The Daytona 500 may be the official season-opener with a level of prestige unlike any other NASCAR race, but in the grand scheme NASCAR's marquee event is an anomaly not at all indicative of the style of racing drivers will largely face throughout the year.
It's why many commonly refer to Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway as the start of the "real season," with the 1.5-mile venue similarly sized to the majority of tracks comprising the Sprint Cup schedule. While information gathered at Daytona can only be applied to Talladega Superspeedway, anything gleaned at Atlanta could be applicable to any of the other mile-and-a-half tracks on the schedule.
Atlanta is also the season debut of the new low downforce aerodynamic package NASCAR introduced to juice the on-track product and create more passing at intermediate venues. Featuring a shortened spoiler, smaller radiator pan and less splitter overhang, the intent is to put more control back into drivers' hands.
"I'm excited about the new rules package," Jimmie Johnson said Friday. "The drivers are so excited about the rules package."
The rules were contested a year ago at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington Raceway and the results were overwhelmingly positive. Side-by-side racing was a common sight in both races and the number of passes increased considerably -- Kentucky saw a track-record 22 green-flag lead changes and the amount of green-flag passes overall doubled from the year before.
"I know I had a lot of fun at Kentucky last year, Darlington was a lot of fun," Carl Edwards said. "This race, I think it's going to be all over the place. Like Kyle Busch says, ‘It's going to be nuts,' and you're just going to be sliding all over."
In concert with the changed aero package, Goodyear is bringing a softer tire compound designed to have more falloff over an entirety of a run. Drivers who can manage their tires best will show higher speeds at the end of a cycle, while those who can't will backslide.
Ideally, clean air and track position will no longer be overriding factors into who finishes where.
"You're putting the driver back into the equation, which is part of what we were missing in my opinion," Ryan Newman said.
Good or bad, however, Atlanta may not be a true indicator of whether the low downforce package will be a success due to factors present here but not elsewhere. The venerable track has the oldest surface on the circuit, last repaved in 1997, making it abrasive on tires, which in turn creates additional passing opportunities.
Because just as Daytona is an outlier, in many respects Atlanta is as well. If Sunday is deemed an exciting race, will that be due to the aero package, or the greater tire wear brought about by aged asphalt?
"I've felt like the surface of this track has always created the slick conditions," Johnson said. "As rough as it is and how porous the asphalt is, it just continues to create an environment that we love regardless of rules package or tire that shows up. It's always fun here."
And teams have feverishly been working on negating the impact of the low downforce package, finding measures to give a car more mechanical grip. Johnson expects that, by the end of the season, engineers will have reclaimed the bulk of, if not all, the downforce NASCAR took away.
Johnson and Edwards are among a contingent of drivers who would like the sanctioning body to continue instituting measures to remove downforce. Because if less is more, than even less is better.
"We just need to keep taking downforce away," Edwards said. "These teams will innovate. No matter what the rules are, we're going to get the absolute most downforce and side-force we can and therefore, if NASCAR stays ahead of that curve it will be better."