How NASCAR Got Its Mojo Back in a Big Way at Atlanta

Jackson Wheeler
8 Min Read


  • It was the third-closest 1-2 finish in Cup Series history and likely its all-time closest 1-2-3 finish.
  • With Daniel Suarez on the outside, Kyle Busch in the middle, and Ryan Blaney on the bottom, their dead-heat finish was virtually impossible sort out with the naked eye.
  • The race did wonders to uplift the Cup Series following last weekend’s weather-delayed Daytona 500 that followed a rain-marred Busch Light Clash at the LA Coliseum.

Just when NASCAR desperately needed something good to help regain its mojo, along came Sunday afternoon’s Ambetter Health 400 near Atlanta to make things all better.

Thank you, winner Daniel Suarez of Trackhouse Racing.

Thank you, runner-up Ryan Blaney of Team Penske.

Thank you, third-place Kyle Busch of Richard Childress Racing.

And thank you, electronic timing and scoring for immediately giving us that 0.003-second margin of victory after 260 laps around the 1.5-mile track. It was the third-closest 1-2 finish in Cup Series history and likely its all-time closest 1-2-3 finish. With Suarez on the outside, Busch in the middle, and Blaney on the bottom, their dead-heat finish was virtually impossible sort out with the naked eye.

Whew! It’s about time fans had something to smile about.

Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway helped rinse away the foul taste lingering from the weather-impacted Busch Light Clash three weeks ago in the LA Coliseum. NASCAR correctly moved that much-hyped and terribly overrated exhibition from Sunday up to Saturday as unprecedented storms raved the area for several days. The rescheduled event opening without charge to the public wasn’t exactly how NASCAR wanted to open its season.

And that 0.003-second MOV at Atlanta did wonders to uplift the Cup Series following last weekend’s weather-delayed Daytona 500. The sport’s most important event will best be remembered by many fans for long stretches of ho-hum, stay-in-line racing, punctuated by crashes that set up a 1-2 finish by Hendrick Motorsports drivers William Byron and Alex Bowman.

Afterward, a handful of drivers voiced their displeasure at having to run much of the Daytona 500 with a conservative, fuel-economy mindset. ((NASCAR has pledged a “deep dive” into ways to prevent future fuel-economy strategies). There was none of that lollygagging – at least not nearly so obviously—in Sunday’s 400-miler.

auto feb 25 nascar cup series ambetter health 400

Icon Sportswire//Getty Images

Daniel Suarez, left, and Bubba Wallace, right, weren’t the only ones hugging after Sunday’s race in Atlanta that produced one of the most exciting finishes in NASCAR history.

“Disgraceful” and “pathetic” were among the words Busch used to describe last weekend’s 500. “I believe it’s a problem,” he said, speaking of fuel-saving strategy at Daytona International Speedway. “We’re sitting around down there, running half-throttle, not passing, just riding in a line. I felt disgraceful, being a race car driver wanting to go fast, lead laps, and win the Daytona 500. I felt bad for the fans. (It) was not good for them.”

It’s hard to imagine any of those same fans unhappy with what they saw on Sunday.

Despite more than the two-third of the grid spinning or wrecking to some extent, 29 cars finished on the lead lap. There were a track-record 48 lead changes among 14 drivers. Six of those 48 changes were among four drivers in the final 30 laps. Three of those six were between Saurez (laps 248-255) and Blaney (laps 256-259) before Saurez led 260 in the photo-finish.

Former Cup champions and AMS winners Joey Logano and Chase Elliott started out back and impressively worked their way through traffic toward the front. Two- and three-wide racing was the norm. There were even a few dicey four-wide moments. “I think it’s some of the best racing you’ll ever see,” said former champion Brad Keselowski, who ran well before crashing late. “It was really, really intense.”

Unlike the 500 six days earlier, there wasn’t a dull moment, something NASCAR must feel encouraged about. There were enough caution incidents—10 for 65 laps, including an 18-car incident near the start – to satisfy that segment of the fanbase. There were impressive runs by drivers not consistently seen near the front: Todd Gilliland, Austin Cindric, pole-winner Michael McDowell, Chase Briscoe, and Harrison Burton. The weather was ideal, the grandstands were acceptably filled, and the campgrounds were jammed.

Justin Marks, owner of the No. 99 Chevrolet that Suarez drove to his second career victory, couldn’t have been happier. His relatively new organization—it debuted in 2021 with the remnants of Chip Ganassi’s shuddered team—now has seven Cup victories among eighth-finishing Ross Chastain (four), Suarez (two), and part-time driver Shane van Gisbergen (one). That’s in the same ballpark with what Hall of Fame championship owners Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs accomplished in their first three seasons.

“From an entertainment value standpoint, I don’t know what more you could want…”

“From an entertainment value standpoint, I don’t know what more you could want from a race like tonight,” said Marks, a former sports car and stock car driver who eventually realized where he was best suited in the motorsports world. “It was incredible. My heart rate was 150 just watching. I talked to my wife about this: the calmest people here are the guys driving the cars because we’re all just watching this holding our breath. This is one of the most compelling races I think you could want for a sport. It was an incredible thing to watch.

“We have to promote events like this as aggressively as we can because you can’t want anything more than what we had tonight. That was an incredible finish and an incredible race start to finish. They came across the start-finish line three wide and within eight inches of each other. This is some of the best racing in the world.”

On this particular Sunday afternoon, at least, he may very well have been right.

Lettermark

Unemployed after three years as an Army officer and Vietnam vet, Al Pearce shamelessly lied his way onto a small newspaper’s sports staff in Virginia in 1969. He inherited motorsports, a strange and unfamiliar beat which quickly became an obsession. 

In 53 years – 48 ongoing with Autoweek – there have been thousands of NASCAR, NHRA, IMSA, and APBA assignments on weekend tracks and major venues like Daytona Beach, Indianapolis, LeMans, and Watkins Glen. The job – and accompanying benefits – has taken him to all 50 states and more than a dozen countries.  

He’s been fortunate enough to attract interest from several publishers, thus his 13 motorsports-related books. He can change a tire on his Hyundai, but that’s about it.

Share This Article
Follow:
Jackson Wheeler is a skilled editor at Speedofdaily.com, specializing in automotive content. With a background in Journalism and Automotive Engineering, he combines his passion for cars with his writing expertise to deliver captivating articles. Jackson's deep knowledge of automotive technology and his racing experience make him a valuable asset to the team, providing readers with informative and engaging content.
Leave a comment