Long: New-look Atlanta provides Cup race unlike any other at track

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HAMPTON, Ga. — Never had they seen a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway like this. Pack racing, the leaders unable to break away and crashes. Lots of crashes. So many crashes. And some hard hits.

Drivers forecasted chaos after an intense 50-minute practice session Saturday. Fans got it Sunday.

When it was over, an ebullient — and relieved — William Byron celebrated his first Cup win of the season. And Christopher Bell, who crossed the finish line second, was penalized for passing below the out-of-bounds line on the backstretch and dropped to 23rd, the last car on the lead lap. 

“Pretty crazy race, but definitely good to come out on top,” Byron said.

A 500-mile race that took 3 hours, 57 minutes and 14 seconds didn’t earn the ire of fans because there was action on the track — or seemingly action even if it was hard to pass. With cars running two-by-two much of the race, and the lines bobbing and weaving, something seemed to be happening even when it wasn’t. 

A track-record 46 lead changes took place over 325 laps. Still, drivers talked about difficulty in passing if they weren’t in the first few rows.

The race also had 11 cautions, including eight for accidents — and that didn’t even include the crash as the field came to the checkered flag. Chris Buescher traveled across the finish line backward in seventh place. 

Thirty-one of the 37 cars in the race were involved in a crash. Bubba Wallace and Cody Ware both said their incidents were the hardest they have ever had.  

Everyone walked away.

Fans, wanting action at a 1.5-mile track instead of single-file racing, walked away feeling good about this new style at Atlanta Motor Speedway. 

“We designed this track two years ago with the help of iRacing (and) didn’t know what the Next Gen car was going to be like, said Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports, which operates Atlanta Motor Speedway. “Here we are today with a great day of racing a lot of fun for the race fans.”

Smith said it was the track’s largest crowd since 2014.

Not all drivers were thrilled with the racing. 

Kyle Busch, involved in a crash, was never happy with the change. Last July, track officials announced they would repave and reconfigure the track, increasing the banking from 24 to 28 degrees in the corners, Busch blistered the decision after he won the Xfinity race. 

There ain’t nobody thinking,” Busch said then, alluding to the narrowing of the track in the corners that he predicted would lead to the field being stuck two wide. 

After exiting Sunday’s race and finishing 33rd, Busch’s words were fewer but the sentiment remained.

Asked if he felt he was more an entertainer then driver at this track, Busch said: “Yup.”

Asked if he liked the changes, he said: “Nope” and then walked away.

Joey Logano, who was involved in one incident and finished ninth, called this type of racing his “tax” for racing at other venues.

“I always look at it as a tax I’ve got to pay to go racing more fun stuff, like next week (at Circuit of the Americas),” Logano told NBC Sports. “That’s just part of it. I’m not a big fan of it because there are so many wrecks and stuff. It takes a lot of the driver out of it, so it kind of bugs me a little bit. You can study it and be really good at it and get caught up in the wrong stuff and that’s what happens.”

It happened to Denny Hamlin, as his misfortune continued. He finished 29th, eliminated by a crash. It marked the third time he’s failed to finish in the first five races of the season.

He was asked if this style of racing was acceptable for Atlanta.

“I think it’s what they were shooting for,” Hamlin said of track officials. “If you asked them, it’s a success. I think the racing was obviously close. It’s exciting. There’s some crashes. There’s something for everyone.”

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson, who finished 30th after he was eliminated from a crash, understood why the changes were made to the track.

“I like traditional-style racing and traditional-style mile-and-a-half racing, but for a new repaved track, this is probably more exciting,” he said.

It was for Corey LaJoie, who was involved in a crash and finished a career-high fifth.

“If it was as crazy as it felt, (the fans) had to be entertained,” he told NBC Sports. “It was an interesting style of racing.”

Winning car owner Rick Hendrick said he wants more changes to the sport to create unique events like Sunday’s race.

“I think keep changing it up, and it just seems to bring in a lot of new people that we haven’t seen,” he said. 

He went on to say: “I think just doing something different than you’ve done for years and years is good for the sport.”