Ask Ryan Blaney about this weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Team Penske driver gives a noticeable pause as contemplates the uncertainty he faces heading into the second race of the season.
Blaney’s pause is understandable with the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 the first race featuring the 2019 aerodynamic rules package that was designed to slow the cars down by reducing horsepower with the intent to create additional passing opportunities on intermediate-sized speedways. Precisely the kind of track the 1.54-mile Atlanta is. And with this package not used in the season-opening Daytona 500, this weekend represents the first time many drivers, including Blaney, will get to experience the rules package in either race or test conditions.
“I am trying not to anticipate much just because I haven’t driven the new package,” Blaney told NASCAR.com. “I try not to think about it too much. I just want to go out because you don’t know what to expect yet.
“We’ll just have to see how [the package] drives and how it races. I’m very curious.”
Although Blaney didn’t take part in a test over the offseason, Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and defending Cup champion Joey Logano each participated in different tests where they got a feel for the new rules package. Keselowski tested at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, while Logano tested at Auto Club Speedway. Keselowski posted the fastest single-lap speed (of the non-wheel force cars, 178.436 mph) in one of the three sessions at Las Vegas, site of next week’s NASCAR tripleheader weekend that includes races for all three national series.
Not only did Blaney solicit feedback from both his teammates, he also watched the stream of the Las Vegas test to form his own opinion. From his conversations with Keselowski and Logano, as well as his own observations, Blaney believes drivers will have to balance pursuing speed with getting their car to handle properly.
“It’s a pretty interesting game of how far do you want to trim your car out for overall speed versus handling,” Blaney said. “There were some cars that handled really well but maybe were a little bit slower at the beginning of a run. But, there were cars that were really fast at getting a run [on other cars] because the cars were trimmed-out but as the tires went away they became a handful to hang onto.
“It’s going to be neat to see how teams go about finding a middle ground. It’s just not something we’ve dealt with before in the Cup Series.”
Figuring out the quirks of the rules package is not the only unknown Blaney is dealing with this weekend, Atlanta is also just the second race for the new Ford Mustang. And since there is little correlation between 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway and the high-speed Atlanta oval with an abrasive surface that greatly increases tire wear there wasn’t much Ford and its teams learned during Daytona Speedweeks that can be applied to Atlanta.
Ford’s switch to a different model style comes a season after the manufacturer dominated on the track. In addition to Logano capturing the Cup title, Ford drivers combined to win 19 of 36 races and their collective performance delivered Ford its first manufacturer championship since 2002.
Nonetheless, the expectation within the Ford camp is that even with a new car and the inevitable growing pains that come with it, their drivers will be able to replicate their many successes from a year ago.
“It’s hard to improve on last year, we won a lot of races, but we’re always trying to be better,” Blaney said. “I love the look of them at Daytona; I thought they were really fast at Daytona. And you hope that carryovers to every other racetrack.”