HAMPTON, Ga. – Joey Logano dominated the 260-lap pack racing event to earn his first NASCAR Cup Series victory of 2023 with a last-lap pass on fellow Ford driver Brad Keselowski on Sunday, March 19 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Christopher Bell, Corey LaJoie and Tyler Reddick rounded out the top five.
The victory is the first ever for Logano at Atlanta and the first for Ford in 2023.
But What Really Happened?
The talk of the Atlanta town entering the weekend was anything but a car or driver wearing a blue oval.
Eyes were instead on the bowties of Hendrick Motorsports after all four teams were hit with points penalties and crew chief suspensions after NASCAR found their louver parts to be illegal. This had been the same week after HMS had dominated the previous two races to win back-to-back at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway.
There was also talk about Denny Hamlin after he too was penalized for his contact with longtime friend Ross Chastain last weekend at Phoenix. With all of this, there was plenty to talk about when it came time for interviews during the weekend.
But while media members swarmed the drivers covering the big controversies on Saturday morning during the Cup Series qualifying session, another story was occurring on the Georgian track surface.
The Fords were retaking the headlines.
For the first time since 1965, the famous blue oval brand swept the top-eight positions in a NASCAR qualifying session.
That really should have been our first clue, but in case we didn’t get the message, the Ford drivers of Team Penske, RFK Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing continued to steal the spotlight on Sunday.
Out of the 260 laps run on Sunday, a Ford was leading the field for 221 of them.
Even Cody Ware, who had led only seven laps in his entire Cup career before Sunday, was able to stay out during a caution to take the top spot for a lap.
By the time the white flag had waved, it was a Ford duel between former teammates Logano and Keselowski. Logano won, and in the process, ended the Chevrolet winning streak that began at Daytona International Speedway in February.
But with Chevrolet on the run, how long will the Ford dominance last? Had they simply just dialed in the new Atlanta better than anyone else? Or was it perhaps something more?
Who stood out?
You can likely take a guess.
There were eight different Ford drivers that had shared the lead at one point or another during the 400-miler, but Team Penske carried the brand on its back for a vast majority of the event.
Or more specifically, race winner Logano did.
The No. 22 was out front for 140 laps – the most any one driver has led since the track’s reconfiguration. He led stage one wire-to-wire and likely would have won stage two had it not been teammate Austin Cindric‘s thrilling move to take the lead out of turn 4 on the final lap of the stage. The move gave the Cup sophomore five laps on top of the pylon.
And then there’s Ryan Blaney.
Despite an absolutely rollercoaster day that saw him lead five laps one moment and go two laps down because of a speeding penalty the next, Blaney came back to finish a respectable seventh.
Overall, the organization led a combined 150 laps out of 260 and put all three cars in the top 11. The Penske trio also ranked among the top eight drivers in average running position.
After an abysmal showing by reigning champion Logano last weekend, the team bounced back with gusto in the Peach State.
Additionally, finishing fourth was the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet of LaJoie. The 31-year-old earned not only his second career Cup top five – the first came in the very same race one year ago – but it was his best career finish in the series overall.
He was also the highest finishing Chevrolet, which isn’t really saying much considering how some other bowtie teams performed.
Who fell flat?
It’s amazing how quickly this sport can shut down a team’s momentum.
After suffering what is historically the largest monetary fine handed to a team by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports really needed a strong showing in Atlanta to regain its momentum.
But they’ll have to wait a little longer.
After the team placed all four of its cars – including temporary driver Josh Berry – in the top 10 at Phoenix, it only earned a best result of 14th on Sunday.
Alex Bowman, who was leading the points standings before the 100-point deduction by NASCAR, finished third in stage two and was the only driver in the organization that ended his night in the top 15.
Byron, who was the defending race winner, was running in the top 10 and had earned five points at the end of stage two. However, the Nos. 24 and 9 were running on the edge of the top five with 71 laps to go when the ominous Big One finally occurred right in front of them.
Berry, who suffered heavy nose damage as a result, was unable to meet the same speed he had before. He finished 18th.
Byron, however, was unable to continue at all and was credited with a 32nd-place result.
With only two bullets left in its gun, HMS had Larson and Bowman left to carry the flag.
For about 10 laps.
Larson was cleaned out and given 31st position.
To put things into perspective, last week’s average finish for the storied racing team was 6.0.
This week? 23.75.
Better than last time?
Well, at least there was certainly more green-flag racing.
There was only one incident for the first 190 laps, and while normally that’s not a bad thing for racing, one has to also take into account the reason why it was so quiet for a vast majority of the event.
And it certainly wasn’t because they were side-by-side the whole time.
Logano certainly had a fast car on Sunday that was arguably the car to beat for the day’s entirety. However, one can certainly chalk up the long single file runs as another reason for the No. 22’s long leading periods.
In fairness, those long single-file runs only lasted until the beginning of the final stage and after that, things heated up in the 40-degree weather.
After two multi-car incidents, the field still was able to run in two lanes without creating another catastrophe for the remaining 43 laps. In the world of NASCAR, we call that a miracle.
Yet despite the periodic cookie-cutter racing, the statistics were mostly equal to the year past.
There were 27 lead changes among 12 drivers last July whereas Sunday saw 20 lead changes among 13 drivers, which really illustrates the competitiveness of Sunday’s feature.
However, while lead changes were fewer, the lack of drivers making desperate moves also decreased the DNF count as there were only eight cars in the garage at the end of Sunday compared to the 11 that were there in July.
So, the tradeoff is between either having more wrecked racecars or more side-by-side racing.
Let’s call it a draw?
Paint scheme of the race
Blaney’s Bodyarmor paint schemes have been a usually great-looking livery that involves a combination of red and white.
This year, however, Blaney’s No. 12 Ford featured an all-white primary color instead for the sports drink’s SportWater brand.
And it still looks great.
Who knew a blank white livery would look so good?
Perhaps it’s the subtle red secondaries featured around the number outline. Either way, Blaney and Bodyarmor were the star of the show at Atlanta again.
The Cup Series goes road racing for the first time in 2023.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to Circuit of the Americas for its third visit to what is now the longest racetrack on the calendar. Qualifying for the 68-lap event will be on Saturday, March 25 at 11:30 a.m. ET. The field will take the green on Sunday, March 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET. with coverage on FOX.
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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