Atlanta Motor Speedway proved yet again this past Sunday, that despite its age, it can still put on a hell of a race! Although rain threatened to spoil the fun in the early morning (and continued to try throughout the race), mother nature was just no match for the historic track.
Fans were already fired up before the green flag could even drop, as hometown hero and driver of the #9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, Chase Elliott sat on the pole. Chase had good company on the front row, starting next to the Saturday’s Xfinity Series race winner Kyle Busch, in his #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Camry. The other members of the Joe Gibbs Racing team sat behind Kyle in rows two and three, however, for driver of the #19 Martin Truex Jr. he’d have to give up his 5th place starting position after failing pre-race inspection twice. Other notable starting positions included points leader Kyle Larson in 6th, Atlanta’s March race winner Ryan Blaney in 15th, and veteran driver and previous Atlanta winner Kevin Harvick in 21st.
The green flag dropped at 3:48 p.m., with Elliott rocketing forward to take the lead. Racing instantly was hot at the affectionately nicknamed ‘Hotlanta’ as drivers were 3 wide mid-pack in the early laps of the race. One driver in particular who could definitely feel the heat, was that of the #8 Richard Childress Racing Chevy, Tyler Reddick, who’s air hose disconnected from his helmet. Luckily for Reddick, the temperatures proved to be cooler at the track than the day before and he was able to handle the minor setback throughout the race. Speaking of setbacks, Martin Truex Jr. didn’t let starting from the rear spoil his race, as he quickly gained 11+ spots by lap eight. Meanwhile, at the front of the pack the ‘Candy Man’, Kyle Busch, was able to use the high line to pass by the people’s champ, Chase Elliott to take the lead.
At lap 25, the yellow flag waved for the competition caution and drivers made their way down pit road. For Elliott, trouble struck as he drove too far into his pit box and had to back up, which gave Busch advantage over him. However, it was Kyle’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, who managed to escape pit road before anyone else. At the restart, Hamlin was quickly able to get the lead thanks to the help of Reddick giving him a nice shove. Busch quickly tried getting by his teammate but the caution flag flew before either of the two JGR drivers could make any ground. At the back of the field Trackhouse Racing’s lone driver Daniel Suárez and JTG Daugherty’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got into one another as Cody Ware’s #51 Rick Ware Racing Chevy, got loose behind them. Although Suárez was able to repair most of his damage, it was to the garage for Stenhouse.
On lap 35 the green flag was out once again and by no surprise, Busch quickly gained back the lead he’d lost to his teammate Hamlin before. Three-wide racing continued mid-pack as Kyle’s big brother Kurt, raced his way forward past Hamlin for second place. Drivers continued to have issues at this point in the race, as many complained of having problems with their digital dashes freezing. For the most recent Atlanta winner Ryan Blaney, his car was tight on the corners, and the car seemed to be dragging for points leader Kyle Larson. Chase Elliott’s troubles only continued as he felt as though he was having some kind of braking issue, falling back to 25th place. And it’s safe to say that EVERY driver was worried about their tires, as Atlanta is the king of wearing them down thanks to it’s rough and bumpy racing surface.
It wasn’t the least bit shocking that Kyle Busch was your stage one winner, and made it very clear that just like the day before he was a contender for the win. The other Busch, Kurt Busch finished 2nd behind little brother Kyle, driver #11 Denny Hamlin finished in 3rd, and despite starting in 37th place, Martin Truex Jr. finished stage one in the top 10. Pit road proved to be hazardous as MTJ and Harvick made contact with one another, forcing the both of them to have to come back down to repair their damage, and Chase Elliott continued to struggle, having contact with the tire man of Cole Custer’s #41 machine. It was the battle of the Busch brothers off pit road, but it was the older Busch who would prevail.
Stage two began on lap 86 with Kurt Busch coming on the inside to take the lead away from Kyle. Behind the leaders the field again was three-wide throughout, all racing hard for positions as rain threatened to stall the race. As the stage went on drivers both thrived and struggled with their cars. For the Michael Jordan/Denny Hamlin owned team of 23XI, their driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. seemed to find a nice solid run, staying consistently within or on the brink of the top 10. Stewart Haas rookie driver Chase Briscoe also found himself being prosperous, running a clean top 15 run. Meanwhile , Briscoe’s teammate Kevin Harvick was quoted on his radio saying his car was “absolutely horrible” and three-time winner this season Alex Bowman, although in 2nd place, found himself feeling a vibration in his car. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. returned from the garage in this stage, albeit 65 laps down.
At lap 111 Kyle Busch gained back the ground he had previously lost passing by Bowman and charging towards the lead. Just a few short laps later though, sprinkles of rain began to fall all over the track and strategy came into play as drivers began making green flag pit stops. As the sprinkles remained persistent around the track, driver of the #10 Aric Amirola stayed out of the pits, hoping for NASCAR to flag the race and potentially put himself in the position to win. Unfortunately though, the rain let off and Kurt’s fresh tires were too much for Aric Amirola to hold his lead. In the end Kurt found himself as the stage two winner, with Kyle in second, and driver of #48 Alex Bowman in third.
Although drivers were anxious to start stage three, the old racing surface wasn’t, as NASCAR red flagged the race upon noticing a chunk of the track came up and needed to be repaired. After 19 minutes under the red flag, the final stage was underway, with domination from the Busch’s and four-wide madness behind them. Although strong runs were made by Bowman, Wallace, and MTJ, to name a few, there simply was no one who could stand against the two brothers battling at the front of the field. The last 20 laps of the race were a continuous back and forth between the older Busch and the younger Busch. With five to go it was unsure which of the two of them would come through with the win, but after a slip up in turn two from Kyle (and a little help from Kurt’s teammate Ross Chastain), Kurt was able to pull away from his little brother, creating a .9 second gap, giving Kurt the win, and simultaneously locking himself into the playoffs. Kyle Busch settled for 2nd place, while Martin Truex Jr. recovered well finishing 3rd after starting from the rear, and despite their problems throughout the day, Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney finished 4th and 5th respectively. In post race inspection Kurt was cleared and confirmed the winner of the race. Tech proved no major issues aside from a few loose lug nut infractions from a handful of drivers (monetary fines to the crew chiefs). The cup series will next race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, July 18th, at 3:00 P.M. (EST) on NBCSN.
Featured image from @NASCARonNBC on Twitter.