The Hendrick Motorsports 2019 renaissance did not begin at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
All four Hendrick drivers finished outside the top 10 on Sunday. Alex Bowman was the highest-finishing driver in 15th. William Byron was 17th. Chase Elliott was 19th. And Jimmie Johnson finished 24th.
Elliott could have gotten a better finish if he wasn’t trapped on pit road when the race’s final caution came out. But, like many others, he was pitting when Ryan Preece ran into B.J. McLeod and caused a caution after spilling fluid all over the apron.
Elliott’s team tried to use a two-tire stop to their advantage and get out ahead of the leaders as Preece caused the caution. But, according to NASCAR, they got trapped a lap down. Elliott was confused, to say the least, after the race.
Our @Cody_Fox5 caught up with Chase Elliott after the race @amsupdates, he's frustrated with a NASCAR ruling — had to do with not getting lucky dog free pass while he was on pit road as caution came out. Cody is working to get more on the ruling. pic.twitter.com/vy4Hcfq4sh
— FOX 5 Sports (@FOX5Sports) February 24, 2019
The four teammates combined to lead a grand total of zero laps in the first intermediate track race after a season where Elliott was the only Hendrick driver to visit victory lane.
Sunday’s race was the first under NASCAR’s 2019 rules with lower horsepower and more downforce. While the rules at next week’s race at Las Vegas will be different once again with the introduction of aero ducts, whatever handling and speed issues Hendrick had Sunday aren’t a good omen. Unless what happened at Atlanta is simply a fluke.
Kyle Larson finishes 12th after penalty
Kyle Larson might have had the fastest car at Atlanta on Sunday. But a speeding penalty on pit road in the final stage prevented that car from challenging for the race win.
Larson led 142 of the race’s 325 laps. But his final lap led was on lap 223. That was when an quickly-thrown caution was displayed for Kyle Busch’s flat tire. Larson then sped on pit road on the ensuing pit stops and was dropped to the tail end of the field because of the penalty.
He never made the track position back up. Larson said after the race that dirty air — turbulent air that causes aerodynamic downforce to be minimized because of cars ahead — was worse at Atlanta with NASCAR’s new rules in 2019 than it was in previous years.
“Yeah, I would say so,” Larson said. “I mean the big spoiler just punches such a big hole and you lose downforce behind people. I lost a lot of front grip once I went to the back. I felt like I could run really good through [turns] 1 and 2 for a long time. I could never do that once I got in the traffic.”
Yes, it’s just one race, but Larson’s comments are a horrible sign for those optimistic about NASCAR’s new rules at intermediate tracks (minus the air ducts). If teams are having a harder time passing each other despite the slower speeds and increased grip, the new rules aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.
B.J. McLeod was pitting with a flat tire
If you were wondering why B.J. McLeod was driving so slowly on pit road before he got hit by Ryan Preece, it’s because he said he had a flat tire.
BJ McLeod said his team needed that car for Vegas and with the flat tire, he came down pit road. He didn’t want to be on pit road at the time of the wreck … pic.twitter.com/abUwZR4z2G
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) February 24, 2019
Preece was running in the top 10 at the time of his pit stop and hit McLeod after he had exited his pit. Preece said on his team’s radio that he had looked down at his tachometer right before he hit McLeod.
“I was just trying to make sure I wasn’t speeding,” Preece said. “And when I looked up, he was coming in the pits. So, it’s a mistake. What are you going to do? It’s just unfortunate for us because we were having a really good run.”
While it’s fair to wonder if McLeod should have been in the inside lane before he got to his pit, it’s worth remembering that Preece was the one who hit him from behind. And that there’s a reason why drivers who run into others from behind in street accidents are the ones who get faulted. Fox play-by-play announcer Mike Joy should have remembered that. His unhappiness with McLeod in the incident was incredibly clear to the viewing audience, despite it being clear that the majority of blame for the incident fell to Preece.
Darrell Waltrip’s analysis continues to be brutal
A week ago at Daytona, Darrell Waltrip said he expected to see some of the same racing that he saw at the 2.5-mile restrictor plate track at Atlanta. That, predictably, was incredibly off base. Atlanta’s worn pavement and multiple grooves made for racing that didn’t come close to resembling what NASCAR fans witnessed at Daytona.
Sunday at Atlanta, Waltrip had another gem of an analysis with a comment that NASCAR drivers complained that Cup Series cars had become too hard to drive and that’s why NASCAR decided to add downforce to the cars.
Case in point on Darrell Waltrip:
There was no public movement among drivers that Cup cars were “too hard” to drive in 2018. If anything, a plurality of drivers were unhappy with the changes NASCAR was making for 2019.
Yet, in Waltrip’s analysis… pic.twitter.com/kdaqfhn2Bf
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) February 24, 2019
Waltrip was a breath of fresh air when he became a NASCAR TV personality in 2001. He was sharp and insightful after he had recently retired from driving. Now, nearly 20 years later, Waltrip is a caricature of himself. And that’s incredibly unfortunate.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
Follow @NickBromberg on Twitter
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