Ryan Blaney and Chris Buescher each were speeding on pit lane. Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola crashed while leading on the final stage. That setup a final dash for the win between Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano up front.
Keselowski led 47 of the final 51 laps, but it was Logano who got by his former Team Penske teammate on the final lap on the backstretch and was able to hold off the field to score his 32nd career NASCAR Cup Series victory.
Logano entered Turn 1 on the final lap behind Keselowski but with Christopher Bell lagging too far behind on the high line, Logano build up enough momentum low and shot up top to use the momentum of the banking to push him to the front.
“Yeah, the bottom came with a huge run. I don’t know how,” Keselowski admitted. “I thought I had it blocked. Joey just kept shaking. His car didn’t stall out. I couldn’t get the push down the back. I thought just get a push down the back. The 20 car just hauled down there.
“But great run all in all for the RFK King’s Hawaiian Ford Mustang. Glad a Ford won. A heck of a battle.
“We were right there. Proud of my team and the effort. Nothing much we could do there at the end.”
Logano beat Keselowski to the line by .193-seconds to score his second career win at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. This was his first top five finish on the 1.54-mile track since a fourth-place finish in 2014.
“First off so special to win Atlanta for me,” said Logano. “So many memories of me and my dad racing right here on the quarter mile. This is the full circle for us. So many memories gritting over there with the Legends car, racing, having a big time.
“Dreaming of going straight at the quarter mile and going on to the big track. That was always the dream to do it. To finally win here means so much to me here personally, but the team. The Auto Trader Mustang.
“This thing was an animal. Very, very fast. Able to lead a ton of laps, race really hard there at the end, get a good push from the 20 to clear myself. Enough of a push to get in.
“Huge victory. Nice to get one early in the season. Always feels better. But what a great day for us.”
Keselowski led two-time for 47 laps but had to settle for a runner-up finish in his No. 6 Ford. He nearly ended not only his 66-race winless drought but also a 419-race streak of the No. 6 Ford without a victory.
Still, this was his eighth top 10 result here in his last 11 tries.
Bell was third in his No. 20 Toyota while Corey LaJoie and Tyler Reddick rounded out the top five.
“When the 22 and the 6 got side by side, I felt like I lost the race,” said Bell.
“Really I think I screwed up whenever I went to the top. Coming to the white, one of those laps, I aborted the bottom and went to the top, and gave the 22 the bottom which ultimately got him the lead. That was disappointing.
“Ultimately to come home third, I’m super happy with that. Great show for our DeWalt Camry.”
Chevrolet Struggles While Ford, Toyota’s Far Better Than Last Several Years Here
Ford had the top 8 starting spots. However, starting position doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot on drafting tracks. Plus, Chevrolet has won 5 of the 6 races on drafting tracks in his Next Gen era including sweeping both here a year ago.
Which gives on Sunday?
It was Ford dominating to where Chevrolet struggled.
Ford’s led 221 of the 260 laps and took home the top two spots and 3 of the top 7. That equaled the amount of laps led the first four weeks of the season too (221).
Toyota’s actually had 3 of the top 6 however which was a far better finish than we’d have expected out of them. We all figured they’d struggle this weekend, especially after qualifying on Saturday. Just one Toyota even made the final round of qualifying with them starting 10-14-16-19-29-35.
Plus, they’ve won just twice in the Peachtree state and have failed to reach victory lane there since 2014. They’re 2-for-the-last-17 in Talladega and 1 for the last 8 at Daytona.
Chevrolet only had 3 cars in the top 11.
Rough Day For Stewart-Haas Racing
Saturday looked promising for the entire Stewart-Haas Racing camp. They qualified three of their four cars in the top 8 of the starting lineup. However, Sunday couldn’t have gone much worse. They struggled from the onus of the fifth race of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season and each went backwards.
Aric Almirola went from 5th to 11th at the end of the opening stage. Kevin Harvick from 6th to 25th, Chase Briscoe from 8th to 30th and Ryan Preece from 24th to 29th. It only got worse from there.
They were 17th (Harvick), 18th (Almirola), 23rd (Briscoe) and 36th, -10 (Preece) in Stage 2. At this point, they tried to roll the dice and make some headway. Almirola took fuel only on his stop. They all gambled in fact.
It didn’t work.
Briscoe found the wall and broke a toe link, Harvick got loose while leading in Turn 2 on Lap 189.
“I think he just caught me so quick right there in the middle of the corner, and then he kind of was up on the right rear part of the (car) and he came back down, and when he came back down it just spun the thing out,” Harvick said. “I don’t think he actually even hit me, but it started chattering the rear tires, and then I was just along for the ride.”
Almirola then blew a tire while leading on Lap 208. By being on such old tires, it was only a matter of time before something like this would happen to his No. 10 Ford.
“There was nowhere to go,” Larson said ruefully. “Nobody had been having tire issues, so I wasn’t even expecting the No. 10 (Almirola) to have a tire issue in front of me. Even if I did, I didn’t have time to react.
“It’s a bummer. Just frustrating.. I was finally up front on this style of race track and still end up with a DNF (did not finish). I don’t know—just frustrating.”
Preece though may have had the roughest days of all with two pit road penalties (crew member over the wall too soon, commitment line violation) and was down on power all day. He’s off to a disappointing start to the 2023 season in a sense that he’s finished 36th, 33rd, 23rd, 12th and 28th respectively. Briscoe has finished 35th, 20th, 28th, 7th and 24th himself. Almirola’s finishes have been 21st, 35th, 16th, 33rd and 30th.
No 3-Peat For Byron, Hendrick Motorsports Struggles
William Byron came into Sunday’s race the winner of each of the last two weeks. The Hendrick Motorsports driver also won this very race in Atlanta last year too. Even with HMS’ hefty penalties from this past week, Byron entered as the favorite to go for the season turkey.
Unfortunately, he was caught up in that Lap 189 melee in Turn 2 and would finish 32nd instead.
Josh Berry got some damage in that crash and limped home in 18th.
It wasn’t a great day in general for the Hendrick Motorsports organization. Kyle Larson was caught up in the Lap 208 crash with Aric Almirola when Almirola’s No. 10 Ford crashed in Turn 4 while leading when his tire went down. Larson had no where to go. He’d finish 31st.
“It looked like the No. 1 (Chastain) and the No. 4 just got connected there into Turn 1 and got the No. 4 loose,” Byron said after a mandatory visit to the infield care center. “It’s just part of racing. That’s the way it goes—not really in our control. We were up there running in the top-five and doing what we needed to do.”
Larson has never won a superspeedway race and has just 1 top 5 in 37 starts on them at that. He was also 30th and 13th here last year.
This was also the first race all season that Alex Bowman failed to score a top 10 finish as he’d come home in 14th place.
Starting in 2017 at Atlanta, Hendrick Motorsports started off on a dry spell. They had won 3 straight on this track prior. They went 0-for-6 after. Then with Atlanta being reconfigured, Hendrick swept both races a year ago but failed to return to victory lane on Sunday.
HMS went 1-2-3 in both stages in Vegas and 1-2 in each at Phoenix last Sunday. They’ve also combined to had led 506 of the last 579 laps (87%) run in the last two races entering this weekend including taking home both victories. That streak ended in Atlanta with no laps led and stage finishes of 12-14-16-28 in Stage 1 and 3-5-11-14 in Stage 2.
400 Miles The Better Length, But Is This Package The Better One?
I wondered entering this week if 400 miles would truly be better served here than 500 miles. In the past, 500 miles just dragged on. However, last year saw this race remain 500 miles while the summer race was 400 miles. Aesthetically, it didn’t really make all that much of a difference.
Last year’s spring race was nearly 4-hours in duration which produced 11 cautions for 65 laps. You’d think the summer race would clearly be better?
The summer race, 100 miles shorter, but only40 minutes quicker. It had 13 cautions for 64 laps.
However, this time around, this race was much better. The first two stages were about as clean as you can get for a race like this. It looked more like a Daytona/Talladega race at the onset to where drivers got single file and rode the high line for much of the first two stages. The only real action was the final couple of laps in each stage.
That’s a far cry to how bad Saturday’s racing was here.
The Truck Series race saw 11 cautions for 58 laps. The thing is, when there’s only 137 laps of racing, with 58 of those 137 laps (42.3%) that’s never a good thing. Especially when there’s two races in one day and the second race was just as bad, if not worse, than the first one.
In 163 laps of racing in the Xfinity Series race, 68 of the laps were under caution leaving just 95 laps of green flag action. That equated out to 41.7% of the race behind the pace car including 9 cautions in the first 79 laps of the race.
Luckily it calmed down in the final stage because in 80 laps of the first two stages, the longest green flag run was only nine laps.
On a day that saw 42% (126-for-300 laps) of both races combined running under yellow and each struggling to gain any momentum, that’s not necessarily the product you want either.
It also made me question how much this was really working. At least the old Atlanta, you could pass. The tire fall off was so great, you had multiple lanes to pass on. This way was just a bunch of cars riding single file without any way to pass.
Which is better?
The Cup race showed on Sunday that this way has a chance to be something good.
“The coolest thing about this race is two veterans showed you can run a race here side by side, bump-drafting, and not wreck the field,” Keselowski said. “It can happen if you race respectfully. I thought everybody did a great job.”
Corey LaJoie noted that with the tires degrading some, a few more years of this track aging could make it more like the Daytona of old.
Some look at Atlanta and think you can use Daytona and Talladega as reference points. In theory, you can. It’s a similar package. However, Atlanta is much more challenging than their superspeedway counterparts.
The track being a mile shorter than Daytona and Talladega doesn’t lend much time to breathe. You’re constantly in traffic and in turn, it causes chaos. At least at Daytona and Talladega, you have 2-3 and even sometimes 4 lanes to work with. For Atlanta, there’s 2 lanes max and not much time to regroup which leads to chaos when they do run double file trying to pass.
The thing is, the finish was as good as it gets as it went clean and green with a phenomenal result. 20 lead changes among 13 drivers and just 5 cautions for 34 laps. This race lasted 2-hours, 56-minutes and 34-seconds. Much better.
The new pit road commitment line proved to be a factor on Sunday like we all thought it would. Ryan Preece and Austin Dillon missed the commitment line. Ryan Blaney and Chris Buescher were speeding. It ruined the days for all four drivers and proved to be a costly part of the track if you made a mistake on it.
NASCAR has moved the pit road commitment line to Turn 3 this week. That came at the recommendation of the drivers who were concerned about diving to pit road at Turn 4 exit could potentially be dangerous.
At least at the other two drafting tracks in Talladega and Daytona, you have plenty of room between Turn 4 and the tri-oval to get slowed down and to pit road. You don’t have that luxury in Atlanta.
However, it was a moot point last season with no green flag pit stops occurring in either Atlanta race. It became a focal point this year?
There was also no practice this weekend to try it out, so they were going to be learning this on the fly.
NASCAR Cup Series Race – Ambetter Health 400
Atlanta Motor Speedway
Sunday, March 19, 2023
- (1) Joey Logano, Ford, 260.
- (4) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 260.
- (10) Christopher Bell, Toyota, 260.
- (31) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 260.
- (16) Tyler Reddick, Toyota, 260.
- (14) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 260.
- (3) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 260.
- (28) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 260.
- (35) Ty Gibbs #, Toyota, 260.
- (17) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 260.
- (2) Austin Cindric, Ford, 260.
- (22) Noah Gragson #, Chevrolet, 260.
- (18) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 260.
- (15) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 260.
- (23) Todd Gilliland, Ford, 260.
- (30) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 260.
- (27) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 260.
- (21) Josh Berry(i), Chevrolet, 260.
- (29) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 260.
- (13) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 260.
- (12) Michael McDowell, Ford, 260.
- (20) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 260.
- (26) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 260.
- (8) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 259.
- (32) Cody Ware, Ford, 258.
- (34) JJ Yeley(i), Ford, 258.
- (19) Bubba Wallace, Toyota, 255.
- (24) Ryan Preece, Ford, 244.
- (25) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, DVP, 213.
- (5) Aric Almirola, Ford, Accident, 208.
- (9) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, Accident, 208.
- (11) William Byron, Chevrolet, Accident, 192.
- (6) Kevin Harvick, Ford, Accident, 190.
- (33) Harrison Burton, Ford, DVP, 190.
- (7) Chris Buescher, Ford, Accident, 189.
- (36) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, Accident, 189.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 138.8 mph.
Time of Race: 2 Hrs, 53 Mins, 5 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.193 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 5 for 34 laps.
Lead Changes: 20 among 13 drivers.
Lap Leaders: J. Logano 1-63;C. Ware 64;K. Busch 65-69;R. Blaney 70-74;K. Busch 75-76;J. Logano 77-131;C. Buescher 132-136;C. Bell 137-142;J. Logano 143-159;A. Cindric 160-164;A. Almirola 165-168;R. Stenhouse Jr. 169-175;D. Hamlin 176-188;K. Harvick 189;R. Chastain 190-194;D. Hamlin 195;A. Almirola 196-208;B. Keselowski 209-226;J. Logano 227-230;B. Keselowski 231-259;J. Logano 260.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Joey Logano 5 times for 140 laps; Brad Keselowski 2 times for 47 laps; Aric Almirola 2 times for 17 laps; Denny Hamlin 2 times for 14 laps; Kyle Busch 2 times for 7 laps; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 1 time for 7 laps; Christopher Bell 1 time for 6 laps; Ross Chastain 1 time for 5 laps; Ryan Blaney 1 time for 5 laps; Chris Buescher 1 time for 5 laps; Austin Cindric 1 time for 5 laps; Kevin Harvick 1 time for 1 lap; Cody Ware 1 time for 1 lap.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 22,2,6,12,11,20,8,17,99,19
Stage #2 Top Ten: 2,22,48,45,24,17,19,11,6,7