Epic Atlanta finish caps all-time NASCAR classic at one of its most-maligned tracks


HAMPTON, Ga. — The move was hair-raising. Eye-popping. Austin Cindric was going for it, four-wide for the lead through the tri-oval into Turn 1. Surely this would end in disaster.

But Sunday night in this second race of the 2024 NASCAR season, to everyone’s surprise, the brazen move actually worked with Cindric shooting into the lead without incident.

“That was kind of cool, wasn’t it?” Cindric said. “… It’s not easy to do, but I guess that’s why they call us the best in the world.”

At this moment, the much-maligned Atlanta Motor Speedway became the new favorite track for NASCAR fans. And it’s not as if Cindric’s pass was the high-water mark. Things only got better from there, ending with a legit photo finish that saw Daniel Suárez edge Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch by 0.003 seconds, the third-closest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

“Holy s—! That was so close,” Blaney said upon seeing a replay of the finish for the first time.

From beginning to end, Atlanta offered a bit of everything. Exactly what you want from a race at NASCAR’s highest level.

All 400 miles featured intense racing, never a moment of tediousness as drivers barely held on — and sometimes lost control — on a track that amplified their skill set. Sometimes races on a drafting track give the appearance that drivers have it easy, the unfair impression that anyone could do this if given the proper chance.

There was none of that Sunday night. Every lap was a grind, with the real potential of committing a serious mistake like when Denny Hamlin drove across the nose of Kyle Busch’s car or when Chris Buescher lost control coming off Turn 4 early in the race, or when Joey Logano drifted high exiting Turn 2 near the end of Stage 2.

This was NASCAR’s best pushed to their limits. And sometimes beyond.

“A bit of a surprise party every corner,” Martin Truex Jr. told Fox Sports’ Kevin Harvick during a red-flag stoppage. “As crazy as it is, it’s been kind of fun, too.”

Said Todd Gilliland, who led a race-high 58 laps: “It’s like going to a haunted house, you know? It’s fun, but I’m scared for my life at the same time.”

If anyone didn’t enjoy Sunday’s race, it may have been those behind the wheel. Drivers were in the uncomfortable position of having to compete on a track that combined elements of racing on a superspeedway — running in a tight pack with little escape should trouble occur, and managing the draft — with elements you’d see on a traditional intermediate track — tire wear, cars sliding around, and navigating traffic.

Races on unchallenging tracks often lead to forgettable events, while the best races often transpire on tracks that push drivers outside their comfort zone. Even if drivers didn’t enjoy themselves Sunday, the race was an instant classic, exactly the kind fans will talk about for years to come.

And the majority of drivers did seem to embrace the moment and enjoy how the race unfolded.

“It was a super cool race,” said sixth-place finisher Ricky Stenhouse Jr. “I think the fans got their money’s worth.”

Even Kyle Larson, who crashed out of the race and has never been a fan of superspeedways, was complimentary.

“I actually had a lot of fun today,” he said. “It was super intense and it’s been a great race.”

Drivers speaking favorably about Atlanta is quite the about-face considering the vitriol directed toward the track since it was converted from a traditional intermediate track into its current form in 2022. Many within NASCAR questioned why track owner Speedway Motorsports was taking a bulldozer to a beloved oval in favor of a redesigned configuration that diminished their ability.

To them, it felt sacrilegious. This was not what NASCAR was supposed to represent. The enmity only hardened with the announcement last fall that Atlanta’s second date would shift into the playoffs, beginning NASCAR’s championship run.


Sunday’s win was also a needed victory for Trackhouse’s Daniel Suárez, his second career Cup Series win in 254 races. (Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)

If anything, drivers have come to almost loathe Atlanta. Both for what it demanded of them and what it represented in the ever-shifting balance between entertainment versus sport, with the former seemingly being deemed more important to NASCAR’s growth. No wonder then when The Athletic conducted an anonymous survey last week asking those in the garage the race they were least looking forward to, Atlanta’s two races topped the poll.

One cannot help but wonder how those surveyed would now respond. Surely Atlanta wouldn’t be ranked as the worst track. Heck, it may not even garner a single vote.

“I don’t know if you could want anything more out of a NASCAR race than we saw tonight,” said Justin Marks, Suárez’s team owner at Trackhouse Racing. “I was a complete race fan tonight. I was just hanging on to every lap. Then you have the three-wide finish, and just from an entertainment value, it was an incredible race.

“This is one of the most compelling races I think that you could want for a sport.”

High praise, but also deserving. Because while Atlanta may have been detested before Sunday, it’s now the track that hosted one of the all-time races in NASCAR history.

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GO DEEPER

Anonymous NASCAR garage poll: Who wins the Cup crown? Biggest disappointment?

(Photo of the tight finish to Sunday’s race, with Daniel Suárez’s car edging out Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney: David J. Griffin / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)





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