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A Track Built for Next Gen: Atlanta Delivers Cup Series All-Time Classic


Photo Credit: FOX Sports

24 hours ago, NASCAR fans were frustrated. An Xfinity Series race headlined by fuel saving and train racing ended unceremoniously with yet another Austin Hill victory, leaving many wondering whether the sport had butchered another classic track, accusations they have already faced for the diminished product at both Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway in recent years.

Now, fans just witnessed an all-time classic. Even with the normal dose of superspeedway carnage, the racing in Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series event at Atlanta Motor Speedway was intense, yet respectful, for the full 260 laps, culminating in an unbelievable three-wide photo finish.

Daniel Suarez, who entered this season very much on a "prove it deal" with Trackhouse Racing, who have both Shane van Gisbergen and Zane Smith in the pipeline, played his cards perfectly, getting a run on the outside of Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney for the narrow triumph at the stripe. Suarez won by just 0.003 seconds over Blaney, with Kyle Busch a distant 0.007 seconds behind. The finish was the third closest in NASCAR Cup Series history, and the closest since 2011, according to FOX Sports' Bob Pockrass.

But the race was more than merely a historic final lap. The results were an embodiment of what was undoubtedly the best day for the sport in the Next Gen era, and proved a very crucial point: Atlanta Motor Speedway, in its current configuration, is built for the Next Gen car.

The Story of the Next Gen

For those who don't follow NASCAR very closely, the sport is in a unique situation right now. The Cup Series, NASCAR's premiere division, is in its third season driving the aforementioned Next Gen car, a future-focused body that is likely the first step towards the eventual implementation of a hybrid engine package.

While the Cup Series is looking ahead, NASCAR's other two national touring divisions, the Xfinity Series and Craftsman Truck Series, are continuing to harken back to the past, with teams fielding nearly identical car bodies for the past decade. Thus, with all three series racing together at the same venues most weekends, striking a balance between the past and future have been difficult.

Where the Sport Goes from Here

Although all three series deserve care and consideration from those in power, the Cup Series is the revenue driver. The Xfinity Series and Truck Series products might suffer a bit, but having a track like Atlanta Motor Speedway on the schedule twice annually is a massive boost to the Cup Series slate. All five races have been spectacles, and last summer's event was trending towards being a classic itself before weather interfered. Today was simply the proof in the pudding that the Next Gen car is at its best on these types of configurations.

This begs the question: should NASCAR reconfigure any other ovals? The answer is no. There are currently six "drafting tracks" on the schedule, and any more would creation a dilution similar to when the sport added too many road courses as a reactionary move to the success of the Charlotte ROVAL a few years ago. The sport is currently in a sweet spot, but one thing is for certain: Atlanta Motor Speedway absolutely deserves its two dates on the schedule, and the postseason opener there in the fall will be must-watch.

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