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February 25, 2024

Analysis: Race of a lifetime at Atlanta dazzles with historic finish

Stock-car racing doesn’t get any better than this.

A three-wide photo finish at the line. Four-wide racing for the lead. Daring blocks. Close-quarters racing that makes you cringe with every near touch. That was the thrill that Atlanta Motor Speedway brought to NASCAR Cup Series fans on Sunday night.

MORE: Race results | Suárez scores photo-finish win at ATL

The historic finish between race winner Daniel Suárez and runners-up Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch is an all-timer in just about every sense. The 0.003-second margin of victory is the third-closest in NASCAR Cup Series history, and Busch was third, only 0.007 seconds behind Suárez. It marks the tightest checkered-flag run since the debut of the Next Gen car in 2022 — and the closest since 2011, when a 0.002-second difference at Talladega Superspeedway separated the top finishers.

Justin Marks, whose Trackhouse Racing organization owns the No. 99 Chevrolet that Suárez dashed into Victory Lane in his own last-lap heroics, summed up what everyone was thinking Sunday night: How could it get any better?

“I think from an entertainment value standpoint, I don’t know what more you could want from a race like tonight,” Marks said. “It was incredible. My heart rate was 150 (beats per minute) just watching. All race long, I talked to my wife about this; the calmest people here are the guys driving the cars because we’re all just watching this, just holding our breath. This is one of the most compelling races I think that you could want for a sport. It was an incredible thing to watch.”

RELATED: Relive every action-packed moment in Race Rewind

Dazzling, decisive drives put all 37 drivers’ skill on display throughout the course of the 400-mile affair, their machines dancing on the edge of control through every corner. Each lap featured a moment where all hell could blow apart — but often resulted in remarkable steers and onto the next corner.

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“What the viewer doesn’t understand is how difficult it is to follow at this race track, especially when you have all that turbulent air coming out of the hood next to the other cars,” said Austin Cindric, the fourth-place finisher just 0.077 seconds behind Suárez. “That’s what got me at the end, honestly, guys just running close to me. It’s not easy to do, but I guess that’s why they call us the best in the world.”

Bubba Wallace scored his second straight fifth-place finish to open the 2024 campaign in his No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota, following last week’s Daytona 500 with a rally after a Lap 2 melee collected him and a dozen others. The high banks and drafting-style racing shared between Daytona and Atlanta — now pitched in consecutive weeks — nearly requires the exhaustion of thought, constantly calculating where to place your vehicle, time your run and avoid the wall (or your competitors).

“What a day. I’m so glad we’re done with superspeedway racing for a while,” Wallace said. “The mental toll it takes on you, to just making sure you make the right move for 260 laps, including the race last week too, is a lot.”

That perspective emphasizes how fervent the action was behind the wheel at Atlanta. But for as fiery as the racing was on the track, drivers were having a blast on track putting their cars in precarious positions — even those who wrecked out of the event.

“I actually had a lot of fun today,” said Kyle Larson, ousted after a crash at Lap 219. “It was super intense and it’s been a great race. It’s been the opposite from last weekend with no fuel saving and guys going at it, so it’s been fun.”

“This is super-intense racing,” Brad Keselowski echoed after his day ended in the same incident. “The track cooled off and now you can really, really push hard. I think it’s some of the best racing you’ll ever see.”

MORE: Lap 2 melee collects numerous cars | Logano, Buescher, Hamlin tangle at Stage 2 end

Chase Briscoe nearly spun multiple times throughout the day, then eventually did at Lap 240 racing four-wide with Suárez, Busch and Denny Hamlin. The nose of his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was crunched off the SAFER barrier after incidental contact with Hamlin, but that didn’t sour his mood after being evaluated and released from Atlanta’s infield care center.

“That was the most fun I’ve ever had here,” Briscoe said. “And I think some of that is just our guys did a really good job of bringing a car that we could be aggressive with and make moves. I’m actually looking forward to coming back here. That was a lot of fun. Guys were just making huge moves and big runs, but we were able to not get close to crashing a lot of times like we would at Daytona or Talladega. I had a lot of fun.”

How could they not? Cindric rocketed to the lead in a gutsy four-wide dash to the left on the frontstretch — and Busch followed through, the pack maintaining that four-wide fever for nearly a full lap around the 1.54-mile quad-oval.

It was an all-out brawl. Drivers were making moves on the cusp of imminent danger. How do they pull off such logic-defying moves?

“Someone’s gotta do it,” Cindric said. “I can promise you I’ll be the guy.”

The best part? We get to run it back in September to open the playoffs.