Ryan Blaney kept the Ford-winning streak alive at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Although Kyle Larson was the class of the field, Blaney knew the best strategy was to save his tires to battle at the end—and he did just that.
After Larson led a career-best 269 circuits, Blaney blew by the No. 5 Chevrolet with five laps remaining for his fifth Cup win and his first at Atlanta.
“How about that boys, great job everybody,” Blaney screamed over the radio after taking the checkered flag.
“Gosh, we had a great long run car all day,” Blaney added. “It took us a little bit to get going. I was pretty free all day, so we made a really good change to tighten me up where I needed it and it looked like Kyle was getting loose and I’m happy it worked in our favor that there was a couple long runs at the end that kind of let us get there. He got slowed up behind some lap traffic.
“But I’m really proud of this whole BodyArmor, Menards No. 12 group. We’ve been good this year and had some bad breaks and it’s nice to close out a race like that. That was awesome.”
Larson crossed the line 2.083-seconds behind the No. 12 Team Penske Ford followed by Alex Bowman, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
"I think he just got a lot better there that last Stage and it kind of changed up my flow of the race a little bit," Larson said. "I could get out to such a big lead and then I could take care of my stuff; and run the bottom, where it was maybe slower, but I could take care of my tires. He was fast there and I just wanted to maintain that gap that I had, so I had to run in the faster part of the racetrack and just use my stuff up. And then, he was just a lot better than me there late in the run.”
Larson extended his lead to more than six-seconds over Kyle Busch to win the first stage after the first 105 laps. On the Lap 113 restart, Kurt Busch, who was running in the top five for most of the first stage, checked up when Chase Elliott slowed in from of him and was punted by Hamlin into the Turn 1 wall. The damage on the No. 1 Chevrolet was terminal.
“It was just the accordion effect and then I jumped to the middle,” Busch said. “I’m like ‘I’m here’; I positioned myself. It wasn’t like I re-arranged my lanes and made another block.
“He didn’t do anything vicious or malicious there. It’s a 500-miler and these are the days that it hurts the worst. This absolutely hurts the worst because we had a top-five, winning, Monster Energy Chevy.”
Larson continued at the point with Blaney in tow when the race returned to green on Lap 118. Twenty laps later, Daniel Suarez passed Elliott for ninth. Larson had a five-second lead when he pitted on Lap 161 and cycled back to front one lap later followed by Bowman, Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto.
After building a 10-second lead over Blaney—and lapping all but 14 cars—crew chief Cliff Daniels told Larson to pace himself. That enabled Elliott to remain on the lead lap when the stage ended on Lap 210. Larson swept the stages for the fourth time in his career.
The field was barely up to speed when Elliott’s engine soured on Lap 220. He was running 14th when the fifth and final caution was called for fluid on the track.
“We got some damage there on that restart,” Elliott said of the Lap 113 incident with Kurt Busch. “Kyle (Busch) kind of spun his tires and then I was pushing him and Kurt was pushing me. We all just really jammed together hard and ended up hurting the nose some. So, I don’t know if that had something to do with breaking the engine or not.
“I hate it, for sure. I feel like our car was pretty decent. We drove up there – we got up to tenth, or so, at the stage. I felt like we were in a decent position to work on it throughout the day. I appreciate all the effort.”
The execution of the No. 12 pit crew enabled Blaney to take the lead on Lap 222. Kyle Busch was penalized for speeding and dropped to 20th when the race restarted on Lap 226. Larson was closing in on Blaney, who reported his car was overheating. The team acknowledged there was debris on the grille. As Larson passed for the lead on Lap 237, Blaney was able to remove the debris and pursue the No. 5. He quickly realized Larson was lights out and elected to conserve his equipment.
Green-flag stops started with Truex on Lap 267. Daniel Suarez had worked his way into the top 10 but was busted for speeding during his stop. He rallied to 17th. Larson didn’t lose a lap after pitting on Lap 268.
“The 5 was crazy fast there the whole race and then we started closing in,” Blaney said of Larson. “Our car got a lot better there. I think towards the end of stage two it was starting to get there and then before that last green-flag stop it really came to life and he was starting to struggle, getting really free. I don’t know if the track changed or what, but we were just tightening it up all day.”
With 20 laps remaining, Joey Logano, who was fighting to stay on the lead lap, made his bumper wide for Larson as Blaney closed in from behind. Larson’s lead dropped from 2.3-seconds to under a second with 16 laps to go.
“I’m happy there were a couple long runs at the end,” Blaney said. “That’s where our strong suit was and we capitalized on it. I can’t thank BodyArmor, Menards, DEX, Advance Auto Parts enough for what they do and Ford. It’s cool to get a win at Atlanta. I love this place. It’s nice to have a good run here and win.”
Blaney became the sixth different Cup winner in the first six races of 2021.
Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher, William Byron, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 10. Harvick recovery came after a miscue during the competition caution on Lap 27. A broken valve stem left the driver with a flat tire and forced an unscheduled pit stop for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team. Harvick, who initially exited the pits third, dropped to 32nd on the restart.
"This thing is the biggest pile of crap I've ever driven at Atlanta," said Harvick, the only SHR Ford to finish on the lead lap.