It was “The Kyle Larson Show” for nearly the entire Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway until Ryan Blaney terminated the program. In fact, Blaney accomplished this in the closing laps to score a stunning fifth career Cup victory.
Blaney ran 56 laps on his last set of tires without tremendous wear. It proved to be a huge difference as he brought Ford its fifth straight Atlanta victory. Not only that, ending Team Penske’s curse that’s defined their early 2021 campaign.
The latest Cup winner felt like his No. 12 BodyArmor Ford Mustang was stronger on the long runs.
“We had a great long run car all day. It took us a little bit to get going,” said Blaney. “I was pretty free all day, so we made a really good change to tighten me up where I needed it and it looked like Kyle was getting loose and I’m happy it worked in our favor that there was a couple long runs at the end that kind of let us get there.
“He got slowed up behind some lap traffic, but I’m really proud of this whole group. We’ve been good this year and had some bad breaks and it’s nice to close out a race like that. That was awesome.”
In his second season with Blaney, crew chief Todd Gordon vouched the long run strength. It was that way last year, but it became clearer Sunday with the victory.
Especially, a track that’s worn out like the 1.5-mile circuit which has been a goal of his. Something he, Blaney and several others doesn’t want repaved anytime soon or ever pending on who you’ve asked.
“After a tough first couple races, starting with a pretty big points hole, I think last couple weeks we’ve been digging our way out of it,” said Gordon. “It’s a place I really like and wanted to win at. I felt like in the past I’ve had opportunity, been close.”
Despite leading a race-high 269 of 325 laps, Larson felt that Blaney got better towards the end. It forced him to run an unfamiliar territory by going low.
Consequently, he used his stuff up and was concerned if his car got worse. Something he wasn’t too sure when he got out of his No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE.
“(Ryan) just got a lot better there that last Stage and it kind of changed up my flow of the race a little bit,” said Larson. “I could get out to such a big lead and then I could take care of my stuff; and run the bottom, where it was maybe slower, but I could take care of my tires.
“He was fast there and I just wanted to maintain that gap that I had, so I had to run in the faster part of the racetrack and just use my stuff up,” Larson added. “And then, he was just a lot better than me there late in the run. Hate to lead a lot of laps and lose, but our Chevy was stupid fast there for a long time.”
Like most third-place finishers this season, Alex Bowman had a quiet afternoon. At the same time, it was a much-needed performance. Compared to the other three Hendrick Motorsports entries, Bowman hasn’t had many standout races with luck being frequently putrid.
Now that he got his first top-five of the season, Bowman was glad nothing went wrong with his afternoon.
“It was a good day to come third,” said Bowman. I feel like our car was off on the long runs, but finally a day where nothing bad happened. We’ll take a solid top-three and head to Bristol.”
Pole sitter Denny Hamlin quickly set the tone while the rest of the field battled aggressively for valuable position. By valuable, managing their tires without losing too much ground as Atlanta’s surface hasn’t been repaved since 1997. Hamlin would end up leading all 25 laps when the competition caution came out.
However, Tyler Reddick wished a caution would’ve helped his cause. On Lap 11, Reddick’s awful sophomore luck continued after sustaining right side damage and had to pit. He would continue racing without any other problems going forward.
One man on the move was Chase Elliott, who started at the rear for failing pre-race tech yet again. By the time the competition caution came out on Lap 25, the hometown kid was up to 15th.
During pit stops, Elliott’s teammate Larson had a solid pit stop and edged out Hamlin for the race lead. Kevin Harvick made an unscheduled stop on the restart for a flat left rear tire, knocking him out of contention.
Larson kept increasing his race lead over Kyle Busch up to seven seconds. The latter felt he’s chewing his tires and had his eyes on Ryan Blaney who moved up to third. Fortunately for “Rowdy,” Blaney wasn’t catching him and was able to hang onto second in the stage.
Nobody had a tremendous response on Larson, who crushed the competition to score his second stage win of the year.
Stage 1 Results: Larson, Ky. Busch, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Hamlin, Bowman, Truex Jr., Elliott, Buescher and Byron
The field didn’t last a corner on Lap 113 when Kurt Busch brought out the caution. A costly contact by Hamlin sent Kurt towards the Turn 1 wall as his afternoon went to hell, finishing last.
Kurt said that Chris Buescher played a role in the demise of his afternoon which led to Hamlin’s contact.
“I think Kyle (Busch) was the outside-lead car. Chase kind of checked-up, too. I checked up; Chris hit us from behind,” said Kurt. “It was just the accordion effect and then I jumped to the middle. I’m like ‘I’m here’; I positioned myself. It wasn’t like I re-arranged my lanes and made another block.”
Kyle Busch was upset at Elliott, saying “I can’t f***king go when I’m f***ing jacked up.” It dropped him from second to 12th when the race resumed. Elliott sustained front nose damage above the grill and consequently regressed throughout the stage. During green flag stops, tape was put on the grill to help drag, but ended up 14th.
Meanwhile, Ryan Blaney briefly took the lead from Larson after getting a push by Alex Bowman on the backstretch. Brief indeed as it was just a single lap as “The Larson Show” was renewed for another stage.
Even after green flag pit stops, it felt like everyone’s battling for second as Larson kept smoking the field. Larson walloped Blaney by 7.997 seconds to win the second stage as 14 cars were on the lead lap.
Stage 2 Results: Larson, Blaney, Bowman, Ky. Busch, Byron, DiBenedetto, Dillon, Buescher, Hamlin and Suarez
Blaney missed out on beating Larson off pit road by mere inches going into the final stage. Rather than restart alongside Larson, he chose the bottom lane as the top wasn’t the way to go. William Byron was an example as he couldn’t get going and lost several positions.
Shortly thereafter, it was game over for Elliott, who lost an engine and brought out the caution on Lap 220. The crew had finally put tape on the damaged nose after hooking up Kyle Busch, but it didn’t matter anymore. Elliott was the second retiree of the race, finishing 38th.
“Obviously, we broke a motor there later on. We got some damage there on that restart,” Elliott on his first DNF of 2021.
“Kyle (Busch) kind of spun his tires and then I was pushing him and Kurt was pushing me. We all just really jammed together hard and ended up hurting the nose some. So, I don’t know if that had something to do with breaking the engine or not.”
Game of Strategy
Leaders pitted once again which benefitted Ryan Blaney this time. He was well ahead of Larson when exiting pit lane and took the top spot. A little role reversal on the restart with Larson choosing the bottom behind Blaney.
Larson struggled fending off Hamlin for the second spot. Sooner than later, he won the battle over Hamlin for second. With 89 laps to go, Larson passed Blaney for the lead. Blaney had junk on his grill and ultimately blended behind Larson to get rid of it.
From there, it was the same song and dance with Larson at a different zip code over the rest. That was until 60 to go as Blaney cut the deficit down to less than a second.
The final green flag stops proved to define several driver’s afternoons. Daniel Suarez, who had a top-10 car most of the race, was too fast on pit road and finished 17th.
Anthony Alfredo spun and came scaringly close of running into Aric Almirola’s right-side crew. Fortunately, nobody was hit and both driver and crew went on with their afternoon.
The incident was reminiscent to what happened with Ricky Rudd in 1990, who slid into Bill Elliott’s crew. Sadly, that ordeal from 31 years ago claimed the life of Mike Ritch, forcing NASCAR to change its pit procedures.
Green flag racing was being banked on, so tire management was extremely instrumental. While Larson was still leading, crew chief Cliff Daniels wanted him to be cautious. By not pushing hard, it’ll help him at race end if Blaney wasn’t on the prowl.
With 15 laps remaining, Ryan Blaney had cut the gap on Larson by 0.78 seconds. Yet, Daniels kept telling Larson not to worry because Blaney was pushing it hard. Five laps later, the gap was cut down to a half a second with lapped traffic in the mix.
That’s all Ryan Blaney needed after taking the lead with 8 to go. Larson was told not to give up despite hating running on the bottom. However, the damage was done as Larson reported over the radio that his tires were shot.
In the least likely events, Blaney ended the Penske shortcomings with his first win of the season. Larson ended up with the most agonizing runner-up finish a driver can have after having such a strong Camaro.
Jokingly, Blaney said he’ll have to be on the FOX booth after commentating Saturday’s Trucks and Xfinity races.
“I might have to start doing it every week I guess now but thank you to all the fans for coming out. It’s awesome to see fans again. It’s really cool,” said Blaney. “Thank you BodyArmor, Menards, Ford, DEX Imaging. We couldn’t do it without them and looking forward to sliding around a little bit more next week at Bristol.”
Final Top 10 Results: Blaney, Larson, Bowman, Hamlin, Ky. Busch, Dillon, Buescher, Truex Jr., Byron and Harvick