Despite a disappointing crash on the final lap of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, rookie Ryan Blaney and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane team are off to a strong start to the team’s first full-time campaign since 2008.
The Wood Brothers team enters this weekend’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway 23rd in the Sprint Cup car owner standings, two points out of the top 20 and 10 points out of the top 15.
More importantly, as crew chief Jeremy Bullins points out, their overall performance at Atlanta shows the team has good speed in its No. 21 Ford Fusion. That’s especially significant at this point in the season because Atlanta was the first race this year using the new lower downforce aerodynamic package that will be run at most tracks this year.
For most of the day at Atlanta, Blaney kept the Motorcraft/Quick Lane car running from 12th to 14th, despite the long green flag runs that consumed most of the afternoon.
Bullins said that going into Atlanta he figured a top-15 finish would be an appropriate goal.
“When I think about our first trip to Atlanta with Ryan, and what a grind that race can be, and how tough it is as a driver, I feel like if we had come away with a top fifteen, we all would have considered that a success,” Bullins said. “Well, we were close. We were in position to finish about thirteenth before we got wrecked on the last lap after running in the top fifteen most of the day.”
As the circuit moves on from Atlanta to Las Vegas, another of the 1.5-mile, intermediate-length tracks on the circuit, Bullins believes the team is on the right track with the lower downforce package, even though the tracks aren’t all that similar in many ways. Atlanta’s surface is old and abrasive, while Las Vegas isn’t as worn and rough on tires as AMS.
“I wish I could say that we learned a lot about what to do for Vegas and we certainly learned a lot, but Vegas and Atlanta differ quite a bit so some things won't carry over,” he said. “But, we know where our intermediate package stands against the competition and what we need to work on, so it does give us some direction.”
“Fortunately we have some extra practice time in Vegas, and we have a strong list of things to test to get some speed from our Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion.”
That extra time comes in the form of an open test day on Thursday before the Sprint Cup teams get into the regular race weekend, beginning with practice and qualifying Friday and concluding with a 400-mile run on Sunday.
This time around, Bullins will face a different challenge than the previous Sunday at AMS, where extreme tire wear limits a crew chief’s options.
“The biggest difference calling a race in Vegas versus Atlanta is at Atlanta tire wear is so high you're locked into a four-tire strategy all day,” he said. “Las Vegas has the potential to open up fuel-only or two-tire stops if the circumstances allow.”
“That gives you the opportunity to use strategy to gain track position where Atlanta you just have to pass cars on the race track.”
Qualifying for the Kobalt 400 is set for Friday at 5:45 p.m. eastern, and the race is set to see the green flag fly just after 3 p.m. eastern on Sunday with TV coverage on FOX.