William Byron wins wild NASCAR race at remodeled Atlanta

NASCAR Cup Series drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (47), Austin Cindric (2), Kevin Harvick (4) and Erik Jones (43) crash during the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., Sunday, March 20, 2022, (AP Photo/Skip Willimas)

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — William Byron held off the freight train behind him, taking the checkered flag for his third NASCAR Cup victory while one last crash unfolded behind him in an appropriate finish Sunday to a thrilling, chaotic race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The reconfigured track — with new pavement and steeper banking — fulfilled those who predicted it would lead to frenzied pack racing at blistering speeds approaching those seen at Talladega and Daytona.

“Pretty wild,” Byron said. “I’m out of breath. It was crazy.”

The result was 47 lead changes among an Atlanta-record 20 drivers, a traffic jam of tightly bunched cars at the front of the field, wrecks taking out several top contenders, and a bunch of smashed-up race cars to lug home.

Bryon was leading off the final restart with 13 laps to go. Bubba Wallace briefly grabbed the top spot, only to have Byron pass him right back.

Wallace still seemed to be in the most enviable position, especially if he could get a helpful push for a slingshot on the final lap. But everyone behind Byron started jostling for position, all of them wanting to put themselves in position to make the winning move.

That worked out perfectly for Byron, who pulled away to win by 0.145 seconds over Ross Chastain while the final wreck of the day sent four cars — including Wallace — spinning across the line.

In one last twist, Christopher Bell actually crossed the line second, but NASCAR penalized him for dipping below the double white line on the backstretch of the last lap to get past Chastain. Bell was dropped to 23rd.

Chastain made quite a comeback after blowing a tire early in the race while leading. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also blew a tire while running up front. Reigning series champion Kyle Larson, the front of his No. 5 Chevrolet patched with tape, had just surrendered the top spot when Denny Hamlin bumped him from behind, looking to give him a helpful push — only to send him into a spin that knocked them both out of the race.

“Everyone is kind of hanging on for dear life,” Ryan Blaney said during a caution period.

That summed up things perfectly.

Bash brothers

On the restart after Chastain’s early crash, another wreck took out both Dillon brothers.

Kyle Busch gave Austin Dillon a slight bump from behind entering the quad-oval, sending Dillon into the wall. Ty Dillon and Chase Briscoe spun behind them, leaving the younger Dillon with major damage as well.

The brothers were forced to retire, leaving Austin with a 35th-place finish and Ty in 36th.

“I was in the gas wide open and the 18 (Busch) pushed us and got me loose,” Austin Dillon said. “I don’t want to say any worse. My feelings are hurt. That’s the second week in a row I’ve been taken out.”

At Phoenix, Daniel Suarez made contact with Dillon on the final lap and sent the No. 3 into the wall, costing him a top-10 finish.

Odds and ends

Byron picked up the Stage 1 win under yellow. Blaney did the same in Stage 2. … Bell struck his jack man in the right leg during a pit stop. The crewman was able to complete the change, before being taken to the infield care center for treatment. His condition was not immediately available, and another crewman stepped in for Bell’s remaining stops. … Brad Keselowski and Harrison Burton had to start from the back of the field. Keselowski was penalized for changes to his car after inspection, while Burton’s machine failed inspection. … There were only 37 entries — three shy of a full field. … After struggling with attendance for years, a promising crowd turned out in Atlanta on a sunny day with temperatures climbing near 70 degrees. The infield was packed, while the massive grandstands were dotted with a smattering of empty seats. … NASCAR will return to Atlanta on July 11.

Up next

The Cup series heads to Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, for the first of six road races this season. Chase Elliott won the inaugural COTA race a year ago.