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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Quaker State 400 at Atlanta

What happened?

Kurt Busch won the Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday (July 11) after holding off his little brother during an intense final run to the checkered flag.

Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Chase Elliott rocketed to the lead on the start and paced the field for 13 laps until Kyle Busch took over. The competition caution came at lap 25 as Denny Hamlin passed Busch for the lead exiting pit road.

On the second lap after the restart, there was a big wreck involving Cody Ware, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Suarez. Ware took it four-wide on the inside entering turn 2, causing a chain reaction and collecting his two Cup rivals.

Busch continued to lead once the race went back green with his brother Kurt pulling into second. The No. 18 led for the remainder of the stage, which went caution free, for his fourth stage win of 2021.

Kurt Busch got the lead on pit road and held it on the restart. Alex Bowman and Tyler Reddick briefly got past Kyle Busch for second and third before Busch regained those positions later in the run.

Rain began to threaten midway through the second stage, but that didn’t stop most of the field from making scheduled green-flag stops. Aric Almirola and Ryan Preece tried to stretch it, staying out to lead in hopes of a storm that never came. In the end, the stops cycled through without incident and Kurt Busch got back to the front with 28 to go in the second stage. The No. 1 Chevrolet kept the lead as Busch won his third stage of the season.

During the stage break, the red flag was thrown due to a problem with the racing surface. Chunks of pavement had disappeared, creating potholes similar to what happened at Martinsville Speedway in 2004

Following a 19-minute red flag, the race restarted with 90 laps to go as Kurt stayed ahead of Kyle. The two were within a second of each other for most of the run as the rest of the field fell back. Green flag stops began with 50 to go, and once they were over, it was Kyle holding a one-second lead over Kurt. 

The No. 1 chipped away at the lead for the next 15 laps when Kyle came up on Ross Chastain. Chastain didn’t outwardly block the No. 18, though he certainly didn’t cut him any breaks. While Kyle struggled to pass, Kurt came up and took the lead with 23 laps to go.

The final 23 circuits were intense, with Kyle nearly clearing Kurt on the inside with under 10 laps remaining. Then, with seven laps left, Kyle kissed the wall and effectively ended his chances. 

Kurt stretched the lead out to a 1.237-second margin of victory for his 33rd career win (tied for 25th all-time) and his fourth at Atlanta (first since 2010).

Who stood out?

Kurt Busch proved he’s far from finished after a dominant performance. The No. 1 has shown improved speed over the last few weeks, earning four top 10s in his last five starts entering Atlanta. Busch took it a step further on Sunday, leading far more laps (144) than he had led in the first 20 races combined (26).

Now, owner Chip Ganassi will go out a winner and Busch will get another shot at a second title. It seems like a longshot, given his current point position and the team’s lame duck status. But the last few weeks have been a huge shift in momentum. Would anyone be that surprised if Busch advances into the Round of 8, earning a chance to go win his way into the Championship 4 finale?

The younger Busch brother isn’t leaving Atlanta very happy, though he should still be plenty optimistic. It’s now a streak of eight straight races finishing 11th or better for the No. 18, with seven of those being top 10s and six of them being top fives. Even better for Busch? He didn’t get beat by a Hendrick Motorsports car this week. While the HMS group was noticeably off, Busch didn’t skip a beat. There aren’t many races the rest of the way where he won’t be considered among the favorites.

Busch’s 2021 anger is a lot more promising than his 2020 tirades. Last year, the team just wasn’t good enough and you could tell he needed a change. With a new crew chief in Ben Beshore, Busch’s 2021 frustration is just about close losses as the team already has multiple wins. This type of anger from KB is dangerous for the rest of the field because he knows the team hasn’t reached its full potential.

I’ve ragged on Truex a lot since his last win, so now is the time to give credit where it’s due. He started in the rear after the car failed inspection twice and it didn’t really matter. MTJ raced his way to ninth at the end of the first stage. Following contact on pit road with Kevin Harvick, the No. 19 Toyota again started at the rear to begin stage two before racing up to 10th. Truex was quick all day, making it up to third, and potentially could’ve challenged for the win with a late caution.

Who fell flat?

Luck hasn’t been on Kyle Larson’s side, but he’s still coming back down to earth lately. Entering the Pocono Raceway doubleheader, it felt like the No. 5 would never lose again. Then, he had the tire blow on the final corner at Pocono, early damage the next day, a late spin at Road America and a late speeding penalty at Atlanta. Larson is still the title favorite right now, it’s hard to dispute that. Atlanta was a notable drop in production, though, as he didn’t lead any laps after pacing the field for 269 in March.

With five races left until the playoffs begin, it’s fair to wonder if Larson and HMS are holding back some secrets. They piled up playoff points and now, could they be saving their best stuff for September? Or has the playing field leveled out? We won’t know for a few more weeks, but it’s worth monitoring here as the regular season winds down.

Stenhouse’s season has gone off the rails after a promising start. He was 14th in points after Richmond Raceway. Since then, he’s had twice as many finishes of 20th or worse (eight) than top 15s (four). The No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet driver is now in complete must-win mode; the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway is probably his only chance. While always a threat at superspeedway races, it’s just discouraging that it came to this point for Stenhouse after a strong first few months.

What did this race prove?

Atlanta’s old surface gave us one last iconic finish. I’m not ready to kill Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) for planning the reconfiguration without consulting drivers enough. Instead, I want to wait and see what racing actually looks like when we show up next year. Still, there’s no denying that the existing layout and surface produced some of the most memorable races of the 21st century. It started with Dale Earnhardt edging Bobby Labonte in 2000, then the legendary Harvick win over Jeff Gordon just weeks after Earnhardt’s death in 2001.

The great finishes continued in 2005, when Carl Edwards nosed ahead of Jimmie Johnson for his first win. Six years later, in 2011, we had Gordon and Johnson’s epic battle.

The Kurt-Kyle slugfest to close the doors on the current surface will go down in history with the races above. It didn’t have the last-lap pass or photo finish, but there’s no denying how great those last 30 or 40 laps were. The drivers were using up all their stuff and they had to navigate traffic constantly. It was the perfect way to finish this chapter of racing in Atlanta.

We need to cherish the Busch brothers while they’re around, because it won’t last forever. Brothers racing for wins has been a staple of NASCAR for years. Whether it was the Allisons, the Labontes or any other famous siblings, there’s always a family aspect to the sport. The Busch brothers are arguably the most successful pair of brothers, as both will surely end up in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and among the top 25 on the all-time win list. Bobby Allison is No. 1 overall among the three families mentioned, but Kyle and Kurt are likely Nos. 2 and 3. On aggregate, the Busches take the cake.

Both are in the second half of their careers, so it’s always important to step back and appreciate history. They’ve raced for wins seemingly once per season over the last handful of years. It doesn’t happen often, so it’s cool when it does. Based on Kurt’s post-race interview, it appears we’ll be getting at least another season of battles — even if we don’t know where he’ll race in 2022 just yet.

Team orders are fair game and Chastain did nothing wrong in the closing laps. Kyle Busch didn’t like it, obviously. If the tables were turned, though, he wouldn’t have had any problem with his teammate blocking Kurt Busch.

Chastain didn’t aggressively block the No. 18, he just didn’t get out of the way. Chastain was trying to stay on the lead lap, after all. It was very similar to Joey Logano staying in his lane ahead of Larson in March, which allowed Ryan Blaney to win.

Paint scheme of the race

There’s something that feels right around a red No. 9 on the track. From Bill Elliott to Kasey Kahne, the number and the color became synonymous with one another through the years. We don’t get to see the two paired together often anymore with Chase Elliott mainly sponsored by NAPA Auto Parts, so this weekend’s Adrenaline Shoc design was my standout scheme.

Better than last year?

Atlanta only had one race last year, so — like I did in March — I’ll compare this event to 2020’s June race. In that 500-mile event, there were plenty of long green runs with heavy tire falloff. There was only one caution for an on-track incident, with Truex winning the first two stages before Harvick ran away to post nearly a four-second victory. Only 10 cars were on the lead lap at the checkered flag.

This year, there was a similar feel in that there was only one caution for a wreck. The finish to this race was vastly improved, though as the battle between the Busch brothers was better than anything we’ve seen at Atlanta in years. It spanned 30-to-40 laps and there was actual doubt as to who would win for the entire last run of the race.

Playoff picture

Kurt Busch is the first new winner since Elliott at Circuit of the Americas, making him the 12th different winner this season. Busch was the 16th and final driver in the playoffs on points entering Atlanta, so this victory widens the points gap back to 17th.

Hamlin (leads Larson in the overall standings by 10 points, +369 playoff cushion) and Harvick (+159) remain comfortable, yet frustrated without victories this late into the regular season. The RCR duo of Austin Dillon (+104) and Tyler Reddick (+96) hold the final two playoff spots, but any new winner outside the top 16 would bump one of them out. Buescher (-96, was +50 five races ago), Matt DiBenedetto (-138), Ross Chastain (-145) and Bubba Wallace (-148) are the closest drivers outside the postseason.

Here’s a look at the full standings following Atlanta with just five regular season races left.

What’s next?

The Cup Series heads north for its annual trip to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. This weekend will be the final race before a two-week break as NBC turns its coverage to the Tokyo Olympics. The Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 will go green at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday (July 18) from Loudon, N.H. with television coverage provided by NBC Sports Network.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: ATLANTA

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DoninAjax

Baby Busch seems to have problems passing lapped cars. I wrote this before that if he drove with his brain instead of his right foot he’d have a lot more wins in Cup.

Echo

I still remember when Kurt said, ” if you think I’m good, then wait till you see my little brother, he’s even better than I am ” .

DoninAjax

“Kyle kissed the wall”

He does that a lot because he overdrives the car. To paraphrase a great man, “A man’s got to know his car’s limitations.”

jobe

So does Kyle Larson.

DoninAjax

Sometimes experience is better than exuberance.

Bill B

A decent race yesterday. I’m not a fan of either Busch but if I had to chose I was glad Kurt won if only for the fact that he isn’t always a front runner and is on a second tier team. I would have thought Kyle would be a little less bitter since it was his brother that won but apparently not. That’s probably Kurt’s one win for the season and perhaps his last depending on where he lands next year. I’d still say he’s an extreme long shot for making it to the final 8 but anything is possible.

If I had one wish for the Atlanta repave it is that it would still wear tires out before a fuel run. I always enjoy races more when tire wear is an issue.

I did laugh at the recorded interview with Kyle Busch when he called out “Recky Spinhouse” as the driver that causes the most wrecks.

jobe

Kyle was in Victory Lane congratulating Kurt.

Last edited 22 days ago by jobe
jobe
Jeremy

“Recky Spinhouse” was hilarious. Kyle has a sharp sense of humor at times, and when he’s in the right mood can be entertaining to listen to. However, I was disappointed he lived up to his old nickname “Cryle” after finishing 2nd to his brother. Everyone here knows darn good and well if the situation was reversed (Kurt leading with Kyle looking to make a move, coming up on a Gibbs car in traffic) the same action by a JGR car would have taken place to help Kyle.

jobe

I hate team orders and I really think they have hurt NASCAR. Seems like the worst aspect of F1 has infected the sport with this whole stupid teammate crap. The way everybody at HMS fell over themselves last week to assure us that Bowman didn’t hit Larson on purpose was embarrassing.

However, I agree that Kyle could have stifled his disdain in favor of being supportive of his brother.

Carl D.

I’ve never enjoyed a Kurt Busch win as much as I did yesterday. I went out and bought a watermelon to celebrate.

jobe

 late speeding penalty at Atlanta. Larson is still the title favorite right now, it’s hard to dispute that. Atlanta was a notable drop in production, though, as he didn’t lead any laps after pacing the field for 269 in March.

With five races left until the playoffs begin, it’s fair to wonder if Larson and HMS are holding back some secrets. They piled up playoff points and now, could they be saving their best stuff for September? Or has the playing field leveled out? We won’t know for a few more weeks, but it’s worth monitoring here as the regular season winds down.

It’s amusing to see the Larson bandwagon jumpers try to justify every loss as some kind of bad luck. A speeding penalty is driver error, not bad luck. Furthermore, he wasn’t challenging for the lead before the penalty. And now suggesting that his team is “saving their best stuff” is wishful thinking on your part. They just flat out got beat this week and last week.

I’m saving my biggest laughter for those who actually bet real money on Larson in this race after all the “experts” said he was sure to win.

David Edwards

Saving their best stuff is a bit silly. While you’re doing that the engineers for the other teams find new things and you’re behind.

Tom B

Kurt Busch went off at 33 to 1. Nice pay day.

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