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March 2, 2024

One week later: Drivers still buzzing over electrifying, ‘spectacular’ Atlanta race, finish

daniel suarez races at atlanta

LAS VEGAS – From the drop of the green flag in last week’s Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Cup Series field was on the chip. The instant intensity led to a 16-car pileup – the biggest melee of wreckage in track history – on just the second lap of the race.

From start to finish, the entire field was on the edge of surpassing the limits of their respective race cars. Some drivers boiled the fast-and-furiousness down to being able to maximize the limit of the tire provided while still being able to control their chassis enough to make aggressive moves. Compared to the Daytona 500 just one week prior, there wasn’t much fuel saving going on, which allowed drivers to maneuver through the field like an old-school superspeedway race.

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“I was saying, ‘I don’t know what was in everyone’s cereal that morning that decided to be so intense racing the whole time,'” 2023 Cup Series champion Ryan Blaney said on Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “It was fun.”

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Even all-around superstar Kyle Larson, who wouldn’t list superspeedway racing among his stronger skills, had a blast. The No. 5 car led 17 laps prior to getting involved in a lap 220 incident that also collected Brad Keselowski and Corey LaJoie.

Afterwards, he was still smiling from ear-to-ear despite it being the fourth time he’s wrecked out at Atlanta in the five races since it’s been reconfigured.

“It was fun, to me, because we were up front for a lot of it and battling,” Larson said. “There was no real fuel-saving stuff, so you were just going at it and never settled in line – you were always trying to pass, which was fun. It’s kind of like all the drivers had the same mindset of not riding around.”

That aggressiveness over the course of 400 miles resulted in seven multi-car incidents. The race also set a track record with a whopping 48 lead changes. And despite just three of the 37 starters not having any sort of crash-related damage, 29 cars saw the checkered flag.

“Everyone is talking about the finish and the finish was spectacular, but the whole race was great,” Blaney added. “We had the big wreck on lap one-and-a-half, but the whole race, we were going at it.

“We were dicing it up; the cars were a handful. You saw guys spin out on their own and it shows how on edge you were and if you got a wrong sniff of air at some point, you just turn around. It was a blast. Hopefully, as that track keeps aging, it keeps getting better and better. The whole 400 miles was a great show.”

LaJoie had high praise of the race, saying: “Everybody was quick to judge Atlanta, but you give it two years of aging and it gives us the most entertaining race we’ve ever seen.”

daniel suarez celebrates with a burnout at atlanta

Despite the fierce battles throughout the field, the Atlanta race will be remembered for the finish. Daniel Suárez, Blaney and Kyle Busch crossed the finish line three abreast, separated by .007 of a second. Suárez squeaked out the win by .003 seconds over Blaney, making it the third-closest finish in NASCAR history. It trails only Darlington in 2003 in a classic battle between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch and a nailbiter in Talladega in 2011 with Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer, both of which were .002 seconds.

“The entire race, I felt behind the seat and you guys probably felt from the media center, a lot of fans from home and at the race track, the intensity of the race was very high,” Suárez stated. “Probably one of the most intense races I’ve been a part of.”

Even on re-watch, drivers were giddy over the race. LaJoie explained that while studying film and watching the race on Monday, he was on the edge of his seat, which was similar to how it felt inside his cockpit.

“That [expletive] was electric,” LaJoie added, who rebounded to finish 13th with a battered No. 7 Chevrolet. “I go back and watch it and my heart was beating and I’m sitting on the couch on a Monday afternoon, saying, ‘Oh my goodness, this is wild.'”

Without a doubt, drivers and their spotters were left mentally fatigued at Atlanta. Battling that personal exhaustion is a true test, making it only more rewarding when a team is successful.

“Every lap, I was reaching up and tugging the belts, ‘Holy [expletive], this is wild,” LaJoie said. “It’s a mental battle of a fast-paced chess game.”