By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service – Cover Image by Getty Images / Kevin C. Cox / NASCAR Media
HAMPTON, Ga.: You can call Ryan Blaney “The Spoiler.”
With a pass for the lead with eight laps left in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Blaney took the air out of an otherwise dominating performance by Kyle Larson, who had to settle for second place after winning the first two stages and leading 269 of 325 laps.
“Gosh, we had a great long-run car all day,” Blaney said after climbing from his No. 12 Team Penske Ford. “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.
“It looked like Kyle was getting loose, and I’m happy it worked into our favor that there were a couple of long runs at the end (that) let us kind of get there, and he got slowed up behind some lapped traffic… It’s nice to close out a race like that—it was awesome.”
Blaney’s first victory at Atlanta and the fifth of his career extended the streak of different NASCAR Cup Series winners this season to six. The victory was the fifth straight at the 1.54-mile track for Ford drivers.
For the fourth time in his career, Larson swept the first two stages of a race and failed to win the event.
“I think he (Blaney) just got a lot better that last stage, and that changed up my flow of the race a little bit,” said Larson, who won each of the first two stages by more than six seconds. “I could get out to such big leads, and 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 (in the final run), and I just wanted to maintain that gap that I had, so I had to run in the faster part of the race track and just used my stuff up. He was a lot better than me there late in the run. I hate to lead a lot of laps and lose, but we had a really good car that we brought to the track. Our (No. 5) Hendrick Cars Chevy was stupid-fast there for a long time. I don’t know if we got that much worse, or if he got way better.”
Alex Bowman ran third, followed by Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher, William Byron, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick completed the top 10.
The first two stages featured only one caution for an on-track incident. On a restart on Lap 113, after the break at the end of Stage 1, Kyle Busch spun his tires at the front of the pack in the outside lane, causing Chase Elliott and Kurt Busch to check up behind him.
Kurt Busch steered down to the middle lane, but off-center contact from Hamlin’s Toyota sent the No. 1 Chevrolet into the Turn 1 wall and out of the race.
“Yeah, I think the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) was the outside-lead car,” said Kurt Busch, who ran near the front of the field throughout the first stage. The No. 9 (Elliott) kind of checked-up, too. I checked up… It was just the accordion effect and then I jumped to the middle. I’m like ‘I’m here; I positioned myself. It wasn’t like I rearranged my lanes and made another block.
“He (Hamlin) 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.”
Elliott, the reigning series champion, sustained damage on that same restart, but his troubles didn’t become terminal until the third stage when his engine blew to cause the fifth caution of the afternoon.
“Yeah, obviously we broke a motor there later on,” Elliott said. “We got some damage there on that restart. Kyle (Busch) kind of spun his tires and then I was pushing him, and Kurt (Busch) was pushing me. We all just really jammed together hard and ended up hurting the nose some. I don’t know if that had something to do with breaking the engine or not.”
Early tire troubles ruined the afternoon for defending race winner Harvick, who pitted with a flat left rear as the rest of the field restarted on Lap 32 after a competition caution. Larson lapped Harvick later in the first stage, and the 2014 series champion didn’t get the lap back until he took a wave-around under the fifth caution, for Elliott’s blown engine.
Harvick battled back to finish 10th but could advance no further.