How Atlanta straddled the line of entertainment and sport

Back in 2015, former NASCAR chairman Brian France infamously said that NASCAR executives wanted to see more drafting and pack racing at intermediate tracks in the top-tier Cup Series.

At the time, it was a bizarre comment, even by the linguistic standards France set during his time running his family’s stock car sanctioning body. Midsize tracks in NASCAR had never produced extended periods of racing where cars ran close together in a large pack. That type of racing was reserved for Daytona and Talladega.

Despite France’s ignominious departure in 2018 from NASCAR, the sanctioning body spent the previous three seasons searching for the intermediate track pack racing that France so publicly desired to little practical effect. From 2019-21 NASCAR slowed the cars down significantly at its tracks bigger than a mile to foster closer racing and more passing.

Those changes really didn’t work. The racing was slower and, in many cases, passing was more difficult as aerodynamics played an outsized role.

Nearly seven years later, France’s vision for pack racing at an intermediate track was realized at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday. And it was pretty damn cartoonish.

As NASCAR introduced a new and more adaptable car for the 2022 season, Speedway Motorsports and Atlanta Motor Speedway decided to completely change the track’s characteristics. Atlanta, once NASCAR’s fastest track, needed a repave. And it also got a reconfiguration.

Racing at Atlanta had gotten strung out in recent years as the track’s old pavement fostered multiple grooves in the corners and wore out tires over the course of a handful of laps. It was a track that grew to become a favorite of many drivers because of that aged pavement and its demand on a driver’s skill. And it was also a track that grew to also produce long stretches of green-flag racing; the last seven races at Atlanta each had six or fewer caution flags.

That reconfiguration was blatantly designed to produce more caution flags. The track was narrowed in the corners and the banking was raised to mimic Daytona and Talladega. More banking equals faster corner speeds. A narrower track equals fewer racing grooves. And NASCAR said its car rules would be the same for new Atlanta as they are for Daytona and Talladega. Drafting was going to be paramount as cars would be unable to accelerate away from each other.

In this case, the track was the Coca-Cola. And NASCAR’s car rules were the Mentos.

Tyler Reddick (8) spins in front of Christopher Bell (20) and Kurt Busch (45) as Kevin Harvick (4) is able to avoid the incident during the NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Tyler Reddick (8) spins in front of Christopher Bell (20) and Kurt Busch (45) as Kevin Harvick (4) is able to avoid the incident during the NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

We all know what happens when you drop a Mentos in a Diet Coke. And we all knew what was going to happen on Sunday. Wrecks were bountiful as there were only two racing lanes on the narrow track and drivers had to bump and push each other to go faster.

Overall, 25 of the 37 cars entered in the race were officially involved in a crash. The race set a record for most cautions at Atlanta Motor Speedway and, not so coincidentally, set a track record for the most lead changes.

After all, the lead changes were what NASCAR wanted too. By keeping cars as close together as possible, NASCAR wanted to give fans the impression that close racing equals great racing. On the most basic of levels, it makes a bit of sense. Daytona and Talladega host four of the most-watched races over the course of NASCAR’s 36-race Cup Series seasons. Fans like to watch the dangerous and roulette wheel-racing those tracks produce.

But the carnival at Atlanta was the cheap store-brand version of what fans see at Daytona and Talladega. NASCAR has been appealing through the early races of the 2022 season because driver skill and team adaptability has been at a premium. Drivers have been forced to wheel unfamiliar cars at high speeds that drive vastly differently than the dumbed-down cars they drove at bigger tracks in 2021. That unfamiliarity has produced compelling racing and no shortage of organic incidents as drivers struggle to find out just how hard they can push their new vehicles to the limit.

Ironically, old Atlanta would have likely produced a pretty good race with these new cars. Watching drivers muscle their cars on old tires on that worn-out surface would have been fun. There probably would have been more than six cautions. And passing would likely have been plentiful too as the best combinations of car quality and driver skill would have been at a significant advantage.

Sunday, driver skill and car quality hardly mattered. The fluky nature of pack racing at a narrow track pins way too much on being in the right spot when a crash happens and the actions of a driver around you.

NASCAR has long toed the line between sport and entertainment through specious debris cautions, double-file restarts, stages and stage points and overtime finishes in an attempt to ensure that a race finishes under green even if it goes way beyond its scheduled distance.

But it’s hard not to wonder if what unfolded at Atlanta this year was too much entertainment and not enough sport. A track that was once a great barometer of driver excellence – all but three of the 14 races at Atlanta between 2010-21 were won by Cup Series champions – has de-emphasized driver skill as much as feasibly possible. Sunday was about avoiding crashes or tire failures; three Chevy drivers had tires deflate while leading the race.

Daytona and Talladega are appealing because they comprise just 1/9th of the Cup Series schedule. With Atlanta now in the pack racing mix, races that emphasize missing wrecks more than anything else now make up 1/6th of the Cup Series schedule. That’s a significant increase, especially in a NASCAR where a win in the regular season automatically qualifies you for the playoffs.

As of now, no other midsize NASCAR tracks have announced plans to mimic the redesign Atlanta implemented. And that’s a good thing, especially if you’re a racing purist. Driver and team skill should remain as paramount as possible throughout the course of the season. The danger, however, is if that 2015 vision for pack racing at intermediate tracks becomes more widespread and other tracks follow Atlanta’s lead.

NASCAR is at its best and most fun when individual driver and team excellence is paramount. Not when races and tracks are designed to cause chaos.