Race Weekend Central

Dropping the Hammer: NASCAR’s Magic Moment in Atlanta

“Just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber, you go and do something like this … and totally redeem yourself!” – Dumb and Dumber

It’s about time.

For the last decade, the historical highlight reel of memorable NASCAR moments at Atlanta Motor Speedway was unbelievably stale.

Sure, there was the historic 1992 season finale where Alan Kulwicki triumphed to claim the NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Flash forward eight years to 2000.

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Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte lit the fuse on a half decade of incredible photo finishes that have been obligatorily used every season since. Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon followed a year later in Harvick’s emotional first career win.

Then in 2005, Carl Edwards outraced Jimmie Johnson to his first career Cup win.

After that, Johnson and Gordon put on a show in 2011 before Gordon came out on top for his 85th career win.

In the 12 years since?

Goose egg. Nada. Nil.

Any pre-race show ahead of Atlanta featured a rotation of those five highlights.

Then came Sunday (Feb. 25) and the fifth race on the Frankenstein’s monster of a racetrack that no one but Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith’s bank account asked for.

Hours after the race started with a cringeworthy 16-car pileup — the largest in the track’s history — and not long after Austin Cindric blew our minds with a four-wide pass for the lead, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch went and broke the internet.

You know something is memorable and viral when FOX Sports shares the Spanish language broadcast version of said moment.

On top of that, you know something is really special when ESPN — a network that typically needs a TV contract to give NASCAR attention outside the Daytona 500, the championship race or a Bubba Wallace win — acknowledges NASCAR on SportsCenter.

As far as I know, that hasn’t happened since Ross Chastain‘s “Hail Melon” in 2022 was the No. 1 play.

Then you have Twitter accounts with more than 100,000 followers signal-boosting the finish and showing a potential interest in the sport.

If one were to trust the public-facing viewing numbers of today’s Twitter — which I don’t — this tweet was seen by two million users and NASCAR’s original has been viewed 16 million times.

Just how much good feelings did Atlanta leave with NASCAR Nation?

On Jeff Gluck’s weekly “Was it a good race?” poll, Sunday’s race became the highest-scoring race that wasn’t held at Bristol Motor Speedway. It also was the first poll to eclipse 40,000 votes.

Do you know how hard it is to have the NASCAR world — which developed insecurity issues as its national profile diminished in the back half of the Brian France reign and Formula 1 rode the Netflix wave — come to a positive consensus?

Hard.

Atlanta resulted in an afterglow the sport has really only experienced recently in the aftermath of the “Hail Melon” and Shane van Gisbergen‘s Chicago street course win last year.

But those moments came in the penultimate race of the season and in July, well after the traditional yearly decline of TV viewership.

Speaking of, more people than usual watched Sunday’s race, as it saw a 5% increase over the second race of 2023, which was the last race at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway.

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According to Frontstretch‘s Phil Allaway, that is the first year-over-year increase for the second race of the season since 2020.

Was that thanks to a Netflix bump? Because it was a superspeedway race?

Who knows.

Regardless, NASCAR needed this viral jumpstart to the 2024 season.

After the seemingly great debut of the NASCAR: Full Speed docuseries on Netflix, NASCAR had its two big season-opening events — the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum and the Daytona 500 — rescheduled due to rain. Then the 500 ended the way it did.

Will any of this mean squat for rebuilding NASCAR’s national reputation?

I’m eager to find out.

2024 is Daniel McFadin’s 11th year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his third year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021.

About the author

Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.

You can email him at danielmcfadin@gmail.com.

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