Daniel Suarez's incredible three-wide win at Atlanta got NASCAR the highlight it sought when the track was remodeled in 2022


NASCAR got its highlight finish of the season on Sunday night in Atlanta.

Daniel Suarez’s win by mere inches over both Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch will assuredly be the closest finish of 2024 as the three drivers hurtled three-wide to the finish line. Suarez edged Blaney to the checkered flag by 0.003 seconds in the third-closest finish in NASCAR history.

It was a compelling end to what had been a costly race for teams after an expensive Daytona 500. Just four of the 36 cars entered in the race weren’t involved in a crash as the second race of the season picked up from where the 500 left off right away. The race wasn’t even two laps old when a 16-car crash — that included Suarez — broke out after Todd Gilliland slowed down to help out his teammate Michael McDowell at the front of the field.

Overall, there were 10 cautions for 65 laps throughout the 260-lap race. Suarez’s pass for the win was the 48th lead change in those 260 laps.

In essence, the race went as NASCAR and Atlanta Motor Speedway hoped it would. There were lots of crashes. There were lots of lead changes. And there was a finish that left many wondering who won in the seconds after Suarez crossed the finish line.

But it’s also worth wondering what NASCAR and Atlanta actually gained over the course of a race that once again showed NASCAR’s willingness to push the line between entertainment and sport.

This was exactly the race that NASCAR and Atlanta wanted when the 1.5-mile track was redesigned ahead of the 2022 season. After cars would get spread out as drivers used every inch of the pavement on the worn-out Atlanta surface, the track raised the banking and narrowed the racing groove. In short, the changes to the track coupled with NASCAR’s tweaks to the rules that governed the cars at the track suddenly made Atlanta a mini Daytona or Talladega.

The last five races on the old Atlanta layout produced 24 cautions and 92 lead changes with many of those lead changes coming from green-flag pit stop cycles. In the five races since the track has been remodeled, there have been 46 cautions and 159 lead changes.

That purposeful switch from one extreme to another can make it hard to truly appreciate the quality of the finish that occurred on Sunday night. Years ago, Atlanta had been known for close finishes like between Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Kevin Harvick over Jeff Gordon in 2001. But those finishes came in an era where cars weren’t artificially tethered together via the draft and aerodynamic rules like Atlanta races currently are.

This version of Atlanta is a bit like a bag of Cheetos or Doritos. They can be good and addicting but are also ultimately unfulfilling and have little nutritional value. There’s nothing wrong with having Cheetos or Doritos every so often. But you probably shouldn’t eat them every day.

The same principle applies to the type of racing that now unfolds at Atlanta. As long as other intermediate tracks don’t follow suit and start renovations to duplicate what Atlanta has done, there’s room on NASCAR’s marathon 36-race Cup Series schedule for two races a year at Atlanta even if you’re not a fan of the type of racing it produces.

What Atlanta can’t be, however, is the new intermediate track standard. It’s imperative that NASCAR doesn’t get blinded by Atlanta’s highlights in its desperate bid to return to mainstream relevance and try to mimic this type of racing at the six other intermediate tracks on the schedule.

After all, NASCAR survived and thrived for decades with drivers routinely winning races by considerable margins. And those blowout wins made the close finishes all the more sweeter.



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