Story By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – HAMPTON, GA – Neither an early spin nor damage to his No. 24 Chevrolet could prevent William Byron from winning Sunday night’s rain-shortened Quaker State 400 Available at Walmart at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
With a storm approaching the 1.54-mile track, Byron surged past AJ Allmendinger into the lead on Lap 167 and remained out from until an accident in Turn 3 involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Preece and Bubba Wallace caused the seventh caution of the evening on Lap 178.
With Byron out front, the NASCAR Cup Series cars circled the track until the rain arrived and began falling more heavily. NASCAR brought the cars to pit road and red-flagged the race at 9:47 p.m. after 185 laps were complete.
With severe weather moving into the area, the sanctioning body called the race and made Byron the first four-time winner in the series this season. The victory was Byron’s second at Atlanta and the eighth of his career.
Daniel Suárez was second when NASCAR called the race, with Allmendinger running third. Michael McDowell and Kyle Busch completed the top five.
Crew chief Rudy Fugle called Byron to pit road on Lap 125 under caution for a pileup in Turn 2 that damaged the cars of Erik Jones, Ross Chastain, Corey LaJoie, Tyler Reddick, Martin Truex Jr. and Ty Gibbs.
That enabled Byron to restart fourth on Lap 165 after roughly half the field (cars that had not pitted since Lap 95) came to pit road on Lap 161. Two laps later, Byron had the lead.
Byron hardly looked like a winner after spinning through the grass on Lap 80 and losing a lap getting to pit road. But the 25-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., regained the lost circuit as the beneficiary under caution for Kyle Larson’s spin on Lap 92.
“It’s cool, man,” Byron said. “We went through so much throughout the night—spinning through the infield, destroyed the bottom of the car dragging it around the apron trying to stay on the lead lap. At that point, you just don’t have the grip, so I was real edgy back in traffic, but Rudy made a good call to pit there and then stay out.
“Once we got towards the front, it was OK. We could make the right decisions, block OK, and I got the lead from AJ and was able to manage the run. Just a crazy night.”
The race was a boon not only for Byron, who leads the Playoff standings, but for winless drivers around the Playoff bubble. First, there was no new winner in the series to reduce the number of spots available on points.
Moreover, Suárez, Allmendinger and McDowell improved their chances with top-five finishes. Those three drivers all gained ground on Chase Elliott, who is trying to qualify for the Playoffs despite missing seven of the 19 races this season.
Elliott wasn’t a factor on Sunday night, failing to earn any stage points and finishing 13th.
Despite his early struggles, Byron was pleased that handling played such an important part in the racing on the recently repaved racing surface.
“It was awesome—that’s all you can ask for on a superspeedway,” Byron said. “We want handling to matter. We want to be able to drive the things. I felt like the first stage was really fun. I was able to make some moves on the bottom.
“And you’re lifting every corner, so it’s different than a 550 (horsepower) old-style race. It’s more packed up, but still handling matters, and guys can make aggressive moves… I’m thankful for the whole team and just staying in it, ‘cause we were a lap down, and it could have been over.”
The race started with team owner Richard Childress driving pace laps in the No. 29 Chevrolet that launched Kevin Harvick’s career with an Atlanta win after Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001. It wasn’t Harvick’s night, however. After a late spin, he finished 30th in his final run at Atlanta. Harvick is retiring from Cup racing at the end of the season.