NASCAR‘s top drivers took on the reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway for the first time under the lights on July 9. Rain brought the Cup Series race to an early end on Lap 185 but not before the drivers put on a show.
The first stage of the Quaker State 400 was relatively tame outside of a Harrison Burton spin, but business began picking up after Ryan Blaney took the green and white checkered flag by a nose over Kyle Larson. The crew chiefs began informing the drivers that the race was unlikely to continue after the end of Stage 2, which led to aggressive moves, risky passes, and some crashes.
Martin Truex Jr., in particular, put on a show by himself. He would run in the pack for a while and then he would move up to the outside wall to make passes. This should not have been possible considering that Atlanta Motor Speedway is now a mini-superspeedway, but the 2017 Cup Series champion made it look easy.
“It was awesome,” said race-winner William Byron. “I think that’s all you can ask for on a superspeedway. We want handling to matter. We want to be able to drive the things.
“I felt like the first stage was really fun. I was able to make some moves on the bottom, and you’re lifting every corner, so it’s really — it’s different than a 550 old-style race, but it’s more packed up, but it’s still handling matters and guys can make aggressive moves.”
That Jones Boy Turned Heads During the Race
Erik Jones became a prominent story throughout the rain-shortened race. He made contact with several drivers, which led to some unexpected moments. This began with Ty Gibbs slapping the wall after contact from the No. 43 Chevrolet. It continued with Jones getting to the rear of Larson right as he was starting to lose control of the No. 5.
Jones had contact with the wall as well after contact from Gibbs, but he was able to continue competing on the mini-superspeedway. He was ultimately involved in a multi-car wreck that ended Ross Chastain’s day.
The incident occurred when Jones and Corey LaJoie raced side-by-side. The No. 7 moved down while the No. 43 moved up. This sent LaJoie’s Chevrolet up the track and into the rear of Tyler Reddick’s No. 45.
LaJoie spun sideways next to the outside wall, where he was hit by Gibbs and then Truex. Chastain tried to avoid the crash, but his No. 1 Chevrolet collided with the No. 54 of Gibbs and caught air. This sent Chastain to the garage early.
Jones had contact with multiple other drivers during the race, but he went on to finish 11th at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the second time in the 2023 Cup Series season.
“It was an up and down day for our Allegiant Chevy; we could have been a bit farther up with some of the stuff that we did, but for the most part we made our bed set up wise last night,” Jones said after the race.
“So, it was a good day. The car is getting faster each week, and hopefully, we keep going that way. I think today was overall a good day.”
Strategy Completely Changed the Outcome
Byron won his fourth race of the season and his second at Atlanta since the reconfiguration, but he was not originally in contention. A spin on Lap 80 after contact from LaJoie knocked him off the lead lap, but he was able to recover and put himself in a position for a big gamble.
Once Brad Keselowski won Stage 2, the time came for a big decision. The rain appeared to be within reach, and the expectation was that it would arrive within mere minutes.
Keselowski only had enough fuel to run another 12-14 laps, so he had to head down pit road. Several other drivers joined him due to being in similar situations. This was not the case for Byron, AJ Allmendinger, Michael McDowell, JJ Yeley, Todd Gilliland, Daniel Suarez, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Cole Custer, Kyle Busch, and Ty Dillon.
Once the race went green, Allmendinger and McDowell battled for the win. It was ultimately Byron who took the lead with a strong car, and he held on until Lap 178 when Ryan Preece and Bubba Wallace brought out the caution.
The race never went green again due to heavy rainfall and the threat of lightning, which secured Byron’s fourth win of the season. It also helped Suarez and McDowell jump to the playoff cutline. They are now in a battle with Wallace with seven races remaining in the regular season.
“I feel like I have mixed feelings, but overall, very proud of my No. 99 Quaker State Chevy team,” Suarez said after the race. “It’s been a little bit rough lately because we’ve had the speed, but we haven’t had the results, so this feels good.”