William Byron rolls into Atlanta with history, momentum riding shotgun

An old saying around the garages 20 years ago was the way to make a new NASCAR fan was by bringing them to Daytona or Bristol.

Times have changed, and the modern-day equivalent has become Atlanta Motor Speedway, the site of Sunday’s Ambetter Health 400 and where the racing and finishes have improved dramatically with the alternations on the 1.54-mile layout.

The Hampton, Ga., track was re-profiled after its final race on the old setup in 2021, and the results have proved to be exciting for the fans and rather harrowing for the drivers.

Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its turns steepened from 24 to 28 degrees, and the racing surface was narrowed from 55 to 40 feet wide. Lastly, the worn coating of asphalt was replaced with a new black surface.

While the configuration essentially remained the same, the end result was a much faster track with the fresh asphalt, more tight competition with slimmer grooves and an opportunity for more daring moves with fewer lanes to race in.

“With high banks in the turns, narrower width and new pavement technology, Atlanta will be unlike any other mile-and-a-half track on the circuit,” Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith said of the changes.

Last season’s races produced thrilling wins by Joey Logano and William Byron, the winner under caution of Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 as darkness consumed the fabled 2.5-mile superspeedway.

The defending race winner, Logano made a clean pass of former teammate Brad Keselowski on the final lap for the win last March.

“The coolest thing about this was that two veterans showed you can run a race here — side-by-side, bump-drafting — and not wreck the field,” said Keselowski after seeing Logano lead 140 of 260 laps and win by 0.193 seconds.

Byron might be up to his winning ways from his wondrous weekend at the World Center of Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series’ biggest race. In his seventh Cup season, the 26-year-old Byron is building quite a resume for himself.

He claimed Atlanta Motor Speedway’s rain-shortened Quaker State 400 last July, winning for the fourth time in 2023’s first 19 races.

With 75 laps remaining, the Charlotte, N.C., native was leading when rain drenched the track, forcing NASCAR to deem the race official with another giant storm looming.

So far through six campaigns and one race in 2024, Byron has notched 11 victories in 217 starts while driving the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, piloted famously by four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon.

Byron, who had a series-high six victories a year ago, has made winning look easy at times, though he came up short of a title in the Championship 4 finale at Phoenix.

“He was already a superstar,” Gordon said. “He just went to another level of being a superstar. I wasn’t driving the car, but I feel like I was making every lap with him out there.”

Byron’s 11 triumphs have occurred at nine tracks: Daytona (twice), Atlanta (twice), Homestead, Martinsville, Phoenix, Texas, Watkins Glen, Darlington and Las Vegas.