Blaney perseveres late for a Cup victory at Atlanta

In a late turn of events, Ryan Blaney overtook a dominating Kyle Larson and surged ahead under the final 10 laps to win the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 21, and claim his first NASCAR Cup Series victory of the 2021 season.

The starting lineup was based on a performance metric formula, weighing the driver’s and owner’s results from a previous Cup event, the owner points position and the fastest lap recorded from a previous Cup race. With that, Denny Hamlin, the regular-season points leader, started on pole position and was joined on the front row with Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin’s teammate and winner of last weekend’s Cup event at Phoenix Raceway.

Prior to the race, Chase Elliott and Timmy Hill dropped to the rear of the field due to multiple pre-race inspection failures. For Hill, he was also assessed a pass-through penalty through pit road and his car chief was ejected due to his car failing pre-race inspection three times. Quin Houff also dropped to the rear of the field due to unapproved adjustments. 

When the green flag waved and the race commenced, Hamlin pulled away with a strong start followed by Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick while Truex fell back to fourth. Behind, the field fanned out through two lanes.

Following the first lap, Hamlin was out in front while Harvick and Logano battled for the runner-up spot. Through Turn 2, Truex gained a run on both Harvick and Logano, but Harvick blocked and stalled Truex’s momentum. 

Through the first five laps of the event, Hamlin continued to lead by a narrow margin over Harvick with Logano trailing by less than half a second. Kyle Larson, making his 350th NASCAR national touring series start and who started sixth, moved up to fourth followed by teammate William Byron. Truex, meanwhile, fell back to sixth while Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski were in the top 10.

Over the next two laps, Larson advanced to third place over Logano, who was also pressured by Byron, who started ninth, for position. Behind, Truex was in sixth ahead of Blaney, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon, all of whom were locked in a heated battle for position.

By Lap 10, Hamlin was ahead by half a second over Larson, who continued to muscle his way to the front with Harvick behind by a second. Meanwhile, Tyler Reddick made an unscheduled pit stop after making early contact with the outside wall. 

While Hamlin and Larson pulled away from the field and by nearly two seconds over third-place Harvick, teammates Logano and Ryan Blaney battled for fifth place, Kyle Busch, winner of the Truck Series event at Atlanta and who started 19th, moved up into seventh place while Truex continued to lose positions. By Lap 16, he was in 10th after being overtaken by the Busch brothers and Austin Dillon.

By Lap 20, Hamlin extended his advantage to more than a second over Larson with Harvick trailing by more than three seconds. Byron and Blaney, who started 10th, were in the top five followed by Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Logano, Austin Dillon and Truex. Brad Keselowski, meanwhile, was back in 12th behind Alex Bowman, who was making his 250th NASCAR national touring series start. Chase Elliott, on the other hand, was up in 16th after starting at the rear of the field.

When the competition caution flew on Lap 25, Hamlin remained in the lead by more than half a second over Larson with Harvick, Blaney and Kyle Busch in the top five, thus dropping Byron to sixth place. By then, 31 of the 39-car field were scored on the lead lap. 

Under the competition caution, the leaders pitted and Larson emerged with the lead over Hamlin followed by Harvick, Blaney and Kyle Busch. Following the pit stops, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Corey LaJoie were sent to the rear of the field after both were busted for speeding on pit road.

Prior to the restart, Harvick returned to pit road after his No. 4 Hunt Brothers Pizza Ford Mustang suffered a flat left-rear tire.

When the race restarted on Lap 30, Larson and Hamlin were locked in a heated battle for the lead through the first two turns. Hamlin received a push from Blaney to squeak ahead on the outside lane entering Turn 3, but Larson fought back on the inside lane to retain the lead when the field returned to the start/finish line.

Shortly after, Blaney overtook Hamlin for second, who was also pressured by Kurt Busch’s No. 1 Monster Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. While Kurt Busch and Hamlin battled for third place, Kyle Busch battled Logano for fifth place. 

By Lap 35, Larson continued to lead by nearly half a second over Blaney. Behind, Kurt Bush and Hamlin continued to battle for third place.

Five laps later, Larson extended his advantage to more than a second over Blaney with Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch in the top five. Bowman, teammate Byron, Logano, Truex and Keselowski were in the top 10. By then, Elliott was up in 11th ahead of Matt DiBenedetto, Cole Custer, teammate Aric Almirola and Ryan Newman. Christopher Bell was in 16th, Austin Dillon was back in 18th, Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez were in 21st and 22nd ahead of Michael McDowell and Austin Cindric, making his second Cup career start, was in 24th ahead of Erik Jones. Rookies Chase Briscoe and Anthony Alfredo were in 28th and 29th while Harvick was back in 32nd place, the final car on the lead lap. Tyler Reddick was in 33rd, two laps behind the leaders.

By Lap 50, the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE piloted by Larson was out in front of the field and by more than two seconds over Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry. Blaney, racing in the BODYARMOR Ford Mustang, continued to run in third place ahead of a charging No. 18 M&M’s Messages Toyota Camry driven by Kyle Busch. Brother Kurt was in fifth ahead of Bowman, Truex, Byron, Keselowski and Elliott.

Ten laps later, Larson continued to extend his advantage as he was leading by over three seconds over Hamlin with teammate Kyle Busch trailing in third place by less than four seconds. While Blaney and Kurt Busch continued to run in the top five, Elliott moved up to eighth place ahead of teammate Byron and Keselowski.

Another four laps later, pit stops under green commenced as Hamlin pitted followed by race leader Larson, DiBenedetto, Almirola, Blaney, Bowman, Kurt Busch, Logano, Harvick, Keselowski, Truex, Elliott, Christopher Bell, Ross Chastain, Kyle Busch, Byron, Bubba Wallace and others. 

By Lap 67 and with most of the leaders pitting under green, Larson was back out in front by more than a second over Hamlin with teammate Kyle Busch retaining third place. Meanwhile, Harvick, who was in 27th, was able to remain ahead of leader Larson and on the lead lap. 

Through the first 75 laps of the event and with the leaders mired around lapped traffic, Larson was the leader by more than three seconds over Hamlin with teammate Kyle Busch behind by four seconds. Blaney was in fourth while Bowman, racing in his No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, moved up to fifth place. By then, Harvick, who tried to remain in front of leader Larson, was lapped, thus making Austin Cindric the final competitor on the lead lap.

Fifteen laps later, Larson remained as the leader by six seconds over Kyle Busch, who earlier overtook teammate Hamlin for the runner-up spot. Blaney also moved up to third place while Hamlin and Kurt Busch were in the top five. Bowman, Truex, Elliott, Keselowski and Byron rounded out the top 10.

By Lap 100 and in the final laps of the first stage, Larson stabilized his advantage to more than seven seconds over Kyle Busch with Blaney trailing by more than nine seconds, Kurt Busch by nearly 11 seconds, Hamlin by more than 12 seconds and Bowman by more than 13 seconds.

With a fast car in the early stages of the event, Larson was able to cruise to the first stage victory on Lap 105 and with a seven-second advantage over Kyle Busch. Blaney settled in third followed by Kurt Busch and Hamlin while Bowman, Truex, Elliott, Chris Buescher and Byron were scored in the top 10. By then, 19 of the 39-car field were scored on the lead lap, with names like Aric Almirola, Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell, McDowell, Harvick, Cindric, Erik Jones and Briscoe pinned a lap behind.

Under the stage break, the leaders pitted and Larson retained the lead after exiting pit road with the top spot followed by Kyle Busch, Blaney, Elliott, teammate Bowman and Kurt Busch. Following the pit stops, Chastain was penalized for an uncontrolled tire.

The second stage started on Lap 112 with the two Kyles on the front row. At the start, Larson pulled away on the inside lane while Kyle Busch struggled to go on the outside lane and caused a stack up with Elliott running into the rear bumper of Busch’s No. 18 Toyota. Behind, Kurt Busch, who was behind Elliott, was bumped and turned by Hamlin as Busch’s No. 1 Chevrolet made hard contact against the outside wall entering Turn 1. Though Busch limped his car back to pit road, the damage was enough to end his strong run early.

Under caution, some like Hamlin, Logano, Suarez and Almirola pitted while the rest led by Larson remained on the track.

The race restarted on Lap 118 with teammates Larson and Byron on the front row. At the start, Blaney muscled his way into the lead over the Hendrick teammates. While Blaney led himself a lap, Larson, with a strong, fast car, was able to reassume the advantage by Lap 120. Behind, Keselowski sustained damage to his fender and hood as a result of running into the back of Truex’s No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry.

By Lap 130, Larson was leading by nearly three seconds over Blaney, who had Bowman closing in for position. DiBenedetto and Byron were in the top five followed by Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch, Buescher, Elliott and Stenhouse.

Twenty laps later, Larson increased his advantage to six seconds over Blaney. By then, Suarez was scored in the top 10 as he was in 10th place behind Buescher.

Nearing the Lap 160 mark, a second round of pit stops under green occurred as the leaders pitted. When the field cycled through following the pit stops and the race reaching the halfway mark, Larson was back out in front by more than five seconds over teammate Bowman with Blaney, DiBenedetto and Kyle Busch in the top five.

By Lap 175, Larson continued to lead by more than seven seconds over teammate Bowman with Blaney trailing by more than eight seconds. DiBenedetto and Kyle Busch continued to run in the top five followed by Byron, Austin Dillon, Hamlin, Buescher and Truex. Suarez, Elliott and Logano were 11th, 14th and 15th while Wallace was in 17th. Harvick, meanwhile, was mired back in 20th, two laps behind the leaders, while Keselowski was in 29th, three laps behind.

Fifteen laps later, Larson extended his advantage to more than nine seconds over teammate Bowman as he continued to set sail with a fast car.

By Lap 200 and in the final laps of the second stage, Larson was leading by nearly 11 seconds over Blaney with third-place Bowman trailing by more than 12 seconds.

With no challengers lurking close behind, Larson was able to cruise to the second stage victory on Lap 210. Blaney crossed the line in second place, trailing by less than eight seconds, followed by Bowman, Kyle Busch and Byron while DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher, Hamlin and Suarez settled in the top 10 and with stage points. By then, 14 of the 39-car field were scored on the lead lap. While Ryan Newman and Elliott remained on the lead lap at the time of caution, names like Logano, Cole Custer, Bubba Wallace, Almirola, McDowell, Harvick, Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell, Cindric, Briscoe, Jones, Reddick and Keselowski were pinned at least a lap behind. Logano, though, received the free pass to return on the lead lap.

Under the stage break, the leaders pitted and Larson retained the lead after exiting pit road with the lead by a narrow nose over Blaney followed by Bowman, teammate Byron, Kyle Busch and DiBenedetto.

With 108 laps remaining, the final stage commenced with teammates Larson and Byron on the front row. At the start, Larson retained the lead followed by Blaney, Bowman, Kyle Busch and Byron while Hamlin made a run alongside DiBenedetto and Suarez behind.

Two laps later, the caution returned due to fluid on the track when smoke started billowing out of Elliott’s No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE entering Turn 4. Though Elliott was able to limp his car back to his pit stall, his crew ended up taking the car to the garage as Elliott’s race came to an end at his home track due to a mechanical failure.

Under caution, the leaders returned to pit road and this time, Blaney exited the pits with the lead over Larson followed by Bowman, Kyle Busch and Byron. Following the pit stops, however, Kyle Busch was sent to the rear of the field due to speeding on pit road.

Prior to the restart, 21 competitor opted for the wave around, with five returning on the lead lap, including Harvick. With than, 20 of the 39-car field were scored on the lead lap.

With 101 laps remaining, the race restarted with Blaney and Hamlin on the front row. At the start, Blaney retained the lead while Larson and Hamlin battled for the runner-up spot along with DiBenedetto.

Six laps later, Blaney was the leader by less than two-tenths of a second over Larson, who worked his way back into the runner-up spot, while Hamlin, Bowman and DiBenedetto were in the top five.

With 90 laps remaining, Blaney stabilized his advantage by four-tenths of a second over Larson with Hamlin, Bowman and Austin Dillon in the top five. By then, names like DiBenedetto, Suarez, Buescher, Newman and Truex were in the top 10 while Byron, Kyle Busch, Logano and Harvick were in 11th, 13th, 15th and 16th.

Two laps later, Larson reassumed the lead over Blaney, who had debris on the front grille of his car.

With 75 laps remaining, Larson was out in front by more than two seconds over Blaney while Hamlin, Bowman and Austin Dillon continued to run in the top five. By then, Suarez, in his sixth race with the newly formed Trackhouse Racing Team, moved up to sixth place ahead of Buescher and DiBenedetto. Behind, Truex and Byron were in the top 10 followed by Kyle Busch.

While Daniel Suarez and Trackhouse Racing Team were in sixth, Bubba Wallace and 23XI Racing were inside the top 15. B.J. McLeod, driving for the newly formed Live Fast Motorsports, was in 34th.

Fifteen laps later, Larson stabilized his advantage to a second over Blaney, with the latter starting to decrease the deficit to himself and the leader. Hamlin, Bowman and Austin Dillon remained in the top five while Suarez, Buescher, DiBenedetto, Truex and Kyle Busch were scored in the top 10. Byron fell back to 11th followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Wallace, Harvick, Newman and Logano.

A lap later, another round of pit stops under green occurred, starting with Truex pitting followed by others, with the teams filling the cars with enough fuel to get to the finish. During the pit stops, rookie Anthony Alfredo spun on pit road and nearly collided against Almirola and his pit crew during Almirola’s service. Despite the incident, the race continued under green.

With 50 laps remaining and the pit stops completed, Larson was back out in front by more than two seconds over Blaney. Bowman was in third followed by Hamlin and Austin Dillon. Teammates Truex and Kyle Busch were in sixth and seventh followed by Byron, Buescher and DiBenedetto. Suarez, who was running in the top 10, was back in 19th, a lap down, after speeding while exiting pit road.

Ten laps later, Larson continued to dominate with an advantage of three seconds over Blaney. Bowman trailed by less than seven seconds in third place while Hamlin and Austin Dillon continued to run in the top five. Kyle Busch, meanwhile, moved up to sixth place over teammate Truex while Byron, Buescher and DiBenedetto continued to run in the top 10.

With 25 laps remaining and the field reaching the Lap 300 mark, Larson was still leading by more than two seconds over Blaney with third-place Bowman trailing by more than eight seconds and fourth-place Hamlin trailing by less than 10 seconds. Kyle Busch, meanwhile, was in fifth place, trailing the lead by less than 15 seconds, following an earlier pass on Austin Dillon.

Five laps later, Larson stabilized his advantage to two seconds over Blaney with third-place Bowman trailing by more than nine seconds. By then, 15 of the 39-car field were scored on the lead lap, with Logano running in 15th place while Wallace was lapped in 16th place.

With the laps winding down and the race transitioning to night conditions, Blaney started to narrow the deficit between himself and Larson, with the former behind by less than a second.

Down to the final 10 laps of the event, Larson was leading by four-tenths of a second over Blaney, who continued to close on Larson with a fast car. By then, Larson was mired behind Logano, who was trying to remain on the lead lap, and was having his large advantage slipping away.

Two laps later, Blaney emerged with the lead in Turn 4 following a battle with Larson and following his late surge for the lead. Shortly after, he pulled away with a four-tenths of a second advantage over Larson, with both overtaking Logano and putting him a lap behind.

Shortly after, Corey LaJoie made contact with the wall, but the race remained under green as LaJoie limped back to pit road.

With five laps remaining, Blaney pulled away by more than a second over Larson with Bowman trailing by less than nine seconds.

Not long after and when the final race started, Blaney continued to lead by nearly two seconds over Larson. With no challengers mounting behind, Blaney was able to come back around following his late surge and grab the checkered flag by two seconds over Larson.

With his victory, Blaney became the sixth different winner through the first six races of the 2021 season as he also claimed his fifth Cup career victory and first since winning at Talladega Superspeedway in June 2020. He also recorded the first Cup victory of the season for Team Penske.

“Gosh, we had a great long run car all day,” Blaney said on FOX. “It took us a little bit to get going. 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 BodyArmor, Menards No. 12 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.”

Larson, who led a race-high 269 of 325 laps, finished in second place for the second time at Atlanta and for his third top-five result in four races this season.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Larson said. “I think [Blaney] just got a lot better there that last stage and it kind of changed up my flow of the race a little bit. 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. 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 we had a really good car that we brought to the track. Our HendrickCars.com Chevy was fast there for a long time. I don’t really know; I don’t know if we got that much worse or he just got way better and, like I said, it just kind of changed up the flow of my race.”

Bowman finished in third place for his first top-five result of the season while teammates Hamlin and Kyle Busch finished in the top five.

Austin Dillon, Buescher, Byron, Truex and Harvick finished in the top 10 on the track. 

DiBenedetto finished 11th, Logano settled in 15th ahead of Wallace and Suarez, Cindric finished 22nd in his second Cup career start, Briscoe was the highest-finishing rookie in 23rd and Keselowski ended his run in 28th.

There were 11 lead changes for six different leaders. The race featured five cautions for 25 laps. 

Hamlin continues to lead the regular-season standings by 43 points over Larson, 63 over Logano, 65 over Truex, 71 over Keselowski and 74 over Harvick.

Results.

1. Ryan Blaney, 25 laps led

2. Kyle Larson, 269 laps led, Stage 1 and 2 winner

3. Alex Bowman

4. Denny Hamlin, 27 laps led

5. Kyle Busch

6. Austin Dillon

7. Chris Buescher

8. William Byron, two laps led

9. Martin Truex Jr. 

10. Kevin Harvick

11. Matt DiBenedetto

12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

13. Ryan Newman

14. Ross Chastain

15. Joey Logano, one lap down

16. Bubba Wallace, one lap down

17. Daniel Suarez, one lap down, one lap led

18. Cole Custer, one lap down

19. Michael McDowell, one lap down

20. Aric Almirola, one lap down

21. Christopher Bell, two laps down

22. Austin Cindric, two laps down

23. Chase Briscoe, two laps down

24. Erik Jones, two laps down

25. Ryan Preece, two laps down

26. Tyler Reddick, two laps down

27. Anthony Alfredo, three laps down

28. Brad Keselowski, four laps down

29. Corey LaJoie, six laps down

30. Justin Haley, six laps down

31. Cody Ware, nine laps down

32. James Davison, nine laps down

33. Quin Houff, 11 laps down

34. B.J. McLeod, 12 laps down

35. Joey Gase, 17 laps down

36. Timmy Hill, 20 laps down

37. Josh Bilicki, 40 laps down

38. Chase Elliott – OUT, Engine

39. Kurt Busch – OUT, Accident, one lap led

Next on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule is the highly anticipated Food City Dirt Race at the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Course on Sunday, March 28, which will mark the series’ first event on dirt since 1970. The event is slated to occur at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

Andrew Kim
An avid motorsports enthusiast from California with aspirations of working in any form of communications, PR or digital/social media in motorsports.

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