Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Mother Nature & William Byron Win Atlanta

Who…should you be talking about after the race?

Looking to follow up a historic day in Chicago last Sunday (July 2), the NASCAR Cup Series made their second stop of the season at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, July 9, for the Quaker State 400. For the first time with Atlanta’s new configuration, the cup series would race under the lights with a 7:00 p.m. ET start.

Throughout the first two stages, the racing would not disappoint. But in the end, it was William Byron – and Mother Nature – who would win under the lights at Atlanta after the race was called 75 laps short of the scheduled distance.

Byron rolled off in the 18th position, and he began working his way forward from the start. The No. 24 first cracked the top 10 on lap 14, Byron and maintained a position in the back half of the top 10 throughout most of stage one. Byron would fluctuate from fifth to 10th as the intensity picked up coming to the end of the stage; he ultimately crossed the line in fifth.

However, a very successful stage one for Byron would be all for not, as the penalty bug would bite the No. 24 team on the ensuing stage break pit stop. On the stage 2 restart, Byron began working his way back to the front again, making it up to 24th until left rear contact from Corey LaJoie sent the No. 24 car spinning down the frontstretch. Byron limped the car all the way around the 1.540-mile speedway with a flat right rear tire and lost a lap. He would take the next restart in 36th.

From there, it was another charge to the front. A free pass put Byron back in the game, and he would manage to weave in and out of traffic through all the chaos, eventually finding himself near the front once again. With rain on the horizon, a caution would come out on lap 123 due to contact between LaJoie, Ross Chastain and Ty Gibbs. By this point, the race was seven laps from crossing the halfway mark.

Crew chiefs up and down pit road had a choice to make, as the rain was not a matter of if, but when. While some drivers stayed out, hoping that the rain would hit before the end of stage two (lap 160), others would pit now, banking on rain holding off until after the final stage began. Crew Chief Rudy Fugle made the decision to bring Byron down pit road on lap 124.

The caution would fly again on lap 155 for a spin between Denny Hamlin and Alex Bowman, and this would end the stage under caution with Byron in 15th. Most of the frontrunners would pit for fuel, while Byron, along with McDowell, Jones, Allmendinger, Suarez, and others, would stay out. The race would go back green again on lap 165, and Byron would quickly navigate to the lead, passing AJ Allmendinger on lap 167 in what proved to be the pass for the win.

He would hold on from there, holding off Allmendinger, Daniel Suarez and others until the caution would fly again on lap 178 for another spin. The rains came shortly after, and the field was sent down pit road as the red flag was displayed. With hours of rain in the forecast, NASCAR quickly made the decision to call the race, and Byron picked up his fourth win of the season, adding to what has already been a career year for the 25-year-old.

See also
William Byron Wins Rain-Shortened Cup Race at Atlanta

And don’t forget Michael McDowell, as his bid for a playoff spot continued tonight at Atlanta. Coming into the race, McDowell found himself 18th in points, just 10 points outside the cutline. Rolling off 20th, the 2021 Daytona 500 winner had a real chance at gaining some ground in the points, being known as a formidable superspeedway racer. Ultimately, he would, but not without some problems along the way.

McDowell was fast from the start, quickly charging up through the field and being a factor in stage one. However, contact on pit road following stage one damaged the right front corner of the No. 34 after McDowell tagged the left rear of Martin Truex Jr. However, the No. 34 crew would get the right front patched up, and the car was once again fast and in contention for a win. 

When the caution flew on lap 123, McDowell stayed on the racetrack hoping for rain. However, when the caution flew again on lap 155, ending stage two, McDowell was the only one of the cars who had originally stayed out to stay out again. Hoping for rain, McDowell raced hard for the win, all the way up until he was almost out of gas. At that same point and time, the rains came, and the race was called. McDowell had just enough fuel to come home in the fourth position, and he leaves Atlanta three points above the cut line.

What…is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

Is Byron the championship favorite? For the third season in a row, we’ve seen a Hendrick car separate themselves from the rest of the field as the leader of the pack during NASCAR’s summer stretch.

In 2021, Kyle Larson went on an absolute tear through the summer stretch and went onto dominate his way to his first Cup Series championship. Chase Elliott managed to do the same thing last year, winning three races in the heat of the summer before falling short of a second championship in the finale.

Byron has now picked up his fourth win of the season, the same as Elliott’s regular season total from last year, and one behind Larson’s from 2021. Only time will tell, but Byron is having a career year up to this point.

Where…did the other key players wind up?

Polesitter Aric Almirola came into tonight’s race at Atlanta desperate for a win, and there’s no better place to start than out front. Almirola was fast from the start, leading for the first 39 laps until Joey Logano made his bid for the lead. The two swapped the lead back and forth multiple times, but Logano eventually prevailed.

Almirola made one last bid for the lead that resulted in the No. 10 being hung out to dry, sending him backwards on the bottom with no help. Almirola tried to force himself up in line ahead of Tyler Reddick before Reddick forced back to the outside. Almirola would wind up 10th in stage 1. 

Almirola was a nonfactor through the first half of stage two, running outside the top 30 at one point. However, the No. 10 car slowly began to work its way to the front again before staying out on a lap 123 caution, propelling the No. 10 into the top 10. Through a chaotic last 20 laps of stage 2, Almirola would come home 15th in stage 2. In the sprint to the finish – or in this case the rain – Almirola brought the No. 10 home to an 18th place finish, not the result the team was hoping for on the night. 

Atlanta spring race winner Logano rolled off fourth in tonight’s Quaker State 400, and he quickly jumped up to the second spot. Logano stayed in line for the first 39 laps of the race before jumping out and taking the lead on lap 40. Logano would lose the lead again to Almirola on lap 41 before taking over the top spot again on lap 48. The No. 22 would pace the field until teammate Ryan Blaney would take the lead with two laps to go in stage one. Logano would make a bid for the stage win, almost clearing Blaney’s No. 12 into turn one before battling side by side down the backstretch. The No. 22 would get put in the middle as Kyle Larson would dive to the bottom into turn 3, and Logano would have to settle for fourth in stage 1.

Through multiple cautions in stage two, Logano kept the No. 22 up front. With rain coming and a caution on lap 123, Logano stayed out to keep track position while others chose to pit. However, Logano would get shuffled out and he would drop back in the closing laps of stage 2, finishing 14th in the stage. Logano would never find his way back to the front before the rains came, and the No. 22 would end the night in the 17th position.

See also
Frontrunners See Chances Of Win Rained Out

When…was the moment of truth?

Cautions on lap 123 and 155 were the true turning points of Sunday night’s race at Atlanta. With rain on the way, the field was split in half on strategy. While some pitted under the lap 123 caution, hoping the rain would hold off until after the stage 2 break, others banked on the rain moving in fast. 

The rain would hold off, and a caution on lap 155 would essentially end stage 2. Under the stage two caution, the RFK and Penske cars that had stayed out and led the field, including race leader Brad Keselowski, were forced to pit due to lack of fuel. This opened the door for the cars who had pitted under the lap 123 yellow. 

Byron proved to be the fastest of the cars who had stayed out, holding the field at bay until Mother Nature decided she had seen enough racing for the night. The caution would come out on lap 178, and when the drizzle turned into heavy rain, Byron was back in victory lane for the second time.

Why…should you be paying attention this week?

The stars of the NASCAR Cup Series head to New England this week for their annual stop at New Hampshire Motor speedway as the regular season winds down, and here’s why you should be paying attention. With seven races left in the regular season, multiple drivers are still looking for their first win of the season and a ticket to the NASCAR playoffs. 

For Stewart-Haas Racing specifically, the urgency is especially high. For a team that has struggled on the bigger tracks (excluding superspeedways) this season but has shown some speed on short tracks, they’re running out of opportunities to find victory lane. The SHR cars have always shown speed at New Hampshire, including when Almirola turned his 2021 season around by finding victory lane and snapping a 98-race winless streak.

All four of the SHR cars were fast at Martinsville earlier this season, so it will be interesting to see if they can translate that speed. While Kevin Harvick is comfortably in the top ten in points, the other three team cars are well outside the playoff picture, looking to create some magic again at the Magic Mile.

Another driver to watch is Christopher Bell. Last year, Bell was able to grab his first win of the season at the 1.058-mile track, locking him into the playoffs when his playoff chances were on edge. The win propelled Bell into a late season surge that carried him all the way into the playoffs and the Championship 4. 

Bell already has a win this year, but his track record at New Hampshire is incredible; a runner-up and a win in two Craftsman Truck Series starts at the track, three wins in three Xfinity Starts, and a 28th, runner-up, and win in three Cup Series starts at the track. Removing the 28th-place, flat tire race in 2020, he has an average finish of 1.3 in seven races at New Hampshire in NASCAR’s top divisions. Look for Bell to turn his slow summer around.

How…is the playoff picture shaping up?

With Byron taking his fourth win of the season, not much changed at the top. Five playoff spots remain available on points, with Harvick and the two RFK cars of Buescher and Keselowski holding 100-point buffers from the cutline. 

From there, it remains close, as Suarez and McDowell now sit tied in 15th and 16th, just three points above the cut line. Bubba Wallace’s disappointing Atlanta run drops him to 17th, three points back, while Allmendinger’s strong run brings him to within 13 points of the cutline. 

As for the two winless Hendrick Motorsports cars, a disappointing run for Alex Bowman drops him outside the top 20, and Elliott’s late summer charge slowed with a quiet 13th-place result, making it more and more likely the No. 9 will have to find victory lane to make the Playoffs. 

About the author

Chase began working with Frontstretch in the spring of 2023 as a news writer, while also helping fill in for other columns as needed. Chase is now the main writer and reporter for Frontstretch.com's CARS Tour coverage, a role which began late in 2023.  Aside from racing, some of Chase's other hobbies include time in the outdoors hunting and fishing, and keeping up with all things Philadelphia sports related.

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Dawg

I have to admit to feeling a little bit cheated by this race. And all I did was sit around all day waiting for it to start.
I didn’t spend hundreds of $$ on an overpriced hotel room, & meals, or travel hours to get there.

I understand that the TV schedule wags the dog now. But when I get up in the morning & plan my day. I can check the weather app, on my phone & it will tell me if rain is expected & when it should start. And it’s amazingly accurate. This race being on USA network should have had some options.

NASCAR had no options in Chicago, but they did at Atlanta, & just didn’t, or couldn’t exercise them & the ticket buying public paid the price.

Shayne

A night race on Sunday doesn’t make much sense unless Monday is a holiday. Sunday races should start at 12:40 pm. That gives NASCAR some wiggle room for rain. It also gives fans their best shot to see an entire race. It allows fans at the track get home earlier and gives the fans at home the rest of their Sunday to enjoy.

Guess the fans that don’t pay extra for USA network were SOL.

janice

i saw a lot of fans complaining that they don’t get usa. not like usa had prime programming they didn’t want to do without…just law & order svu, which is on every day for a few hours a day.

if they wanted a late in the day race, they could had started at 5. not like fans weren’t t here to attend earlier. even starting at 5 they could had headed to the track at noon, if they were local or relatively close.

not like the race was sold out either!

Kevin in SoCal

I’m shocked that so many fans don’t get USA network, unless they don’t have cable at all. Its always been on the basic cable packages.

NBCSports.com should carry the races, too.

Kicks

If it weren’t for the DVR I wouldn’t see the end of Sunday night races. I have a 5:00am alarm clock on Mondays.

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