NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta

What happened?

Ryan Blaney won the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday (March 21) after passing Kyle Larson with eight laps to go for the victory.

Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Hamlin led the field to green and pulled ahead of Martin Truex Jr. on the initial start as the race started off relatively calm. Larson quickly moved up to second as Hamlin led all 25 laps before the competition caution.

Kevin Harvick exited pit road third under caution, but he had a tire go flat just as the race was about to get back under green. He didn’t lose a lap at first, though Larson (the new race leader after pit stops) was close behind him.

The race stayed green for the remainder of stage one. Larson continued to lead as the field cycled through pit stops around lap 63. After the cars got back on track, Larson ran down and lapped Harvick, as well as numerous others. At the end of the first stage, only 19 cars were on the lead lap.

The second stage began with a bang, as the outside line got stacked up on the restart and Kurt Busch was punted into the wall. Kyle Busch spun his tires at the front of the line, forcing Chase Elliott and Kurt Busch to check up. Hamlin got into the back of the No. 1 and sent him out of the way, thus ending his promising day early.

Blaney briefly took the lead from Larson on the next restart before the No. 5 got back out front. The stage remained green until the end, with expected contenders like Harvick, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski still lapped. Only 14 cars were on the lead lap after the second stage.

Similar to stage two, the third stage momentarily went green before a quick caution. This time, it was Elliott, whose engine expired while running just outside the top 10.

Blaney again got to the lead over Larson on the restart before trash got on his grille. Larson took over the top spot and Blaney cleared the debris while settling into second place.

The final green flag stops of the race began with 59 laps to go. Larson maintained and even slightly stretched his lead over Blaney, who was the only driver within striking distance. Blaney remained around three seconds back, while third place Bowman was over eight seconds behind.

Larson appeared to be waltzing to victory until he came up on Logano, who was the last car on the lead lap. Larson’s car started to struggle in traffic as Logano made it difficult to pass. Blaney closed the gap and got around Larson with eight laps to go.

Immediately after Blaney passed Larson, Logano moved out of the way for the No. 12 to set sail.

Blaney won the race by a comfortable 2.083 seconds over Larson for his fifth career victory in 204 starts. Larson led a race-high 269 laps compared to just 25 for Blaney.

Who stood out?

After giving away so many races in the final stages last season, Blaney proved he can seal the deal. We saw on multiple occasions last year where the No. 12 team had race-winning speed and just couldn’t close the deal. He led at least 30 laps in eight races and only won once (Talladega Superspeedway). Now, the tables are turned and Blaney snagged one where he clearly wasn’t the dominant car.

While getting that first win is huge for playoff purposes, Blaney can’t be satisfied. He’s won one race in five straight seasons now, but he’s never won twice in a year. At age 27, it’s about time for YRB to start racking up multi-win seasons in that Team Penske equipment. He’s fully capable, it’s just crucial for him to continue closing races like he did Sunday rather than how he did in 2020.

GABLE: Blaney Underrated Clutch Performer For Penske

Larson let one slip away in Atlanta, but he’s still shown incredible speed in the first three 1.5-mile races this season. The No. 5 has been among the best cars at every race this season since the Daytona 500. Larson’s already led over 100 laps in two of six races this year, a feat that he accomplished twice in 36 races in 2019. Even though his car went away late and he had to settle for second, Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels have to be thrilled with the speed they’ve shown.

Now we head to the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race, where Larson has to be the overwhelming favorite. He spent most of 2020 winning dirt races across the country while all his Cup competitors were riding around on asphalt and concrete surfaces. It’s going to be fun to see him wheel a Cup car around a high-banked dirt track next weekend.

Chris Buescher running in the top 10 (seventh) is becoming less of a fluke. At Homestead-Miami Speedway, it was a shock to see him up there winning a stage and staying up front without any sort of pit strategy. Atlanta is a track with similar tire wear, so this wasn’t as much of a surprise. The Roush Fenway Racing cars certainly have this track type figured out and they’ll be happy to come back for a second visit in July.

Who fell flat?

Elliott just hasn’t been on the level of his teammates this season. Granted, it’s a completely different story if there’s no caution for rain at the Daytona International Speedway road course and Elliott rolled to victory lane. But there was a caution for rain, and now Elliott is six races into his title defense with as many top fives (two) as finishes outside the top 20.

Perhaps more discouraging is seeing how well his three teammates have run recently. Larson ruled at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Atlanta, while William Byron dominated at Homestead. Bowman has been the worst of the four, but he showed great speed in Atlanta. Elliott should be nowhere near panicking – he’s tied for ninth in points and just 31 points back of third – though his team definitely has work to do as we get into the thick of the season.

Kurt Busch saw a lot of potential points slip away when he wrecked early in Atlanta. Busch said it best: the car showed top-five speed and had the potential to grab a lot of stage points and potentially a win. Instead, he leaves Atlanta with a 39th-place run and just seven stage points.

Similar to the Roush Fenway cars, Busch seems to favor the older track surfaces that wear tires. He was eighth at Homestead-Miami Speedway and was poised to finish even better before Sunday’s incident. The No. 1 was also quick at the Daytona road course, so the remaining road courses should be a good opportunity to pick up points.

What did this race prove?

The Atlanta racing surface hit its stride in the early-to-mid 2010s and it’s finally time for a repave. It’s been long overdue, as the racing has been lackluster for a few years now since they first delayed the repave. With a repave, I don’t think anyone would be opposed to a reconfiguration back to the original layout. Texas Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway are all shaped similarly to Atlanta, while Homestead is the only track with the rectangular-oval layout.

Luckily, it seems like the speedway is moving toward a repave. FOX Sports’ Bob Pockrass had the details from Atlanta track general manager Brandon Hutchison earlier Sunday.

Stewart-Haas Racing has serious problems. Atlanta was the track where they were supposed to figure it out. Harvick has made this place his personal playground over the last several years. Clint Bowyer led 58 laps in an SHR car here last year. Instead, three cars finished outside the top 15 and Harvick was lucky to get back to 10th.

SHR struggles have been a growing issue over the past few years since Kurt Busch left following the 2018 season. Outside of Harvick, the team just doesn’t have a bona fide No. 2 driver. Hendrick and Gibbs both have four race-winning threats each week. Penske has three. For SHR, it’s Harvick-or-bust far too often. The team needs another established veteran, especially with Harvick only getting older. They’d be wise to snatch up Keselowski if he doesn’t sign another extension with Penske.

The two newest race teams – Trackhouse and 23XI Racing – are both making an early impression in their debut seasons. Let’s start with Daniel Suarez. The No. 99 was bad fast on Sunday, running up front with the big boys all afternoon until a speeding penalty on the final green flag pit stop. He came home 17th, but his car was certainly capable of a top 10. Suarez is 23rd in points, 49 back of 16th place.

GLOVER: Suarez Leads The Underdogs At Atlanta

Bubba Wallace finished 16th on Sunday. It was a solid, unspectacular result, but a result that 23XI needs. Logging laps for data is crucial to success down the road. That’s now two weeks in a row where Wallace has finished 16th, and that team continues to perform just as well as Leavine Family Racing did last year. With a whole new team and crew, it’s an impressive start for 23XI, even if the results don’t necessarily show it. Wallace is 19th in points, 26 back of 16th. Christopher Bell was 29th in points after six races last year in similar equipment.

Paint scheme of the race

Bell’s Sirius XM Toyota was the best look in Atlanta. Sirius XM has churned out some strong paint schemes over the years with the black base. The switch to a white base was a pleasant surprise and it worked perfectly on this design.

Better than last year?

Last year, the Atlanta race was held in June after it was the first race postponed in March due to COVID-19. As usual in Atlanta, there were long green flag runs with heavy tire falloff. Truex won both of the first two stages, which each only had one caution for an on-track incident. The final stage went completely green, with Harvick winning the race by almost four seconds. Only 10 cars finished the race on the lead lap. 

This year’s race was more of the same in Atlanta. Long green flag runs, tire falloff and a spaced out field are what we saw most of the day. Instead of Harvick, it was Larson dominating the race. Only three drivers led at least 25 laps this year, compared to four last year. The racing was similar but the late lead change and pass for the win give 2021 the slightest of edges. Both races were subpar, so the tie goes to the race with the better finish.

Playoff picture

Six races, six different winners. Blaney, Truex, Larson, Byron, Christopher Bell and Michael McDowell are “locked” into the playoffs, so we’ve already got six of 16 playoff spots filled up. Of the 20 remaining regular season races, there are five road courses, two superspeedways and one dirt track. Clearly, anything is possible and that includes having more than 16 race winners for the first time in this playoff system’s history.

Through the first nine races of 2021 (including the Clash and two Duels), we have seen nine different winners. That hasn’t happened since 2001. There aren’t too many surprises left in the playoff picture, as Buescher holds the 16th and final spot.

What’s next?

The highly-anticipated Bristol dirt race has finally arrived. It’ll be the first time the Cup Series races on dirt since 1970 when Richard Petty won at State Fairgrounds Speedway. The schedule for next weekend will feel more like a traditional NASCAR weekend, with two one-hour practice sessions on Friday (March 26) and four 15-lap heat races on Saturday (March 27) to determine the starting lineup for the Food City Dirt Race.

The green flag on Sunday (March 28) is set for 3:30 p.m. ET with television coverage provided by Fox.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: ATLANTA

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15 Comments
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Bill B

It was nice to see Blaney win, especially since Larson has already won a race. The race wasn’t great but I’m not complaining, it wasn’t terrible either. The way Blaney ran down and passed Larson saved the race from being a dud. Perhaps it is time for a repave even though that means substandard racing for several years. The one thing that makes Atlanta decent is the tire wear, I hate to lose that but it is inevitable.
It has become apparent that Larson was being held back by Ganassi equipment. Many of us thought he was over-hyped based on his pre-HMS stats but now that he’s in top tier equipment he has been a weekly contender.

On to Bristol and a hokey race on dirt that I doubt anyone knows what to expect. Will it be awesome or a disaster? We will soon find out.

Joe D.

I’m not all that excited about the dirt race – I’d love to be proven wrong next week but this seems more like a desperate gimmick than an exciting event.

Carl D.

The Penske driver with the worst start to the season gets the organization’s first victory of the season. So far in 2021 there have been no victories by Busch, Hamlin, Harvick, Logano, Kes, or Elliott. This season has felt a bit surreal since the Daytona 500. Next week we go dirt track racing in Bristol… cue the Rod Sterling intro.

janice

i got a few naps in during the race.

i wonder if stewart’s other ventures are having an impact on his nascar teams. i can’t believe kevin harvick is struggling so much, and do not believe bowyer was the glue that held the group together.

onto dirty bristol. somehow is see a mud pit ending up there. what will they do with all that compounded dirt once the weekend is over with?

Carl D.

SHR has a rookie driver, a second-year driver currently in a sophomore slump, a 45 year-old driver, and Almirola, a driver who has yet to find any consistency. I have to agree with Logan… SHR needs to make a strong effort to sign Keselowski.

Tom B

After the NA$CAR experiment, Bristol will have the World of Outlaws come in April. Saving the best racing for last.

Jo

I don’t thinks an engine failure means Elliott’s team is “behind” his teammates. What is more concerning is that for that last 15 or so races going back to last season, his car routinely fails inspection and starts at the rear. Sure, he worked himself up to 10th without much apparent difficulty, but he had to be using up his tires. Plus losing valuable track position at every stop when he appeared to be capable of running Top Five. If they are trying to skirt the line between legal and illegal, they are doing a piss-poor job of it. Larson’s car is suspiciously fast and they are getting away with it.

Kevin in SoCal

Why is Ryan Blaney called YRB when his name is Ryan Michael Blaney?

Robert

Young Ryan Blaney

Echo

Is bubba really doing that well !!
39 cars started. bubba with Gibbs backing, should beat :
Bilicki
Hill
Case
McLeod
Houff
Davison
Ware
Haley
LaJoie
Alfredo
PreeceJones
Cindric
Custer
Suarez
Mcdowell
Every single week. Then you have engine failures or wrecked out like busch & Elliott this week and you have at least 15 of the 39 cars bubba should finish ahead of . So is bubba doing that good ! Time will tell. Just play it safe and let better cars fall by the wayside.

Bill B

That’s a good point and it does put his finishes in perspective but, I have to admit, he has done better than I expected.
My first thought is that they must be paying for the full JGR treatment plan, much like Furniture Row Racing was when Truex won his championship. We may have a not so well hidden 5th JGR team in the guise of a new team.

Jo

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the #23 is a JGR car.

Echo

I agree.

DoninAjax

Do you think Michael is paying for extra help to Reverend Joe?

DoninAjax

Bubba got a free pass on the last caution for fluid on the track. If he had been one position lower he wouldn’t have got it and chances are pretty good the caution wouldn’t have come out.

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