NASCAR

Five drivers to watch in Atlanta this weekend

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If you haven’t followed the changes in NASCAR for the 2017 season, get ready.

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Stock car racing’s top circuit went through some drastic changes during the offseason. For starters, Monster Energy replaced Sprint as the title sponsor. Then there’s a scoring overhaul that breaks each race into three stages, with points awarded after each stage, and changes in the pits will force more cars to exit races early.

Changing with the times? Or just trying to mitigate a decline in interest and television ratings? Racing looks different this year, starting with last week’s Daytona 500 in which Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick picked up stage wins before Kurt Busch emerged late to take the checkered flag.

Race No. 2 under the new format takes place on Sunday (Monday in Manila) at Atlanta Motor Speedway with the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Will the old guard continue to dominate? Or will a new driver emerge in the winner’s circle?

Here’s a look at five drivers to keep an eye on this weekend in Hampton, which will be hosting its final Monster Energy Cup Series race before the track is repaved:

Jimmie Johnson – Any discussion of what might happen this weekend must start with the No. 48 car. Johnson won the past two Monster Energy Cup races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and he is the reigning series champion. He was involved in a wreck on lap 128 at Daytona, ending his day early, and he’ll be looking to reset things at a track where he feels comfortable.

Chase Elliott – Admit it, Georgians: You wanted the siren to go off on Sunday at the Dawsonville Pool Room. You almost got your wish, as Elliott led down the stretch before running out of fuel in the final laps. Elliott, who took over Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 ride, is shaping himself up to become NASCAR’s next big driver, and making his home state track the site of his first Monster Energy Cup victory would be extra special.

Kurt Busch – Busch flipped from Chevrolet to Ford this year as part of a move by Stewart-Haas Racing, and Elliott’s misfortune became Busch’s time to shine. After finishing second on three occasions earlier in his career, the veteran driver won his first Daytona 500 last week. He finished seventh in the points race last year, and the early win has him on pace for a spot in the playoffs.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – After concussion issues plagued his 2016 schedule, Earnhardt returned last week, only to be sidelined by a wreck on lap 104. There are a lot of high hopes for Earnhardt this year, and there’s a chance Atlanta could put him back on track.

David Ragan – The Unadilla native hasn’t won since Talladega in 2013, and both of his Monster Energy Cup victories have come on restrictor-plate tracks. Back with Front Row Motorsports after a slow year with BK Racing, Ragan finished 25th at Daytona after showing good speed in practice. His best spring finish at Atlanta came two years ago when he finished 18th while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing; he had an eighth-place finish for Roush Fenway Racing in the 2008 fall race.

TNS

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