New Atlanta earns its stripes with Ambetter Health 400 classic

Atlanta Motor Speedway's revamp sparks debate, yet delivers an electrifying Ambetter Health 400 with one of NASCAR's closest finishes ever

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Reconfiguring a race track can be a massive gamble that either turns it into one of the best circuits on the schedule or a disaster that one will have to live with for at least a few years.

While there are those like Homestead-Miami Speedway, which underwent two renovations to become arguably the best intermediate track in NASCAR today, there are also cases with opposite effect like Texas Motor Speedway, an already relatively maligned track that has hit rock bottom for stock car fans.

Texas’ sister track Atlanta Motor Speedway seemed destined to the same fate, never standing a chance when fans ripped owner Speedway Motorsports‘ decision to transform it into a 1.5-mile track with significantly higher banking.

These higher turns, sitting at 28° in the corners, while retaining the original length turned it into an odd cross between an intermediate and a superspeedway, and NASCAR hoped to capitalise on its new image by using the same aero package that is present at Daytona and Talladega.

When Atlanta became the second race of the Cup Series season for 2024, one could hear the groans from drivers and fans as it and Daytona meant back-to-back weeks of superspeedway-style racing.

As much as these types of races draw the most attention, drivers understandably don’t want to throw themselves into packs with a high risk of getting collected in a multi-car pile-up two races in a row, especially on the heels of a wreck-filled Daytona 500.

Yet Sunday’s Ambetter Health 400 managed to put on a show that struck a balance between superspeedway and intermediate racing.

While the finish—a dramatic three-abreast dash between Daniel Suárez, Ryan Blaney, and Kyle Busch that ended with Suarez beating Blaney by just .003 of a second and Busch by .007, the third closest finish in Cup Series history—is rightly garnering the attention it deserves, the race as a whole seems to have won everyone over too.

Many predicted a wreckfest

Many were likely resigned to another wreckfest when Austin Dillon spun through the tri-oval and into the pack of cars just two laps in, collecting 16 cars. To their pleasant surprise, that was the only such accident as most race-related cautions afterwards were for crashes involving just two or three cars. Even the fuel conservation controversy that plagued the Daytona 500 did not return.

Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 Freeway Insurance Chevrolet, drives as the sunsets during the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway | Alex Slitz/Getty Images
Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 Freeway Insurance Chevrolet, drives as the sunsets during the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway | Alex Slitz/Getty Images

The superspeedway package also allowed drivers to run wide open without braking, much like what is seen at Daytona and Talladega, but the cars were generally more spread out than at either of those. Furthermore, the repaved, wider track surface granted more opportunities to run three- and even four-wide. Suárez was so impressed by this that he felt little difference between the setup and what is used at other 1.5-milers.

“[The intermediate package] had a little bit of a feel like this,” began Suárez. “I think that the new rules that we have in the G of the car for superspeedways and here in Atlanta actually help the race. I feel like we can get pushed a little better and we can be a little more aggressive.

“It felt a little bit like that, but with that being said, the intensity of the pack, when we were in the top ten, top fifteen, the car moves a lot. You don’t have to be getting pushed to get a lot of movement on the car. Handling is extremely important. I would say that even more important than on a superspeedway like Daytona and Talladega.

“As far as I remember with the 550 package, we had a little bit more grip than this. This race is definitely very unique. I think that everyone at NASCAR, they have done a great job putting a race like this one because it’s different. It’s not a superspeedway, it’s not a mile-and-a-half, it’s not a 550 package. It’s a real hybrid, and it really puts a great show on track.”

While Atlanta may have been a hit, this does not mean everyone is clamouring for tracks needing a revival to follow in its footsteps. Although Atlanta is not a “true” superspeedway while such tracks might generate the most interest from casual fans and are exciting in their own right, they can still be a headache and too much of it will only rack up teams’ damage bills.

For those who are still displeased with new Atlanta, at least the Cup Series’ next stop at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is on a “traditional” 1.5-mile intermediate track.

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