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February 24, 2024

Atlanta configuration ‘one-of-one’ in its uniqueness as surface ages

A general view of Atlanta racing.
Sean Gardner
Getty Images

HAMPTON, Ga. — Since its inception in 1960, the 1.54-mile racing surface around Atlanta Motor Speedway has experienced plenty of changes.

From its original layout featuring symmetrical straightways for both the frontstretch and backstretch to the first reconfiguration in 1997, which introduced the “quad-oval” and moved the start/finish line to the new curve on the flipped frontstretch, Atlanta has been an evolving loop of asphalt.

With its latest reconfiguration in between the 2021 and 2022 NASCAR seasons, Atlanta underwent a facelift that saw the banking increase from 24 to 28 degrees in the turns and the width of the racing surface consolidated from 55 to 40 feet. The changes made Atlanta a third drafting-style track on the circuit, producing similar racing to what has been the staple at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

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While driver opinions vary on the style of racing itself, a handful of Cup Series veterans have been surprised about how Atlanta’s surface has aged as it approaches its third year of action with Sunday’s Ambetter Health 400 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Ross Chastain, a two-time runner-up on the current Atlanta configuration, is very optimistic about how Atlanta’s racing evolves as the track surface continues to get older, describing it as “one-of-one.”

“I mean, it’s already one-of-one with it being a superspeedway, drafting mile-and-a-half,” Chastain said. “The corners are so much tighter than Daytona (and) Talladega, but we’re drafting, and as it changes, it’s going to be one-of-one with the steep banking and still a double-white-line rule. You will still draft a bit, but four years from now, no telling how strung out we get, how much off-throttle we have. It’s pretty exciting.”

Chastain also likened Atlanta to that of Daytona before it was repaved ahead of the 2011 season and already sees comparisons between the two.

“I never got to race on Daytona before it got repaved,” Chastain said. “I raced there in 2012 for the first time on the repave. When I look back to the mid-2000s, they were off the throttle when they were tucked up with each other. Then, at the end, they all push, and they are spinning out off of [Turn] 4 without even touching each other. You’ll probably see that, and we’re already spinning out here without touching each other, and it’s pretty dang new.”

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Chase Elliott, the 2020 Cup Series champion, won the second race on the current Atlanta configuration in the summer of 2022. He wasn’t ready to give it the stark uniqueness that Chastain gave the track but said he’s been surprised by certain elements of the 1.54-mile oval.

“It surprised me just the amount of color it’s lost over the last year and a half or so,” Elliott said. “But it’s cold out, right? So the grip level’s kind of high and curious to see if the race feels any different, but it still seems like it has a lot of grip so I think it’ll probably be a little while.

“Seems like the asphalt gets better over like pavement jobs that were done in the mid-2000s (that) didn’t last as long as the ones that they do now. So I’m not sure if the process has gotten better, more efficient for highways and roads and that kind of transitions into this stuff. But it seems like this stuff like Texas, Michigan, like those places, just they look like they’re aging, but they kind of aren’t, at the same time. So we’ll have to wait and see what this one does.”

Kyle Larson, the 2021 titleholder, said Atlanta already stands out from Daytona and Talladega based on its size, but the racing itself is still relatable to the two behemoth facilities.

“The racing, I think, is like Daytona last week. We’re two-wide the whole race basically,” Larson said. “Where I mean it could be that way tomorrow, but based off the other Atlanta races, it kind of gets more like you’re just trying to manage the top lane, middle-to-top lane. It’s harder to be three-wide here because you need more race track because your car’s not driving as good. So yeah, I don’t know. I think it already stands out, and I think with age, honestly, it could get a little bit easier to get around here.”