After winning the pole for Saturday’s Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch was a non-factor for much of the race, hovering inside the top five.
Other Cup Series veterans, such as Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, went on to dominate the majority of the event. It was the first start for the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and the team led 64 laps, with Harvick behind the wheel, the most of all drivers and came home fourth. The No. 22 car won the opening stage of the race, but came up a half-second short of Busch, finishing runner up to the No. 18 car for the fifth time since the beginning of 2013.
Busch’s victory marks his second-career triumph at Atlanta, also winning last year from the pole. In 2016, the victory at the 1.5-mile track was the first of three consecutive checkered flags for the No. 18 car, ending the year with 10 wins.
“We weren’t great early on,” Busch said. “Scott Graves [crew chief] and these guys worked on this car all day long. They really brought the NOS Energy Toyota to life at the end. It took me so long to get here and win, now we’ve won two in a row.”
The victory at Atlanta is Busch’s first of 10 scheduled appearances in the XFINITY Series in 2017. The Las Vegas native will be back in the car next weekend at his home track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and in three weeks at Auto Club Speedway before taking a three-month hiatus and returning at Michigan International Speedway in mid-June.
This race was the last for the XFINITY series on the worn-out 1.5-mile surface. Following Sunday’s 500-mile event, Atlanta will be repaved, much to the drivers displeasure because of the quality racing that goes on in Georgia.
For the past few years, strategy has become an important element to the XFINITY Series at Atlanta due to the surface. Every time there is a pit stop, drivers will be taking four tires in any of the three series.
On Saturday, the surface favored the rookies William Byron and Daniel Hemric, with the latter picking up his first career top-10 finish in his second career race. At the end of the first stage, the No. 21 car was running fifth, the highest XFINITY Series regular.
On the first pit stop, Hemric slid through his pit stall, losing 10 positions and forcing him to restart in 15th place. It didn’t take the North Carolina native long before he was back in the top 10, only to find adversity midway through the final stage of the race.
Just after a restart with 38 laps to go, Hemric got loose entering Turn 3, sliding into the outside wall. Continuing to march forward after losing a handful of positions, the No. 21 car finished the afternoon in ninth place.
Sure, the racing was superb throughout the day, but in the end, Cup Series regulars took up positions one-four with Elliott Sadler rounding out the top five.
The race was dominated by Busch, Keselowski, Harvick and Kyle Larson, combining to lead all 163 laps. Until Denny Hamlin made an unscheduled pit stop with 60 laps to go, the top five was filled with Cup Series stars through the majority of the opening 100 laps.
Despite NASCAR’s new rule of limiting Cup Series drivers to 10 races in the XFINITY Series, expect the races to continue to be dominated by drivers in the top series. Team owners will now spread the races out between drivers in the Cup Series. Take Hamlin for instance: he hadn’t competed in an preliminary race at Atlanta since 2012 when he finished 12th.
Koch and Dillon were put on the five-minute clock. The No. 3 team repaired its Chevrolet and the team finished the opening stage in 12th position, while the No. 11 car retired from the race, finishing last.
With 10 laps to go in the opening segment, Allgaier cut down a tire, putting him another lap down. Considered one of the championship favorites, he finished the afternoon four laps down in 30th, starting the season with a pair of 30th-place finishes.
Underdog Performance of the Race
Smacking the wall at the beginning of the race, Darrell Wallace Jr. spent the rest of the first segment hanging on to the lead lap, narrowly edging out Keselowski when the green and white flags flew to close the opening 40 laps. The No. 6 team restarted from 16th position and hovered around 10th until the final restart.
Wallace’s No. 6 pit crew gained him three positions during a pit stop with less than 20 laps to go. On the resuming restart, the outside line stalled, allowing his Ford to jump up as high as fourth, going on to finish sixth.
“It was about not giving up,” Wallace said. “Don’t give up on the team or the car and things will hopefully play out in your favor. We were able to capitalize on that restart and make the most of it. We didn’t have the speed to run with these guys so we really had to work for it there. We had a bit enough cushion because my car was falling off fast. I used it up.”
Double Duty Interlopers
Cup Series regulars dominated Atlanta, combined to lead every single lap. Teams that were under the radar a bit were Austin Dillon, who came home eighth. Early on, every single gauge in the No. 2 car was blinking red, making the 2013 series champion believe he was blowing up.
At the end of the race, Dillon was the first of five RCR cars in the running order.
Aric Almirola came home 19th, after starting 15th. The No. 98 was a non-factor all afternoon long, following off the lead lap at one point of the race. He finished the race as the last car on the lead lap.
“To get second is kissing your sister but it is still better than nothing I guess. We had a really good car today and some good adjustments at the end to pick up a little speed.” – Brad Keselowski
“It was like the race track went away from us and kind of came to everybody else. We made it better the last run. It was a great opening week for us. I wish we could have won, but all in all I think it was a great week for us.”
“We like to lay low. I am all about that. I was frustrated as hell that first run but I told myself that this was exactly what we had talked about and we would come back. And we did. We have a new attitude at the shop and we are all about not giving up. Watching Ryan (Reed) last weekend spin out twice – I wish I had the luck he had last weekend.” – Darrell Wallace Jr.
The Final Word
While the racing was excellent in the XFINITY Series event, the front running cars were no surprise. Busch extended his series record 87 victories, while Harvick never left the bottom of the race track. The driver of the No. 41 car has four career victories and has led 832 laps at Atlanta, both series records.
Larson spent much of the afternoon next to the wall, and before the last caution was on his way of winning. XFINITY Series regulars made up the back half of the top 10, and strong runs by the rookies will be a momentum boost going forward.
Heading into Atlanta, some of the series favorites for the title, Allgiaer, Brennan Poole and Matt Tifft need to pick up the pace. The three of them have yet to record a top-10 finish in either of the first two events of 2017.
The XFINITY Series heads to the desert for the next two weeks, kicking off the NASCAR Goes West campaign at Las Vegas. Green flag is set to fly at 4:00 p.m. ET next Saturday, March 11.
About the author
Dustin joined the Frontstretch team at the beginning of the 2016 season. 2020 marks his sixth full-time season covering the sport that he grew up loving. His dream was to one day be a NASCAR journalist, thus why he attended Ithaca College (Class of 2018) to earn a journalism degree. Since the ripe age of four, he knew he wanted to be a storyteller.
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