After trailing Kyle Larson most of the race, Ryan Blaney passed Larson with 9 laps to go in the 500-mile marathon of a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday evening.
Blaney led three times for a total of 25 laps during the race, including the final nine to steal the win.
“I knew our strong area of our car was not the short run,” Blaney said. “We weren’t that good on the short run. We could just kind of maintain — Not with Larson, he would drive away — but maintain with everybody [else]. After 15, 20 laps we’d start coming forward. Towards the end of the longer runs, we’d really start coming forward. We made a big step on that in the last stage.”
The race marked Blaney’s fifth NASCAR Cup Series win and extended his personal streak of winning seasons to five. Blaney’s win also extended Ford’s winning streak in Cup Series competition at Atlanta to five in a row.
After winning both stages and leading 269 of the race’s 325 laps, Larson fell short of winning his second race of 2021 by about two seconds.
“I was pushing the whole time, every lap really from when I left pit road,” Larson said. “I was trying to get out to a big gap, but I never really did. I think I extended it a little bit, but not nearly enough. After the green flag stop, [Blaney] was just really good. I couldn’t get out to that gap that I could earlier in the race. Ultimately just had to run my tires too hard to try to get that gap, and I didn’t have anything there at the end.”
Alex Bowman, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five. Behind them, Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher, William Byron, Martin Truex, Jr. and Kevin Harvick completed the top 10.
After the race, drivers continued to voice their opinions about whether the inevitable Atlanta repave should happen soon.
“I enjoy surfaces that are wore out,” Larson said. “You can move around. I hope this place doesn’t ever get repaved.”
Blaney added, “I hope it doesn’t happen any time soon. I think you talk to anybody, they really like this place the way it is.”
Third-place finisher Alex Bowman agreed.
“I hope they never repave this place,” Bowman said. “I think the slick racetracks are so much fun. We’ve repaved some places and not had the races that we used to at those racetracks.”
The race had 11 lead changes between six drivers and was run under caution five times for a total of 25 laps.
With six races completed in the 2021 season, there are six different race winners and eight different stage winners. Larson and Hamlin are the only two repeat stage winners after Atlanta with 3 stage wins each.
Next Sunday will mark the first time since 1970 that NASCAR’s premier series will race on dirt. The Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway will begin at 3:30 p.m. ET on March 28th on FOX and PRN.
Ahead of the inaugural Bristol dirt race, Cup Series drivers will compete in the return of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, a non-points esports series for former and current NASCAR stars to compete in. The iRacing event will commence at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 24 on FS1.
Stage 1 – 105 laps
Denny Hamlin led the pack to the green flag as cars began shuffling, going three-and-four-wide to pick up as many sports on the start as possible. When the drivers settled in, Kyle Larson found himself in second with Kevin Harvick in third and William Byron in fourth. Ryan Blaney joined the front-runners to round out the top five until the competition caution came out on lap 25.
For the second week in a row, Chase Elliott had to start at the rear after his no. 9 failed pre-race inspection twice. When the competition caution came out, Elliott was running 15th.
A yellow flag meant one thing for teams: pit stops. Kyle Larson’s crew was quick enough to get their no. 5 Chevrolet out of the pits first ahead of Hamlin and Harvick.
As the race was going green, Harvick made a second, unscheduled trip down pit road. His left rear tire was going flat, forcing him to pit as the green flag came back out to restart the race. Harvick was serviced on pit road and did not fall a lap down.
On the track, Larson faced challenges by Blaney and Hamlin to hold the lead on the restart. As Larson began to pull away from his competitors, his focus turned to lapping Harvick, one of the best drivers at Atlanta.
With 42 laps left in the stage, Hamlin pitted from second, causing other drivers to follow suit. After a quick cycle of pit stops, Larson was back out front. Hamlin had closed the gap to Larson with his early pit stop, but Larson just began to pull back away. On lap 79, Larson finally tracked down and lapped Harvick.
Behind Larson, another Kyle was moving forward — Kyle Busch moved past teammate Hamlin into second. Shortly after, Blaney moved past Hamlin for third.
No one came close to Larson, who won the stage by nearly eight seconds over second.
The top-10 finishers in stage 1 were Larson, Kyle Busch, Blaney, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Alex Bowman, Martin Truex, Jr., Elliott, Chris Buescher and Byron.
Stage 2 – 105 laps
With the stage-end yellow, drivers came back to pit road. Larson kept his lead coming out of the pits and was followed closely by Kyle Busch, Blaney, Elliott and Alex Bowman.
Larson led the restart on lap 113. On the outside, Kyle Busch spun his tires. Cars began stacking up in the outside lane and just a few rows back of the younger Busch brother, Kurt Busch spun in the stack-up of cars and hit the outside wall hard, damaging the nose and right side of the no. 1 Chevrolet and bringing out the caution. The crash ended Kurt Busch’s day.
The race restarted on lap 119 with Larson out front again. Blaney was able to pass Larson for the lead for a brief moment, but Larson took the lead right back. Bowman moved into third and Matt DiBenedetto was now running forth.
Once again, Larson was able to establish a healthy lead. As the second cycle of green-flag stops began just shy of the stage’s halfway point, Larson’s lead was over five seconds. Larson cycled back to the lead. Bowman cycled out ahead of Blaney for second after the stops.
Kyle Busch, who had lost some track position on the previous restart, worked his way back into fourth.
In the closing laps of the stage, Blaney was able to pass Bowman for second, but like the first stage, no one could touch Larson, who won stage 2 by seconds.
In stage 2, the top-10 finishers were Larson, Blaney, Bowman, Kyle Busch, Byron, DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Buescher, Hamlin and Daniel Suarez.
Race to the finish – 115 laps
During the stage-end caution, Larson kept his lead following pit stops. Blaney and Bowman also retained their positions, and Byron picked up one spot to move into fourth.
The race restarted on lap 218, but two laps later, Elliott had smoke coming out from the rear. Elliott blew his engine, bringing the caution right back out.
Even with two laps on their tires, the field elected to come down pit road for new ones. This time, Larson came out second. Blaney took the lead coming off pit road. Behind Larson, Bowman, Kyle Busch and William Byron rounded out the top five. Kyle Busch sped on pit road, forcing him to restart at the rear. Many of the lapped cars didn’t pit and took the wave around to get a lap back, putting 20 cars on the lead lap in total.
Blaney led the field back to green and Larson began to fight for the lead. With 89 laps to go, Larson took the lead back after Blaney picked up a piece of trash on his grille and had to drop behind Larson to get the trash off. Blaney attempted to retake the lead, but was unsuccessful and Larson began to pull away yet again.
Larson was able to pull away from Blaney, but not by nearly as much as earlier in the race. Blaney was reeling in the leader as green-flag stops began. Just before the stops, Larson had just under a second lead. After the stops, Blaney was just over two seconds behind the leader.
With 20 laps to go, Blaney was closing again. From two back, Blaney closed the gap to .8 seconds in five laps. With 9 to go, Blaney was there. With 8 to go, Blaney was the leader.
Blaney passed Larson coming to 8 laps to go, a pass that would end up being for the win.
Featured photo credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images