By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — Ryan Blaney became the sixth driver to win in six races to start NASCAR’s Cup season, surging to the front with nine laps to go after Kyle Larson’s dominant performance at Atlanta Motor Speedway fell apart on a fading set of tires Sunday.
Larson easily won the first two stages and led 269 of 325 laps on the 1.54-mile trioval.
But Larson’s tires didn’t stand up to the punishing track after making his final pit stop with 56 laps to go. Blaney stayed close enough to make his move, hugging the outside wall through the fourth turn and cutting to the inside to pass Larson as they crossed the line in front of the main grandstands.
Blaney pulled away to win by 2.083 seconds in his No. 12 Team Penske Ford.
“Gosh, we had a great long-run car all day,” said Blaney, who had to go just as long as Larson on the final set of tires but got much more out of them. “It looked like Kyle was getting loose. It worked out in our favor that there were some long runs at the end.”
When it was over, Blaney strolled over to the stands and grabbed the checkered flag, which he handed to a young fan wearing the driver’s T-shirt.
It was a bitter loss for Larson, who missed a chance to become 2021’s first two-time winner after a victory at Las Vegas two weeks ago.
Still, he is off to a strong start in his new job at Hendrick Motorsports, less than a year after blurting out a racial slur on the livestream of a late-night video racing game, which cost him his job at Chip Ganassi Racing.
“He was a lot better than me late in the run,” Larson said. “I hate to lead a lot of laps and lose. The car was stupid fast for a long time there. I don’t know if we got that much worse or he just got way better.”
The Cup series returned to the track where the racing world came to a halt a year ago.
In March 2020, Atlanta was the first NASCAR Cup race to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The series shuttered for more than two months before resuming with major changes to the schedule, including the Atlanta race being held in early June.
This year’s sixth race of the Cup season welcomed a socially distanced crowd of about 20,000 — far below capacity because of the lingering COVID-19 outbreak, but a welcome change from the previous year when no fans were allowed for the makeup race in Atlanta.
The Cup racers will return to the 1.54-mile trioval July 11, the first time since 2010 that Atlanta has hosted two races in a season.
Kurt Busch had the look of a contender until the restart to begin the second stage.
As the cars stacked up behind Larson, Busch got bumped from behind by Denny Hamlin and slammed into the outside wall going into turn one.
The No. 1 Chevrolet sustained heavy damage on the right side. Busch was able to nurse his machine back around to pit lane, but he was done for the day.
Busch conceded that Hamlin “didn’t do anything vicious or malicious,” but he was ticked off that the driver of the No. 11 car got so impatient on the restart.
“These are the days that hurt the worst,” said Busch, who finished last in the 39-car field. “It’s a restart. Where are we gonna go, man? Just chill.”
It was also a tough day for defending Cup champion and home-state favorite Chase Elliott.
Scheduled to start from the fifth position, he had to take the green from the back of the field after failing multiple inspections before the race.
Then, shortly after a restart to begin the final stage, Elliott’s No. 9 Chevy blew the engine coming off turn four.
With smoke billowing from the back of his car, Elliott made it back to the pits but the crew quickly determined that he wouldn’t be able to continue. The car was pushed to the paddock with a 39th-place finish.
“It’s great to be home in Georgia,” Elliott said. “I wish we could’ve had a good result.”
The series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway next Sunday for the highly anticipated dirt race on the high-banked, half-mile oval in northeastern Tennessee.
It will be the first dirt race for NASCAR’s top racers since 1970 — two years before a revamp of the series led to what is known as the modern Cup era.
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