Monster Energy Cup Series: Drivers to watch at Atlanta

by Bryan Nolen On Fri, Feb. 22, 2019

The Monster Energy Cup Series started the 2019 season with the 61st annual Daytona 500 and while the Great American race has come and gone, the series doesn’t sleep, and the true test begins in Atlanta this weekend.

Atlanta Motor Speedway is the home to all 3 major series for the weekend and there are tons of variables that could confuse teams. How will the new aero package affect teams? How will the new left side tire compounds work for the racing? Will we see pack racing like we saw last week in Daytona?

All of these questions are unknowns till we see cars on the track but who are some of the guys you should keep your eye on this week? Let’s dive into some of the drivers that could be up at the front on Sunday in Atlanta.

Jimmie Johnson: For the seven time champion, it was a prayer from the heavens that Johnson escaped Daytona with an 8th place finish. He was involved in a wreck heading onto to pit road when the 31 of Tyler Reddick collided with the back of the Ally Chevy after Reddick’s car got hit by the two Rick Ware Racing cars. He kept digging and avoiding the two big wrecks at the end of the race to come out of Daytona, with a Top 10. This was also the first race with new crew chief Kevin Meendering.

What should we expect from Johnson in Atlanta? Well, the track record is fairly good for the El Cajon, California native. He leads all active drivers with 5 wins, 14 Top 5’s and 16 Top 10’s. Even though the Hendrick Motorsports elder hasn’t won in 60 races, don’t be surprised we see the bright purple Ally Chevy into Victory Lane, come Sunday afternoon. Should Johnson end up breaking the winless streak, dating back to Spring Dover race in 2017, it would mark Johnson’s 84th career win; tying him with the NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for fourth on the all-time wins list.

Denny Hamlin: Unlike Johnson, Hamlin broke his winless streak at the Greatest Spectacle in racing, the Daytona 500, last week in Daytona. The true test begins this week, for the Chesterfield, Virginia alum. Hamlin has won before in Atlanta, but it was in 2012 when the race was in September. He battled Kevin Harvick last year in Atlanta, exchanging the lead with the Stewart Haas driver six time over the last 110 laps. Harvick went on to win the race while Hamlin fell to a fourth place run. Hamlin also has 7 Top 10’s and a pole at one of the oldest tracks in the Cup Series so don’t be shocked if you see the 11 in the Top 5 on Sunday.

Kevin Harvick: It was a rough day for the defending Atlanta race winner in Daytona as he finished 26th at Daytona after being collected in a crash on lap 194 of the 207-lap race. It is a new week and for Harvick, it should be no surprise he is the man to beat come this weekend. The Bakersfield, CA native won his first career race in 2001 at this race track in an emotional victory lane as he took over the wheel of the #3 (which switched numbers to #29) of Dale Earnhardt. Harvick has had 7 top 5’s, 13 top 10’s along with two poles at the rough and ragged track that is known to be called Atlanta Motor Speedway. With a win on Sunday, Harvick would tie Buck Backer for 16th on the all time win’s list with 46 MENCS victories. Look for Harvick to be around the lead pack and in contention for the trophy at the end of the day of Sunday.

Kyle Busch: It was once again, frustration for the JGR driver, as Busch finished second (his career finish at the Daytona 500) and one spot short of receiving that Harley J Earl trophy for the Las Vegas native but Busch does come to Atlanta with a milestone. With starting the Cup race on Sunday, the 2015 Cup champion will achieve his 500th career start in the series. Busch has two wins at Atlanta (2008 and 2013) and his car owner Joe Gibbs, has 11 Cup wins total at the track.

Busch will also be competing in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series on Saturday afternoon and with a win in that series, it would make him the truck series’ all time winningest driver in Truck Series history. It should not be a surprise to see Busch in Victory Lane…more than once this weekend in Atlanta.

Dark Horse: Matt DiBenedetto:

The Grass Valley, CA shocked many, many people on Sunday when he took the lead in the Daytona 500 and led the most laps (49) before getting caught up in the big one on Lap 190. DiBenedetto, driving for Levine Family Racing, has teamed up with Joe Gibbs racing to form an alliance to help the 95 throughout the season. DiBenedetto is in the best equipment he has had in the Cup Series and could be contending for wins later on in the season. Look for Dibenedetto to have a solid run this weekend.

Who is your pick to win the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta on Sunday? Tell us in your comments, below!

Catch the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at 2:00 PM ET on FOX

Follow Bryan on Twitter @TheBryanNolen for all the latest on NASCAR news, rumors, and more.

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