Aric Almirola

In the Fast Lane: Most Improved after Atlanta

Photo by: Kevin C. Cox

The weather at Atlanta Motor Speedway hindered the start of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, causing a two-hour rain delay before taking the green on Sunday afternoon.

A veteran overcame pit road issues to score his second victory at the track in an astonishing time gap since his first, all while paying tribute to the late driver he replaced.

This week’s Top 5 were steady contenders, one driver used a different strategy from the rest to advance his chances at an early season victory, while others were consistent in earning stage points.

No. 1 Denny Hamlin – Denny Hamlin went from the bottom of the grid to the top of it, jumping 34 spots from a year ago when a broken rear-end ended his day in the 2017 Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

This year the Joe Gibbs Racing driver used a two-pit-stop strategy during the final stage in an attempt to earn him a win at the 1.5-mile track. Hamlin’s first win at Atlanta came in 2012, and he has a 22.8 average finish since the victory.

No. 2 Kevin Harvick – Kevin Harvick’s recent dominance at Atlanta has proven that it was only a matter of time before the Stewart-Haas Racing driver returned to victory lane there.

Almost two decades separate the 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion’s two wins at the track. Harvick won in just his fourth start in 2001 for Richard Childress Racing driving the No. 29. Harvick returned to victory lane in the No. 4 saluting Earnhardt just as he did 17 years ago.

Harvick was one of several drivers that dealt with pit-gun problems while being serviced on pit road. Harvick overcame the trouble to earn the 38th MENCS victory of his career.

No. 3 Aric Almirola – Aric Almirola has not wasted any time showcasing his talent and deservingness with the No. 10 Smithfield Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Almirola started 11th and finished in the 13th position, but was a top contender throughout the event. Almirola earned stage points in two of the three stages, finishing fifth in Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2. He sits ninth in the points standings, tied with Paul Menard with 66 points.

No. 4 Austin Dillon – Austin Dillon had a quiet, but effective day – earning a 14th place finish. Dillon ran as high as sixth, with a 15th average position throughout 500 miles.

Dillon has failed to earn a top-5 or top-10 at the oval since becoming a full-time driver in 2014, but he has made some gains. Dillon improved his finish by 18 positions from one year ago.

The Richard Childress Racing driver sits sixth in the standings, 19 points behind new points leader Joey Logano.

No.5 Clint Bowyer – Clint Bowyer earned his first top-5 finish at Atlanta after finishing third on Sunday. Bowyer was the runner-up after Stage 1 and finished ninth in Stage 2, before earning his first top-5 of the season.

Bowyer jumped eight spots in the standings, from 13th to fifth. Three points separate him from Hamlin in third, and 15 from Logano.

Can Bowyer break a 187-race winless streak to score his first win in almost five years at Las Vegas?

Notables: Daniel Suarez excelled at Atlanta before falling back to a 15th place finish, the lowest position for the 26-year-old throughout the day. He was as high as third and earned a 10th place finish at the end of Stage 2.

Several drivers, including defending MENCS champion Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Alex Bowman, and Harvick, had problems with the new mandatory pit guns. Truex’s team went through three guns because they failed to work properly.  Will the problems be consistent or will they be resolved early in the season?