Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Turn 1: After the first week of the new reduced-downforce package, who is in good shape and who may be in trouble?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson will be at the head of the class come November, that I feel certain about. Drivers in the most trouble will be those who are less open-minded toward the change created from the reduced downforce package. That typically means older drivers who are generally less willing to experiment in the way of exotic or creative car setups. It's difficult to teach old dogs new tricks.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: I still think the guys we saw had great years in 2014 but dropped off considerably last year are primed for a rebound. Especially Jeff Gordon ... oh ... wait ...
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Atlanta may not be as irrelevant as Daytona in terms of predicting the rest of the season, but it is out of step with the rest of the 1.5-mile intermediate tracks because of the abrasive surface. So it's not fair to draw any hard conclusions. The driver who didn't run as well as I expected was Brad Keselowski, continuing a trend from Daytona. Looking ahead, I think Danica Patrick will be adversely affected more than most drivers by the low downforce package because of her preference for a solidly planted car with a slight push.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Atlanta, which chews tires so much that Goodyear has a special tire just for that track, isn't the best indication. But the driver who seemed most off at Atlanta was Clint Bowyer. He might need more time to get adjusted to a new team, a team still in its relative infancy, but those types of organizations often need weeks to correct their woes. Joey Logano appeared to have trouble in qualifying, but he looked OK in the race. In good shape are several of those who have been good the past few years -- Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson. The Atlanta results also should give the Roush Fenway stable some hope.
Turn 2: After a week to digest Stewart-Haas Racing's move to Ford next season, how surprised were you? What do you think will be the team's biggest challenge?
Craven: I was surprised because of the team's affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports and the technological value that comes with that. Stewart-Haas' primary headwind will be a lack of information from Hendrick as the season goes long and as the Hendrick race cars evolve. Call it what you will ... but considering the timing of the announcement and the depth of the change, this is the equivalent of organizational divorce.
McGee: I wasn't surprised at the move as much as I was when it happened. I didn't see that announcement coming. No one did. But it was no secret that SHR was chatting around. When you're a dependent on a larger team (Hendrick) and you start beating that team on a pretty regular basis, there's no way it can't get weird. So in that respect, you maybe could have predicted some sort of move at some point. That being said, when those cars are running around next year with blue ovals on the nose, that'll take some getting used to.
Oreovicz: In terms of keeping a secret in the racing industry, this ranks right up there with the special Mercedes-Benz-branded engine that Team Penske rolled out for the 1994 Indianapolis 500. The biggest reason I'm shocked is I never expected Tony Stewart to cut ties with General Motors and Chevrolet. "Smoke" wasn't exactly a team player for his manufacturer in the single year that he drove for Toyota with Joe Gibbs Racing, and I figured he was a GM lifer. Stewart-Haas apparently believes direct manufacturer support from Ford will be of greater benefit than the team alliance it has with Hendrick Motorsports under the Chevrolet umbrella, and it will be interesting to see whether GM takes a more centralized role for its teams similar to Toyota and Ford in the future.
Pockrass: Surprised, not shocked. Ford has sought another big team, but it was a surprise Ford actually got the deal done with SHR. The team's biggest challenge will be building its own chassis, and if performance does take a step backward during the transition in 2017, it faces the challenge of keeping confidence up among its superstar drivers.
Turn 3: There were 39 cars entered in Atlanta, one fewer than allowed. NASCAR says a "full" field is 36 cars, but there can be up to four more. Does that math wash with NASCAR fans?
Craven: It has to. The fact is 36 cars are guaranteed to represent each race and the opportunity for four additional cars exists -- but that doesn't mean we will see them. I've received several calls from friends, family and fans asking about 39 cars starting Atlanta. So it absolutely is confusing for people, but it's something we will adjust to.
McGee: No. But I have to be honest. Most of the same people complaining to me about 36-car fields are the ones who used to complain to me about start-and-parks and how they were gaming the 43-car system. You know me, I love rooting for the little guy. But I grew up watching races with 30-something cars in the field, all the way up until 1997. I'm not going to lose much sleep over this.
Oreovicz: No, it doesn't, because they have been used to seeing 43 car fields for so long that even at 40, they feel like they are being shortchanged. NASCAR says the move is about quality over quantity, and certainly start-and-parks and field-fillers generally don't add anything to the show. But at a time when seemingly everything else in NASCAR is shrinking (attendance, TV ratings, etc.), the perception of a smaller field isn't helping.
Pockrass: The math doesn't wash, but a good race isn't based on math. A good race is based on competitiveness, and this system rewards serious, yearlong efforts. With the struggle of underfunded teams, that makes sense. With NASCAR getting the deal done just a week before the season started, no one knew for absolutely sure the rules for this season. It just sucks for the team that can't come every week and wanted to run a partial schedule of big races this year. NASCAR is leaving part of its roots of being open to anyone with a car and an engine, but that is available in all other series except Cup, so I'm good with it.
Turn 4: If his career ended now, what is Jimmie Johnson's place in the sport?
Craven: One of the five greatest drivers to ever compete in NASCAR. Considering the long runway ahead, he has the potential to be No. 1.
McGee: On Mount Rushmore. I've always reserved those spots for guys who had crazy numbers but also had a tremendous impact for the sport away from the racetrack. Until know it's been Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. Johnson isn't done yet. I don't know that he has done the kind of sport-altering steering of NASCAR that those first four did. But by the time he's done, his statistics alone will be so overwhelming, stats that were piled up during a much more difficult era competition-wise -- Chase, lucky dog, wave-arounds, deeper fields, etc. -- it will be impossible to make an argument against him.
Oreovicz: He's clearly one of the all-time greats, the best so far in the 21st century and the uncontested greatest from the decade of 2000 to 2010. Things get tricky when you start comparing eras, but put it this way: Johnson's name belongs in good company with those of Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, Earnhardt and Gordon.
Pockrass: He deserves a place on NASCAR's Mount Rushmore with Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and David Pearson. Yes, I know that leaves Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison and Jeff Gordon off the mountain. Johnson's six championships, including five consecutive championships in a system where you had to display greatness for 10 consecutive weeks, puts him on there.