to be a historic first.

“The feedback that I’ve received has been very positive,” said Hutchison, who also touted the track’s new weeper-proof drainage system to aid the drying process. “I think it’s no secret that the drivers really loved the old, worn-out Atlanta, but as you just heard Chris say, it was time. It was just over 20 years old, 24 years old, I guess and at some point, you’re just going to have to repave. So they think it’s going to be fast. They feel like it’s going to be exciting. With just three cars here, it’s hard to really know what’s going to happen when they get back in March for the race.”

Two more organizational Cup Series tests are scheduled this month to prep for the 2022 season — Jan. 11-12 at Daytona and Jan. 25-26 at Phoenix Raceway.