HAMPTON, Ga. — After the glitz of Daytona, it's time for the NASCAR grind.
The Sprint Cup drivers returned to the track Thursday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, getting an extra day to test out the new rules package that will be in effect for the first time.
"This really feels like the start of the season," said Kyle Larson, who ranked second behind Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray during the first practice session on a cool, windy day at the 1.54-mile trioval.
The Daytona 500 is in a class of its own, the biggest event of the year coming right at the start of the schedule. The race Sunday will be more in line with the bulk of the grueling schedule, which will lead to a champion finally being crowned in November.
Also, since the races at Daytona and Talladega are run with a special restrictor-plate package that was largely unchanged from 2014, this will be the first event with the new rules. The horsepower has been reduced significantly, going from 840 to 725, and the rear spoiler was shortened from 8 to 6 inches. Most intriguingly, drivers now have the option of controlling the track bar from inside the car, allowing them to adjust the rear balance during the race, altering the way their machine handles.
"It's nice to put a little bit more in the drivers' hands," Larson said.
Carl Edwards wasn't quite as thrilled with his new toy. The switch was installed on the steering wheel, so he worries about making an adjustment inadvertently. Or, even worse, having it get stuck during a change, going to one extreme or the other.
"This is an opportunity to screw ourselves up more than it helps us," said Edwards, getting ready for his second race with the new No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing. "I will probably not mess with mine too much."
McMurray posted the fastest speed during the opening practice, turning a lap of 191.549 mph. Larson was next at 190.195, followed by defending Cup champion Kevin Harvick at 189.850. Speeds dropped off in the second session, led by Jeff Gordon's lap of 188.424.
Edwards was further back but there's no track he enjoys more than Atlanta, the site of his first career victory. He couldn't help but notice a photo in the media center of him beating Jimmie Johnson by just a few feet in that 2005 race.
"The picture is kind of hidden behind the coffee machine and the doughnuts," he quipped, "but that was a turning point in my life."
Echoing Larson's comments, Edwards said this feels like another season opener. Restrictor-plate racing is basically pushing the pedal to the floor for 500 miles and hoping you avoid the inevitable wrecks that occur when the field is bunched together for long periods of time.
The drivers will have more of a say in who pulls into Victory Lane in Atlanta.
"It's a fast track with a lot of character," Edwards said. "I could race here every week and be happy."
To make it safer, track officials announced plans to extend the SAFER foam barrier by 130 feet at the exit of pit road near Turn 1, in addition to installing a tire barrier along the inside wall of Turn 4.
The move follows a hard crash at Daytona that left Kyle Busch with a broken right leg and left foot. During the Xfinity Series race, he slammed into a concrete wall that was unprotected by a SAFER barrier, forcing him to miss the biggest event of the year and putting him out of action indefinitely.
Matt Crafton, a regular in the Truck series, took over the No. 18 car in the Daytona 500. David Ragan has been tapped to fill in for Busch at Atlanta and the next several weeks.
Ragan was given permission by his regular team, Front Row Motorsports, to take over Busch's seat at Joe Gibbs Racing. Joe Nemechek was hired to replace Ragan in the No. 34 machine at Atlanta, which has 48 entries. Five drivers will be sent home after qualifying, putting the pressure on low-budget teams to make the 43-car field or possibly run out of money to carry on to future events.
Uncertain of a full-season ride at Front Row because of sponsorship issues, Ragan jumped at the chance to race for one of the sport's top teams, even if it's just a temporary move while Busch recovers.
"I'm going to work hard to be a better driver and a great teammate the next several weeks," Ragan said. "I'm only going to be better when I get back in the 34 car later in the season."