Dr. Diandra: Don’t overlook these underdogs at Atlanta

In 2022, Atlanta Motor Speedway joined the list of tracks that Cup Series underdogs circle on their calendars. The increased banking and use of the Daytona/Talladega rules package made Atlanta race more like a superspeedway.

Some might balk at calling a 1.5-mile track a superspeedway. At the old Atlanta, grip limited how fast cars could go. The new Atlanta track is closer to drag limited, like the original superspeedways.

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At drag-limited tracks, cars don’t have enough power to overcome their own drag at high speeds. This limit gives rise to pack racing, which requires a different skill set than other tracks.

Superspeedways and underdogs

Underdog talk picks up around superspeedways because of the perception that “anyone” can win at these tracks. But many of us give underdogs a higher probability of winning than they actually have.

Consider, for example, the winners of the six 2022 superspeedway races.

A table showing the winners from all superspeedway races in 2022
A table showing the winners from all superspeedway races in 2022

Austin Cindric definitely qualifies as an underdog. Ross Chastain was a quasi-underdog when he won Talladega — he had already won at COTA earlier in the year. The same goes for Austin Dillon, who is usually a contender at superspeedways.

Using the most liberal definition, underdogs won half the superspeedway races in the table. But even a three-in-six chance is better odds than at most other tracks.

The graph below shows active full-time drivers with average finishing positions less than 20 for last year’s six superspeedway races.

A vertical bar chart showing the drivers with the best average finishes in the six superspeedway races of 2022
A vertical bar chart showing the drivers with the best average finishes in the six superspeedway races of 2022
A vertical bar chart showing the drivers with the best average finishes in the six superspeedway races of 2022
A vertical bar chart showing the drivers with the best average finishes in the six superspeedway races of 2022

They’re not all underdogs. For example: Kyle Busch’s performance in the first four races of the year disqualifies him.

But driving for a well-established team doesn’t preclude one from being an underdog at Atlanta. With Chevrolet winning four out of four races this year, driving a Ford or Toyota confers underdog points.

Two promising quasi-underdogs

Neither Ryan Blaney nor Martin Truex Jr. has won a points race in the Next Gen car — at any kind of track. Blaney squeaked his way into the 2022 playoffs while Truex missed it entirely.

Blaney has an average finish of 12.3 for the first four races of the season, which includes an eighth-place finish at Daytona. Truex has an average finish of 12.5, with only one top 10 (at Las Vegas). He finished 15th at Daytona this year. But Blaney is much less of an underdog than Truex.

Four of Blaney’s eight career wins came at superspeedways. He has the best average finishing position of any driver at superspeedways in 2022 with a 9.0 and a worst finish of 17th.

Truex has 31 career wins but has never won a superspeedway race. He’s got two second-place finishes, but no checkered flags.

Atlanta might be the place where one of these two drivers — underdogs or not — can finally stop answering questions about when they’re going to win.

Three true underdogs

Bubba Wallace is an underdog with an advantage: He is good at superspeedways, with one win and three second-place finishes. Like Blaney, he didn’t finish lower than 17th at any superspeedway in 2022.

But 2023 has not started well for the No. 23 team. Wallace has only one top-five finish (at Las Vegas) and two finishes of 20th or worse. He crashed out at Daytona and retired due to engine trouble at Fontana.

Last week, a 37-second pit stop dropped him from 11th to 21st. That puts his average finish at 17.0 for the year. Atlanta offers Wallace a chance to shift his season onto a better trajectory.

Erik Jones won the summer race at Daytona in 2018, so we know he can compete at superspeedways, too. But Legacy Motor Club has started 2023 with a whimper. Jones’ best finish is 19th. Accidents knocked him out of two of the four races.

The only laps Jones led this year were last week at Phoenix, when he stayed out during green-flag pit stops. A win at Atlanta would be a great backdrop for co-owner Jimmie Johnson returning to race next week at COTA.

Aric Almirola has had a similarly frustrating start to the 2023 season with DNFs at the first two races and a best finish of 16th. He has, however, won two superspeedway races. His average superspeedway finish in 2022 was 13.8 in the Next Gen car. That’s better than his 18.3 average pre-Next Gen.

Almirola will be at a disadvantage at Atlanta: A loose-wheel penalty from Phoenix will bench two of his pit crew for the next two races.

Cindric, McDowell, Haley: Long-shot underdogs at Atlanta

Cindric has the second-highest average finishing position at superspeedways in 2022. That’s not just because he won the Daytona 500 that year.

Cindric had top-10 finishes in the last three superspeedway races last year. He was running around 10th place in this year’s Daytona 500 until a crash. If he can avoid accidents, Cindric’s got a good shot at a strong finish and maybe even Penske’s first win of the season.

Michael McDowell didn’t win the 2021 Daytona 500 by luck. He’s got 12 top-10 finishes at superspeedways while running for decidedly underfunded teams.

McDowell first partnered with owner Bob Jenkins in 2018. Since then, he has a mean finish of 18.2. That puts him ahead of Kyle Larson (23.2), Brad Keselowski (21.4) and Busch (20.6).

Justin Haley won a rain-shortened summer Daytona race in 2019 before he was even a full-time Cup Series driver. He’s the longest of these three long shots, but he’s got a 16.1 career average at superspeedways, the same as his average for 2022. And he’ll need the points after this week’s penalty for modifying his car’s louvers at Phoenix.

I didn’t mention the Trackhouse drivers, who both appear on the graph. I’ll focus Sunday’s column on them.

Read more about NASCAR

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Dr. Diandra: Don’t overlook these underdogs at Atlanta originally appeared on NBCSports.com