William Byron held off efforts by Bubba Wallace, Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell to win Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga.
Byron led the final 10 laps around the reconfigured 1.5-mile track and took the checkered flag as a wreck broke out as the pack of cars crossed the finish line.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver earned his third career NASCAR Cup win, but the first outside the state of Florida.
Byron won over, Chastain, Kurt Busch, Daniel Suarez and Corey LaJoie.
“It was so different,” Byron told Fox Sports on the frontstretch. “Honestly, the last few laps there just trying to manage the gap to Bubba and try to not get too far out front. … Worked hard overnight. Had a pretty rough practice, worked hard on it and got it handling well. It was a little intermediate style with some speedway put into it.”
Byron called the race “mentally taxing,” even more so than at Daytona or Talladega.
“Daytona and Talladega, when you get single file, can you relax,” Byron said. “Today when you were single-file, you were constantly working to stay single file so you didn’t lose the lead. I think that was a lot different. I’m not used to that.
“I told (his spotter and crew chief), I was, like, ‘man, I can’t believe we’re not halfway yet because this just feels long mentally. Just all the energy that I’m spending to do all the moves that we need to make. Pretty crazy race, but definitely good to come out on top.”
The 325-lap event, which featured the pack racing previously only seen at Daytona and Talladega, featured a track record 46 lead changes among 20 drivers. Like the larger superspeedways, there were plenty of cautions with 11.
Byron is the fifth different winner through the first fives races of the season. Hendrick Motorsports has won three of them, with Chase Elliott the only Hendrick driver yet to win.
Chastain bounced back from an incident early in the race while leading to record his third consecutive top-three finish. He initially crossed the finish line third, but Bell was penalized for going below the double red line at the bottom of the track to advance his position on the last lap.
“What a day. That’s the fight in Trackhouse (Racing),” Chastain said. “The Chevy was fast. It was so fast. I mean, we were fighting with Will there at the beginning. It’s so cool to race with, again, buddies. I’m getting to race with my — I only have a few, but the last few weeks I’ve been able to race with my buddies.
“Can’t thank everyone at Trackhouse, the Moose, everybody that’s been on this car, and Justin Marks and his family for what they do for me, and Daniel Suárez, what a teammate to push me there at the end.”
For the second week in a row, Kurt Busch seemingly came from nowhere to collect a top-five finish.
“We were on a different planet today with the draft and the way the cars raced,” Busch said. “Wow. I was catching air off of Turn 2. I had to lift to not hit the rev chip. I just had a little too much damage to not be on offense, and then we were just trying to ride around and pick our poison so to speak with the Monster Energy Toyota. We weren’t on offense, so if you are not on offense, you kind of have to ride and wait for the holes to open up and I got a top five again. A lot of sarcasm here. We know we need to get better with the handling and some of our race craft, but another top five – we will take it.”
Wallace, who had been in the top four at the white flag, fell back in the chaotic final lap and was involved in the wreck at the checkered flag. It also included Justin Haley and Chris Buescher.
“Hardest hit I’ve had,” Wallace said. “I’m going to be sore tomorrow.”
Pole-sitter Chase Briscoe led until Lap 7 when Kyle Busch moved by him going in to Turn 1.
The first caution of the day waved on Lap 25 when Noah Gragson wrecked in Turn 2. He got sideways and hit the outside wall hard.
“I just got loose there through (Turns) 1 and 2,” Gragson said. “It was still early in the race, so I wasn’t pushing it. I was just trying to bide my time and stay patient. It’s such a long race. It’s unfortunate. … My goal was to complete all the laps and finish the race. The No. 16 Camaro ZL1 was fast, it was just a mistake.”
On the ensuing restart on Lap 31, Chastain took the lead for the first time. He would trade the spot with Byron a couple of times before the competition caution came out after Lap 45.
In the pits, most of the field only took two tires amid chaos.
Briscoe overshot his pit stall and had to backup before receiving service. Erik Jones and Aric Almirola made contact as Jones was leaving his stall and turned Almirola sideways. Bell, Haley and Kurt Busch each received penalties that sent them to the rear.
Joey Logano was first off pit road, but Chastain retook the lead shortly after the restart.
Chastain’s time at the front ended with 11 laps left in the stage when his right-rear tire was cut down, causing his No. 1 Chevy to fishtail into the wall.
The durability of the Next Gen car allowed Chastain to continue.
“This Gen 7 car to take a lick like that, blow a tire out of nowhere and leading, just cruising, blow a right rear, slam the wall, thought our day was over,” Chastain said. “Our guys went underneath the car, got the toe closer, and we got the balance back where I could drive it.”
The first stage ended under caution due to a four-car wreck on the frontstretch with less than five laps to go. The wreck started with a bad attempt by Kyle Busch to bump draft with Austin Dillonm, causing Dillon to get loose and hit the wall, collecting Busch in the process. Further back, Ty Dillon and Briscoe were involved as they tried to avoid the wreck.
“It was the end of Stage 1, we were going to get a run down the frontstretch right there, so I don’t know why (Busch is) pushing dead center, at the three-quarter mark,” Austin Dillon said. “It’s part of it I guess. It was fun racing there for a while with a really fast No. 3 Bass Pro Shops Chevy. My feelings are hurt. Just two weeks in a row we’ve been taken out of the race.”
Busch wasn’t immediately out of the race. He eventually retired from it on Lap 171.
The first stage, which saw 18 lead changes, was won by Byron.
The Big One struck on Lap 144 when Tyler Reddick, running in the front, cut down his right-rear tire and went into a spin in Turn 4.
The resulting crash collected Logano, Michael McDowell, Alex Bowman, Harrison Burton, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Austin Cindric, Corey LaJoie, Denny Hamlin, Bell, Todd Gilliland and Cole Custer.
Another crash that began with the race leader came with 10 laps to go in the second stage. This time it was with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. out front and yet again, it was caused by a rear tire cutting down.
The accident occurred in Turn 4 and collected Cindric, Jones, Suarez and Harvick. Cindric was eliminated.
“I don’t think it was a Chevrolet thing,” Byron said. “I think it was just the fact that whoever was leading for a long time when it got single file. Just the way that the cars felt on corner entry, you put a lot of load into the right-side tires a lot of time in the back traffic, you put a lot of load into the front, and that’s usually what you find on a repave is right front tire issues.
“I think Goodyear has done a good job of working through and making sure that the right front does last, but the right rear is a little bit of an unpredictable thing because typically you’re not on the right rear that hard on a repave because you can’t be loose.”
Greg Stucker of Goodyear comes to the media center and says they are collecting the tires that went down to study. No answers right now but Stucker says common theme is one manufacturer and right rear tire. No tire wear. Did see “over loaded and over deflected.”— Kelly Crandall (@KellyCrandall) March 20, 2022
The race restart with two laps to go in the stage and the field barely completed a lap before another wreck was visited upon it. This time it was a two-car incident as Larson, who restarted on the front row, was turned from behind by Hamlin as they came through the tri-oval. Larson’s car was turned left, where it bounced off Elliott’s No. 9 car before correcting back into the outside wall.
That ended Larson and Hamlin’s day. Larson has three DNFs through the first fives races of the season. Hamlin hasn’t finished better than 13th so far.
“I was just trying to help Kyle there and I just needed to let him go off Turn 4,” Hamlin said.” The track gets light there, the car starts to lift up and that’s where I needed to back off of him and I just didn’t and spun him out. It is a shame. Our car was really fast. We definitely slowed after the first part of the damage – we were involved in that first wreck.
“Overall, just frustrating, but we are running well, we are just finishing horrible. I’m just making some bad decisions.”
The stage ended with Ryan Blaney in the lead.
The top 10 after two stages: Blaney, Elliott, Briscoe, Almirola, Keselowski, Suarez, Truex, Wallace, Byron and Chastain.
Elliott led for most of the early portion of the final stage before a debris caution waved with 72 laps to go.
Almirola won the battle off pit road on the ensuing restart.
Byron took the lead on Lap 262 and led for roughly 40 consecutive laps until a caution for a wreck involving Gilliland and Cody Ware with 24 laps to go.
On the restart with 19 laps to go, Almirola was spun by Chastain as the field came through the tri-oval. Almirola slid unharmed through the infield grass as the caution came out.