Last week’s NASCAR Cup race at Phoenix was almost a replay of the previous week at Las Vegas. Both had late cautions leading to overtime; both had a dominant leader lose the race due to the caution; and both had the same winner, Hendrick Racing’s William Byron. The only difference was the driver who lost due to the late caution, Kyle Larson at Las Vegas, and Kevin Harvick at Phoenix.
Byron is now the only two-time winner, just four races into the season. The other notable feature of the Phoenix race was the first outing of the new short-track aero package, a 30% reduction in downforce. Most of the changes were under the car, but the almost non-existent 2-inch rear spoiler was a stark visual clue to the downforce reduction.
NASCAR levied some serious penalties on Wednesday due to L2 infractions at Phoenix. Three of the four Hendrick teams and the No. 31 Kaulig team were docked 100 driver points as well as 10 playoff points if they make the playoffs. Chase Elliott is exempt since he was at home recovering from a broken leg.
The penalties were for unapproved modifications of a single-source vendor part, the hood louvers. The louvers of all five cars were confiscated after practice but prior to qualifying and the race. The crew chiefs of all five teams received fines of $100,000 each and were suspended for four races. The penalties were a clear signal from NASCAR that there is zero tolerance for any modification of vendor parts on the Gen 7 car.
Also, Denny Hamlin got a $50,000 fine and lost 25 driver points for violating the member code of conduct by intentionally running Ross Chastain into the wall at the end of the race. The pair had a few run-ins last season as well, but hopefully this penalty will cool the rivalry a bit.
This weekend all three top NASCAR series will race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The track’s most recent renovation has created a mile and a half track that races like a restrictor plate superspeedway. That means anything can, and probably will, happen.
Harvick’s performance at Phoenix last weekend and his three previous wins at Atlanta bode well for his chances Sunday. Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski have two Atlanta victories each while Hamlin, Byron, and Elliott have one apiece. Elliott is still out, but the bad news for the rest of the field is that Byron won last spring, the first year of the new track configuration.
Not surprisingly, Byron is the favorite at 10-1 odds, sharing the honor with Larson. Busch, Hamlin, Chastain, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, and Christopher Bell are all clustered at 12-1. Tyler Reddick, Alex Bowman, and Brad Keselowski are 18-1 with Martin Truex Jr. and Bubba Wallace 20-1.
Saturday’s program features NASCAR Cup qualifying at 8:35 a.m., the Craftsman Truck series’ FR8 208 race at 11 a.m., and the Xfinity series’ Raptor 250 at 2 p.m., all on FS1. Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Ambetter Health 400 coverage on FOX starts at noon.
Also on tap this weekend is the STC Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at Jeddah, the second race of the 2023 Formula 1 season. Red Bull served notice two weeks ago in Bahrain that they are the team to beat, posting a dominant 1-2 finish. Ferrari is on the back foot, as Charles Leclerc’s retirement in Bahrain led to an electronics control unit replacement that will result in a 10-spot grid penalty this weekend. Mercedes is scrambling to catch up while Aston Martin seems to have found the sweet spot with this year’s car.
Qualifying airs Saturday at 10 a.m. on ESPNews and ESPN will broadcast the race beginning at 10 a.m. Sunday.