Every driver has a unique situation and skill level that makes comparing racers from different eras wildly speculative and a little unfair. But for me, the career trajectory of this week’s winner Ryan Blaney is beginning to mirror that of Ricky Rudd. Think about it: Solid equipment but not universally viewed as elite. He doesn’t run at the front every week but is almost a constant presence somewhere between fifth and 15th. Not to mention, he always seems to be good for at least one win every year on a wide assortment of track types. Those statements could easily be describing either driver.
Rudd only had a couple good runs at a championship, losing to Dale Earnhardt in 1991 and Jeff Gordon 10 years later. Will Blaney be able to do one better? Time will tell, but for now, let’s take a look at some of the notable numbers from the weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Six different drivers have won the first six Cup Series races in 2021. That doesn’t happen a whole lot. In fact, the last such occurrence was in 2003 when we didn’t see a repeat winner until race number 10. The only three winners that year who are still wheeling cars around Cup tracks? Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.
In fact, it was Busch who was the first repeat winner in 2003, as he claimed race six at Bristol and the 10th round at California (Auto Club) Speedway.
Michael McDowell has enjoyed the best start of any year in his career to this point, but there is one dubious statistic that he was once again unable to escape at Atlanta. Sunday marked his 11th race at the 1.5 mile Hampton, GA facility and for the 11th time, McDowell failed to finish on the lead lap. The Daytona 500 winner leads all active drivers in starts at AMS without a lead lap finish.
However, he is still well off the all time mark in the category. Buddy Arrington started 34 races at AMS and never finished on the same lap as the winner. Though Arrington raced when the Cup cars raced at Atlanta twice each year so the chances that McDowell even gets close are basically non-existent.
Kyle Larson won 42 feature races on dirt in assorted rides last year during his forced hiatus from Cup racing. Now back in one of the top rides and already holding the Las Vegas win in his pocket, Larson will participate in the first Cup Series race on dirt in the modern era, which began in 1972. Larson has been a force through the first six races, finishing in the top 10 five times and leading 379 laps thus far.
None of the drivers who will race this weekend were even born yet when Richard Petty took the win on a half-mile dirt track in Raleigh, NC on Sept. 30, 1970. Since then, every event has been on an asphalt or concrete paved surface. But given his experience on dirt and his results in 2021, Larson will almost certainly be the odds on favorite to win.
For the first time in over 13 years, Bill Lester took the green flag in a Truck Series race. Lester, who last ran a truck at Nashville back in 2007, finished 36th, but it marked a fulfillment of sorts for the 60-year-old. Back in 2006, Lester was the first African American to make a Cup start in 20 years when he qualified 19th in a Bill Davis No. 23 car at Atlanta.
The truck series race at Bristol will be the eighth time that the tour has run on dirt. In the first seven at Eldora Speedway, seven different drivers went o victory lane, and the most common connection between them is a plethora of previous dirt racing experience. Five of the seven now race in Cup, so I’d look for those competitors to stand out on the stat sheet after the checkered flag. Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe and Larson are all in good equipment and have the pedigree to get it done.