Chase Elliott is a former NASCAR Cup Series champion and currently the 2022 title leader. But finally scoring a dramatic victory Sunday afternoon at his home track – Atlanta Motor Speedway – in front of a vocal and adoring home crowd ranks right up there as far as he’s concerned.
Elliott’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet led a race best 96 of the 260 laps and held off a charging field to win Sunday’s Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart, ultimately securing the trophy when the caution flag came out in the closing portion of the frenzied final lap.
Corey LaJoie, who was dueling it out with Elliott on that last lap, brought out that caution after hitting the wall on the backstretch in a final attempt to pull alongside and pass Elliott for what would have also been a popular first career NASCAR Cup Series victory for the well-liked LaJoie.
“This one’s up there for sure, to win at your home track is a real big deal I think to any race car driver,’’ said Elliott, 26, of nearby Dawsonville, Ga. “I watched a lot of guys do it over the years, Jimmie [Johnson] out in California. We haven’t really had a very good run here, so I felt like today was a good opportunity for us.
“I’m just so proud. This is obviously home for me and home to a lot of great fans who made a lot of noise today. Couldn’t be more proud of our team.”
Obviously disappointed not to earn the victory, but not disheartened, LaJoie said he was encouraged by the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet team’s work on Sunday and boosted by the confidence of being in position to win late in a race.
“Closest I’ve ever been, for sure that was fun’’ LaJoie said. “I’m proud of my guys at Spire and everyone whose helped us out.
“I made my move and it didn’t work out, and the siren is ringing in Dawsonville (Ga.) unfortunately,’’ LaJoie said referencing the famed Dawsonville (Ga.) Pool Room where the owners ring a bell to celebrate each of Elliott’s victories.
With 27 lead changes among 12 drivers and 13 caution periods, it was an eventful day on the newly reconfigured and re-paved Atlanta Motor Speedway’s 1.54-mile track. And there was plenty of drama from the hometown kid winning his series-best third race of the year to several dust-ups among popular drivers.
Ross Chastain, who had a busy day on track and was part of a couple of those incidents, rallied to finish runner-up to Elliott.
“I hated that I took the best car here and I tore it up a couple times, but yeah, it’s incredible,’’ Chastain said of rebounding to score his fifth top two finish of the season.
“Hats off to Chevrolet and Trackhouse for bringing this fast of a Jockey Chevrolet to be able to come back. Our road crew and pit crew did an awesome job to rebound through all the damage repair and we had a shot and I got inside of the 9 [Elliott] coming off [turn] 2 coming to the checkered and the caution came out.”
After being collected in a nine-car accident just before the race’s mid-point, Chastain worked his way forward again only to make contact with veteran Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin as the two were running in the top 10 late in the race. The pair have had run-ins previously this season and Hamlin, whose car was badly damaged, was not happy after the race.
“Everyone has different tolerance levels and as you all know, I’ve reached my peak,’’ Hamlin said.
Team Penske rookie Austin Cindric – winner of the season opening Daytona 500 – finished third, with Petty GMS Motorsports’ Erik Jones and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney rounding out the top five.
Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate Daniel Suarez was sixth, followed by Justin Haley, Aric Almirola, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick rounding out the top 10.
With the victory, Elliott extended his championship lead over Blaney to 47 points. Chastain is now third, 50 points behind Elliott.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to competition next weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with the Ambetter 301 on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola is the defending race winner.
Elliott, Chastain, Blaney Separating Themselves As Championship Favorites
As we reached the midway mark of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, parity was the king phrase used for the sport this year. 13 winners in 18 races led to a lot of uncertainty on not only who looked like a championship favorite, let alone finding 4 drivers who would be represented in the Championship 4 this Fall in Phoenix as well.
But, as we’ve now officially crossed into the 2nd half of the season with Atlanta being the 19th race of the 36 slate calendar, 3 drivers are really starting to separate themselves from the pack.
Chase Elliott has won 2 of the last 3 races including scoring 3 straight top 2’s at that.
Ryan Blaney is right there too. Following 7 top 11 finishes in the first 10 races run of the year in his No. 12 Ford, he followed that up with a dismal stretch of results being 26th, 17th, 12th and 29th respectively. Luckily in there was an All-Star race win to hang his hat on.
However, since that slump, he’s finished in the top 11 for 5 straight weeks now including 4 of the 5 being in the top 6 at that.
Ross Chastain is challenging this duo for the regular season crown too. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has finished in the top 8 in 6 of the last 7 races including his last five results being 8th, 8th, 5th, 4th and 2nd respectively.
Since the Martinsville race this past spring (12 races), Elliott has 9 top 10’s and 5 top 5’s, Blaney has 6 top 10’s, all in the top 6 and Chastain has 9 top 10’s too with 6 top 5’s.
By comparison, Kyle Larson hasn’t won since the 2nd race of the year but does have 5 top 5’s in this span. Joey Logano has 5 top 10’s and 4 top 5’s in this span, but his 2 wins since the end of April are his only top 5’s since then.
Kyle Busch’s last 4 finishes are – 30th, 21st, 29th and 19th respectively. Martin Truex Jr. doesn’t have a top 5 in any of his last 9 starts. Alex Bowman has 1 top 5 in his last 13 starts with his teammate William Byron only having 1 top 10 (9th) in his last 11.
Other than Austin Cindric (4 straight top 7’s) or Daniel Suarez’ 3 top 6’s in his last 4, no one else is as hot as this trio.
Chastain Not Making Any Friends
Ross Chastain is looking more and more like a legitimate Championship 4 contender as the season goes on. For a while, we wondered if his early season success could be sustainable. He had 4 top 3 finishes, all consecutively, in the first 6 races of the year. Was it a byproduct of the Next Gen closing the gap to the newer and smaller teams to the top and if so, how much longer would it take for the big teams to impose their wills again? Or, was it a lucky early season start but reality would eventually strike?
Instead, Chastain and Trackhouse Racing appear to be here for the long-haul. Chastain brought his No. 1 Chevrolet home runner-up in Sunday’s Quaker State 400. It was his 2nd runner-up result in as many races at the Atlanta Motor Speedway this season. His teammate Daniel Suarez brought his No. 99 Chevrolet home in 6th place for his 3rd top 6 finish in the last 4 weeks.
“Not the last couple,” Chastain said if he would have done anything differently on the late race restarts. “Earlier we had an option to take the front row behind Corey (LaJoie). “We were second, and I chose behind him because we were worried about fuel. I knew better. I should have just taken the front row and dealt with the fuel in 60 laps, and we were trying to make sure we could be on offense at the end of the day for our Jockey Chevrolet.
“That would be the one, but on a day like today I feel like we won way more restarts, I feel like my lane moved when I was in it, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of this car and this team to give me that ability to do that.”
This last month, Trackhouse has finished 1-7, 5-15, 4-5, 2-6. That’s at the midway mark of the year at a time most teams are starting to figure this car out which means we need to really start taking this organization seriously.
However, the length of time that Chastain lasts in the playoffs is almost down to simply, how long he wants it to be. Chastain is one of the hottest drivers in the sport right now. No one has as many top 5’s over the last 12 races than Chastain. He has 5 straight top 8 results on the season including 3 consecutive top 5’s at that. The problem is, he’s ruffling a lot of feathers in the garage and he now has to start worrying about payback.
Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott were both mad at him for separate run-ins in Gateway. Hamlin vowed payback. On Sunday alone, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon and Hamlin again all had choice words for him.
“When you’ve got guys like (Ross Chastain) wrecking half of the field, you might as well take a different strategy,” Dillon said after being collected in a crash that was sparked between contact with Martin Truex Jr. and Chastain.
Later, Almirola said “Ross is an (expletive) idiot and he knows it. He better hope I don’t see him at a Food Lion.”
After a 2nd run-in during this race alone between Chastain and Hamlin, this one taking Hamlin for a spin, Hamlin said after the race that, “Everyone has different tolerance levels and as you all know, I’ve reached my peak.”
At what point do these drivers cash in on Chastain’s aggression and take him out? That’s why Chastain has to have his eyes on making amends because in a season that’s seen so much parity and not much of a difference in the playoff standings, he can’t afford a bad race or 2 in the playoffs.
“Yeah, I hated that I took the best car here and I tore it up a couple times, but yeah, it’s incredible,” Chastain said of his day Sunday in Atlanta. “Hats off to Chevrolet and Trackhouse for bringing this fast of a Jockey Chevrolet to be able to come back. Our road crew and pit crew did an awesome job to rebound through all the damage repair, and we had a shot, and I got inside of the 9 coming off of 2, coming to the checkered, and caution came out.”
The thing is, this is what makes Ross Chastain who he is. He’s an aggressive driver. He steps over the line at times and isn’t afraid of the consequences. He’s had to drive this way up through the ranks. It’s what got him to Trackhouse and what has made him a championship contender now.
So why change?
The team doesn’t want him to but how long does the garage keep calm and not take matters into their own hands?
LaJoie Went From Broke, Had Great Attitude Afterwards
Corey LaJoie nearly called his shot for Sunday’s Quaker State 400. He said earlier in the week to nascar.com that his mindset going to this weekend’s race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway was to “throw a Hail Mary and steal one” for the field. LaJoie came as close as he ever has in doing so too.
The Spire Motorsports driver used a fuel only gamble on Lap 192 to exit pit lane first with 68 laps-to-go. Could he stay there?
Even with the Georgia heat being oppressive, the newly paved 1.54-mile race track was more about handling than tires. Without four fresh Goodyear’s, LaJoie stayed up front the rest of the way. He’d lead the next 10 laps before Chase Elliott led Lap 202. LaJoie got him back on Lap 203 and would lead 2 more laps before Elliott got back by. The duo and Martin Truex Jr. would put on a show for the rest of way.
LaJoie led three times for a career-best 19 laps in his No. 7 Chevrolet and came to the choose zone with the top choice coming to the final restart. The North Carolina native chose the low line even with the high lane being the preferred groove. It nearly paid off. LaJoie got a good launch and battled Elliott hard for the win.
Elliott led the white flag lap and with LaJoie moving high with a run, he got hip checked into the outside SAFER barrier by Elliott and ended his dream run with a 21st place result.
“Closest I’ve ever been, for sure that was fun’’ LaJoie said. “I’m proud of my guys at Spire and everyone whose helped us out.“I made my move and it didn’t work out, and the siren is ringing in Dawsonville (Ga.) unfortunately,’’ LaJoie said referencing the famed Dawsonville (Ga.) Pool Room where the owners ring a bell to celebrate each of Elliott’s victories.
It definitely is. Elliott scored his 3rd win of the season by virtue of that.
“Well, I mean, obviously I knew he was going to have a big run,” Elliott said of the final lap. “I didn’t really want to give him the bottom, and I tried to give it one real good aggressive block. Felt like I had enough room to kind of give it a second one, and he was just right there on the right side of my back bumper, so was far enough to the backside of the bumper to launch me forward. I hate I tore up some cars, but I don’t know what you do, either go for the win or don’t. I’m going to choose option A every day of the week.
“I hate to throw a mega block like that. I had kind of shied away from that big block throughout the day. Had always kind of given in at different points to a guy when they had that big of a run.
“But heck, running the last lap, if you let him go, one of two things can happen. Okay, you choose the lane you want to lose in and you hope that you have enough time to go and get him back. Or you throw a big block and hope you can stay in front of him. The problem is it could go one of two ways for you. Obviously you can crash throwing the big block or you can try to be patient and wait and then the crash happens behind you and you’ve given up the lead and the caution comes out and now the race is over.
“I don’t know how you know exactly what choice to make in that situation. I mean, a guy is coming with a massive run, am I taking the chance of crashing when I threw it up in front of him? Absolutely, but I just felt like — I didn’t think I was going to get another shot at him if he let him grab the lead right there in that situation.
“I was able to defend the bottom side block and I felt more comfortable defending more aggressively up to the top. I thought that was a situation that I could win on. Fortunately it worked out. But those situations are impossible. They might go right for you some and they might not, and I don’t really know how you know what’s going to happen next to be able to make that choice.”
LaJoie is 0-for-183 now in the Cup Series, 0-for-22 in the Xfinity Series and 0-for-2 in Trucks. His last win came nearly a decade ago in ARCA. LaJoie won 3 times during that 2013 season. With a smaller team with a 1/5 of the manpower as Hendrick Motorsports, he was toeing the line for the win with the big boys.
He says he got taken to school there at the end of the race but learned enough to use again if put in a similar situation.
“I was going to school. That was the first time I’d been leading a restart at one of these superspeedway-style race tracks,” LaJoie said. “How much you have to drag back, time your runs, cover the lanes – it’s all new to me. So when I get myself in that position again, I’ll be a little more prepared and hopefully, we can do a little better job and be the one to control the blocks as opposed to the one that’s trying to make that late-race move, because that guy usually is in the catbird’s seat. I just had some fun, I know that. Hopefully, we can have that 7 car up front more often.”
Daytona (Aug. 27) is the obvious next place to allow LaJoie to be able to put into use what he learned on Sunday in Atlanta. LaJoie finished 14th in the season opening Daytona 500 and was running in the top 5 for much of the night in last year’s Coke Zero Sugar 400. He was also 9th in the 2021 Daytona 500, a year after being 8th in 2020. He was also 6th in the 2019 ‘400 and 7th that Fall in Talladega.
The thing is, LaJoie also has to make up 42 points between now and then on 30th (Brad Keselowski) in points. He’s currently 31st in the standings and if he does happen to win at Daytona or anywhere else in the regular season between now and the checkered flag for the ‘400 next month, if he’s not in the top 30 in points, he won’t be playoff eligible.
400 Miles Much Better Length, But Race Should Be Moved To A New Date
I wondered if 500 miles was too long for this track now. If you’re going to do a pack race on a 1.5-mile track, 500 miles likely isn’t it. I mean one could make a case that 500 miles was far too long even on the old Atlanta surface. I feel like 500 miles should be reserved for special events. Atlanta’s spring race isn’t special.
Plus, the summer race to me was far better in a sense that 400 miles packed more of a punch. Yes you had the data from the spring race to carry over, but 400 miles just seems right for here.
We just witnessed 27 lead changes among 12 drivers in a 3-hour, 22-minute and 18 second race. There were 46 lead changes among 20 drivers in the 3-hour, 57-minute and 14 second spring race.
The one thing I wonder is, while the July race and the heat helped make this race a combo between a superspeedway event and a handling intermediate race that was closer packed in, the warmth did make this feel like a 90’s Daytona race in July.
However, I also wonder if the heat scared people away too. The crowd wasn’t good and with the race on USA, I have a feeling the rating won’t be either. Moving this to a night race feels right, but does the TV network feel the same?
If that’s the case and they do move this race to a night time event, I wonder what it would do if they move it back on the schedule to the regular season finale and move Daytona back up to the 4th of July weekend. It just seems like NASCAR is struggling to find the right fit for a holiday date that already had one.
Out of all the changes to the schedule I agreed with, moving Daytona wasn’t one of them. I get the notion to make the regular season finale a wildcard event and you were never going to move the Daytona 500 there nor would you move Talladega out of the playoffs. With that said, you can’t race in Talladega twice in a 2 month span. So the ‘400 was the odd man out.
Granted, it’s worked the last couple of years, but it just never felt right. It didn’t feel right for Indy to be in this Fourth of July date in 2020, nor Road America the last 2 years. With rumors that this may be it for Road America and Atlanta proving to be a hybrid speedway race, isn’t this a better spot for it in late August?
A lot of people never felt like having a Speedway race set the final playoff spot was fair. I get the notion you want to make it eligible for everyone to still have a shot, but isn’t Atlanta the most level playing field for both sides?
You can Speedway race but also get some separation. You had Spire running for a win and a championship front runner still reaching victory lane. It’s a perfect fit to move Atlanta to the regular season finale and Daytona back to July.
Pit Crew Change Didn’t Help Bell
I wondered this past week why Joe Gibbs Racing decided to change up some of the pit crew members of Christopher Bell’s and Bubba Wallace’s teams. Yes, Wallace’s crew was struggling and have costed him a lot this year. However, Bell sat in the final wildcard position in the standings. What happens if the struggles of those that swapped from the 23 car to the 20 continues?
After some good stops for most of the race, they struck when it mattered the most. Yes, Bell who was running 6th with 24 to go spun by himself in Turn 4 and came to a stop in the tri-oval, but it was the pit crew who compounded the issues later.
On another pit stop after, they struggled with the left rear and it wasn’t tightened. It literally fell off as he was exiting his stall. That’s the same problem spot that Wallace’s car had troubles with — the left rear.
In a time of need, the pit crew let him down again. He’d finish 19th on Sunday and lose out on at least 13 points by finishing 13 spots lower than he was running. Earlier in the year in Atlanta, Bell crossed the finish line 2nd. But a move to go out of bounds to avoid calamity on the final lap got him penalized and moved to the tail end of the lead lap resulting in a 23rd place result. That’s a 21 point difference.
Between the 2 Atlanta races run this year, that’s 34 points left on the table. He’s only 18 points up on the bubble as we sit heading to Loudon, a place to where he was runner-up at last year.
Both races this weekend were won by Georgia drivers. Winston, Georgia’s Austin Hill won the Xfinity Series race on Saturday while Dawsonville’s Chase Elliott triumphed on Sunday.
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