The Atlanta 500 has run and it turned into a curious event. Jimmie Johnson's win was his 71st and the 500-miler, briefly delayed by rain and also dragged to some four hours in duration by several late crashes, saw an interesting final rundown. Some observations -
* Running the week after the Daytona 500, Atlanta's sole Winston Cup date has become a source of contention in some fan circles. The reality that Atlanta is not a good sports market - shown by the Falcons' practice of selling out their home games via gameday walk-up sales - remains a reality for the speedway, and the fact it didn't draw a capacity crowd won't help with the track's future, though it seems illogical a better date, some time in May or early June or even September, could not be worked out (the same is true of Martinsville's Old Dominion 500, pushed to early November in recent years when it should be early October)
The big issue for the speedway aside from attendance figures remains the dismal quality of the racing surface - rough and tire-eating.
* The Atlanta 500 saw a curious number of darkhorse contenders having quality runs. While Martin Truex is not a true darkhorse he nonetheless is not a regular frontrunner, so his strong hustle to the top ten remains something fresh and unusual. Truex's recent consistency may auger well for down the road, as did Aric Almirola's commendable rebound from a dismal Speedweeks. Also collecting a respectable finish was Paul Menard, a driver whose record has lacked much to write home about.
The biggest darkhorse, though, was Brett Moffett, driving Michael Waltrip's car subbing for returning starter Brian Vickers. Moffett is a rookie, and his poise was something to behold as he picked his way to the top ten.
Super subs Regan Smith and David Ragan (in Kyle Busch's #18) had decent finishes; Smith showed noticeable improvement from Speedweeks.
* This was the first race with NASCAR's new tapered spacer cutting some 100-plus horsepower and a spoiler two inches shorter than in 2014. The net result wasn't different from last year, except in one regard - the mini-epic of late-race crashes. At least one - the Greg Biffle set-to with Joe Nemechek - appeared to have been an air-off-the-spoiler crash, the kind of crash disturbingly common in the 1990s but which had largely disappeared by the end of that decade. Given the tire-eating nature of the Atlanta surface, this was not the best venue for testing this new package; nonetheless it was not quite the promise some may have hoped to get from it.
* The issue of SAFER barriers became a controversy with Kyle Busch's crash into an inside wall - some 200 feet from the racing surface - at Daytona; Atlanta added more SAFER barriers for this race, yet Jeff Gordon managed to nail an inside wall entering Three where the SAFER ended. Naturally Gordon was asking why the SAFER ended there - with no one seeming to have thought to ask the question before a crash happened in an area where crashes previously had not happened. This is the hypocrisy involved, the self-serving hindsight that pops up where no one bothers to remember that no one else thought about it until this particular crash, be it Kyle Busch's or now Gordon's. That there are certain areas of racetracks where crashes simply don't happen never seems to be considered, even though it explains why "they didn't have a SAFER there."
Instead of blaming the tracks, perhaps some more thought should be put into it first.
* Suddenly seeing his stock beginning to erode is Kyle Larson, who appears to be hitting a sophomore slump. His Speedweeks wasn't as impressive as we thought it would be and Atlanta didn't do him any favors either. It's obvious the sport has considerable hope for Larson, especially with so little young talent making that much progress at the Cup level in recent years.
So it goes as the series heads to Vegas.