Race Weekend Central

Big 6: Questions Answered After Daniel Suarez Wins By Inches in Atlanta

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

After a lap 2 crash set the tone for the day, the Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway came down to a daring last-lap move that set up one of the closest finishes in Cup Series history. Ryan Blaney almost had the win in his pocket, but Kyle Busch made a daring move to his outside as Daniel Suarez came along with him in the top lane. The trio crossed the line in almost a dead heat.

A photo finish told the tale: Suarez was the winner by .003 seconds over Blaney and Busch.

After a somewhat lackluster 2023 season, Suarez has been strong in 2024. He was in contention in the Daytona 500 before getting taken out in a late crash where he was just a passenger. This week, he made his own luck, overcoming that early crash and putting himself in position when it mattered. Suarez is playoff bound this year after missing out in ’23.

And don’t forget Busch. He drove an outstanding race, keeping his cool in some tense situations, and was able to work his way through the field when he needed to.

His last-lap move on Blaney could have ended in disaster with the smallest slip, but Busch timed and executed his run perfectly. Unfortunately, the middle is a tough place to be, as the driver on top has momentum and the one on the bottom has less distance to cover — and in this case the advantage of being the leader when Busch made the move.

Busch took the outcome in stride, and while disappointed (and who wouldn’t be in his shoes?), he didn’t lose his temper or pout, but rather takes the momentum on to next week. 

See also
Daniel Suarez Victorious After Epic Atlanta Finish

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

In 2021, Michael McDowell took his first Cup Series win in its biggest race, the Daytona 500. That got him into the playoffs, but his Front Row Motorsports team was overmatched. McDowell finished 23rd in 2022 driver points despite a career-high 12 top 10s.

Last year, McDowell had the best season of his 17-year Cup career, including a dominant win on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. That put him in the playoffs for the second time, but also overshadowed another small detail: He’d have qualified on points anyway.

A front-row start at Daytona International Speedway last week ended in a 36th-place heartbreak after mechanical issues, but McDowell followed that up with his first career Cup pole to start the day in Atlanta. A mistake getting to pit road, when he locked up his brakes and got into William Byron, cost McDowell a chance at the win on Sunday. But it didn’t ruin his day. McDowell rebounded to finish a respectable eighth.

With Ford upping its factory support for FRM to a tier 1 team, a well-deserved win for the team, how far can McDowell go in 2024?

Let’s not go crazy here, because neither McDowell nor his team has enough playoff experience to make the Championship 4. The Round of 8 is a stretch, but getting to the second round and finishing in the top 10 is something that looks achievable for the No. 34, with a top-12 result maybe a bit more realistic.

McDowell is an incredibly underrated driver thanks mainly to driving for underfunded teams for most of his career. He turns 40 this year and suddenly finds himself in the best position of his career. It’s up to him and his team to capitalize.

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Last week’s winner Byron qualified a solid 11th. He avoided disaster by inches in the first stage, as a spinning Chris Buescher missed collecting the No. 24 by inches. Stage two was more of the same for Byron, who got turned by McDowell as they entered pit road. That cost Byron a lap, and while he got it back on a late caution, Byron’s Daytona follow-up ended up with a 17th-place finish.

Defending race winner Joey Logano qualified on the front row, but a penalty for altered driving gloves meant he’d start at the back and have to serve a pass-through penalty under green. Serving that penalty may have actually helped Logano, because he avoided the lap 2 melee and was able to easily catch the field under caution. By the second stage, he was leading laps. Coming to the end of that stage, Logano tangled with Buescher in a three-car incident along with Denny Hamlin. He did finish the race, but wound up eight laps down in 28th.

Last season’s Cup champion Blaney’s defense of his title didn’t start off the way he planned. After a brutal crash in his Daytona 500 qualifier, Blaney was also caught up in a multicar crash in the 500, finishing 30th and rolling into Atlanta 23rd in points.

Blaney ran a solid race on Sunday, and as a result held the lead when the red flag flew with 19 laps to go, leading 31 laps in total. Blaney hung on but another restart changed the energy. Blaney led at the white flag, but couldn’t hold off a charging Busch and Suarez both. Blaney finished second by about an inch.

When… was the moment of truth?

The race had a great finish, one of the closest in NASCAR history, but the race will be equally remembered for the record percentage of cars involved in crashes. In the final tally, just three of the 37 starters avoided trouble for the entire 400 miles.

Getting involved in trouble didn’t guarantee a bad outcome, but trouble changed the complexion of the race several times. It certainly set up Suarez’s chance to win despite having been involved in the very first incident of the day on lap 2.  

The final five laps could have gone either way — the energy certainly built to the level of checkers-or-wreckers. Busch’s move to take it three-wide to the finish allowed Suarez to have the fast top lane, giving him the momentum to win the drag race. 

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

Keep an eye on the penalty report this week to see what NASCAR is going to do with Logano. The Team Penske was penalized at the start for a safety violation because of his driving gloves being altered. That’s a standard penalty for the safety aspect. Gloves, like the rest of a driver’s apparel, are designed to protect the driver in case of a fire. Alterations to the material can reduce their protective capacity.

In Logano’s case, there was a piece of material sewn between the thumb and forefinger. If it wasn’t made of fire-retardant material, that is a safety violation. But NASCAR also deemed it a competitive alteration, meaning they could come down on Logano with more penalties, including point deductions this week. 

How big is any advantage? Probably minimal at best, with the webbing possibly assisting grip on the wheel. It certainly isn’t going to add any measurable speed. Any additional penalty in the competition area is probably more a case of making an example of Logano to not make modifications that could compromise safety in the future.

Also in line for penalties: Noah Gragson and Ryan Preece, who both had the roof rails from their rides confiscated earlier in the weekend. NASCAR hasn’t released the reason for taking the parts yet.

See also
Joey Logano Penalized for Unapproved Gloves Before Atlanta

How… is this track surface going to evolve — and will it be allowed to?

After the summer race last year, it looked like the track might turn into a circuit with a lot of potential, as the big packs were less prevalent than before as the pavement began to age.

But the track was configured to run like a mini-Daytona or Talladega Superspeedway, and Sunday (Feb. 25) certainly underscored that as half the field got caught up in a stack-up on lap 2. The cars run the same package as the superspeedways, and that helps keep them bunched up.

If you like carnage, it might be fun, and it’s really time to redact the not glorifying wrecks rhetoric because the current superspeedway package goes a step further — it creates them. Sure the cars are a lot safer than they used to be, but maybe don’t flaunt it all the same. When the broadcast lists the cars not involved in crashes because it’s easier than listing the ones that were, there were too many crashes.

But the race wasn’t all bad. There were some very good stretches of green-flag racing and the longer they ran without a caution, the better it got. Drivers were able to move around and pass as the field spread out. That’s good racing. Unlike the bigger tracks, they don’t have to be inches apart to make a run, which gives room for error. The longer a run went on, the more room they had to race, and the old slingshot move, no longer seen at Daytona and Talladega because of the tighter packs, could be seen. There were still too many incidents, but at least they were smaller.

So, the hope is that as the pavement ages, we will see the field spread out more and the racing should actually improve from it, with cars able to race and pass without piling up half the field. That would not detract from the uniqueness of the track at all; in fact, it would add to it because it would be different from Daytona and Talladega.

But if repaving Atlanta is an easy way to keep the field stacked up as it was the first couple of races here, then how long will the pavement be allowed to age before someone decides the racing is too boring (or doesn’t have enough wrecks) and resets the clock with a fresh coat? Will the track be allowed to get better?

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

19 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
kb

The glove thing on any driver you love, or hate has to make you be honest, you think this is laughable. IMO it has a meaning behind it. I do. Fords off to a great start, especially the 22 team. NASCAR is putting notice of the fantastic strong start by the 22 team. IMO! GLOVES, DID he wave his hands out the car???? I’m confused. NASCAR interfered with a race and its outcome, imo. Why is Ford even still in this venue? Seriously, NASCAR beats them down, and they seem to want more, imo.

Would this even be mentioned or noticed if it was a HMS glove? Come on. IMO.

So insane.

Yes, in these times anybody can justify anything with the term “safety” and the sheep sign up to believe…..imo.

Joshua Farmer

They would penalize anyone the same. And please, half of your comment consisted of “IMO.” More information or opinion and less abbreviations.

kb

Sure, I’ll get right on it. Get lost. Here is another one “LOL”.

CHIEF

I’m sure hendrick’s golden boys had on their fire-proof fruit-of-the-looms. Poor FORD, funding for hendricknascar’s banquet starting early this year.

Ted

If Hendrick was the golden boy team, they wouldn’t have suspended Chase last year. 🤦‍♂️🤷🏼‍♂️

Mike

If there was a drinking game where you took a shot every time Bowyer or Harvick said the word “scenario”, you’d be tanked & passed out by the end of the race.

Dan

What a great finish. Kudos to Blaney for his response when asked about the finish admitting that he’s “won” some close races like that and not complaining about losing a close one. Class act. I think the 12 team has come a long way from 2 or 3 years ago when they were shooting themselves in the foot on occasions. Hope they win another championship real soon.

Joshua Farmer

I guess you don’t listen to his f-bomb filled radio transmissions. I don’t know about classy at all with any NASCAR driver.

Dan

Don’t think I said anything about transmissions between driver and crew. I’m talking about when in public in front of a camera.

DoninAjax

The only highlights of the event that will be seen in the ads will be the crashes.

iceman202290

They advertised that Darlington finish for years afterwards. So I could see them using the finish from this race as a key advertising point.

Bill B

You bet!

DoninAjax

How much of the ad is a finish and how much are crashes?

Brian

7th Big Question:

How did Denny Hamlin after being part of the crash and spinning out when Keselowski spun get to start 3rd/4th on the subsequent restart? The TV folks did not give an explanation for this just surprised he was in the top 4.
He would have pitted toward the back half of the field, and with the damage team likely would have been one of the last off pit road. I know others pitted to top off the fuel but not enough for Hamlin to start where he did.

Would like an answer if anyone knows.

DoninAjax

The 11 got a free pass, like the 8 and the 23!

Brian

Except it was the same caution as his accident with the 22,17,and him. Still makes no sense.

Ted

McDowell explained the importance of that win on the Dale Jr download. The team was able to afford on the more expensive machines that the larger teams have. I find the Front Row Motorports & Michael McDowell story fascinating how both team and driver had to start and park for years just to get to where they are at now. Hard work pays off.

DoninAjax

Maybe Suarez can drive after all.

Carl D.

Heck yeah! He’s shown he can drive.

Share via