Atlanta winners and losers

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A look at the winners and losers following Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway

WINNERS

William ByronByron became the third driver from Hendrick Motorsports’ four-car stable to win in the past four races courtesy of his win at Atlanta. In a race that was statistically unpredictable — there were a track-record 46 different lead changes among 20 drivers, another track record — Byron proved to be the one constant. The No. 24 Chevrolet paced the field for a race-high 111 of 325 laps, controlling the field from the front when despite multiple late restarts. Byron’s year began with DNFs at both Daytona and Auto Club, but his rebounds since have been decent, finishing fifth at Las Vegas and 18th at Phoenix. This victory gives Byron wins in each of the past three seasons, including triumphs at Daytona in August 2020 and Homestead-Miami in February 2021.

Ross ChastainHow impressive has Chastain been? His second-place finish Sunday is his second straight runner-up result and third consecutive top-three effort. Chastain scored three top fives during the entire 2021 season. He’s already tied that mark within five races in 2022, all while competing for Trackhouse Racing, which is in the midst of its first year as a two-car program. This hot streak might not soon be over. Chastain scored a fourth-place finish at Circuit of the Americas last year, and the series heads there next.

Kurt BuschSomehow, someway, Kurt Busch keeps clicking off solid runs. Even though he was involved in a Lap-145 crash that began when Tyler Reddick spun from the lead, Busch managed to finish third, collecting his second consecutive top-five finish for 23XI Racing. Busch has yet to finish outside the top 20 in five races, his worst finish coming in the season-opening Daytona 500 where he finished 19th. The 2004 Cup Series champion was expected to make 23XI Racing better in its second year. His consistency is already adding a significant boost to the second-year organization, which also expanded to two cars over the offseason.

Corey LaJoie: At different points Sunday, LaJoie’s day seemed to be over. The most significant moment, of course, came during the Big One at Lap 145 when his No. 7 Chevrolet slid backward through the frontstretch grass, the result of contact from a spinning Kyle Larson while LaJoie tried to escape the melee. Despite the slide, LaJoie rallied for a fifth-place finish, his best result in 193 combined national series starts. His third top-15 finish of 2022 is also a nice way to ease the pain of losing crew chief Ryan Sparks for four races following a penalty after Phoenix.

Chase ElliottFor the first time since winning the 2020 championship, Elliott is the Cup Series points leader. Elliott’s sixth-place finish Sunday is his best of the season as he remains the lone Hendrick driver without a victory through five races. How he’s done it is what’s most remarkable. His three top 10s have been valuable, but more critical are the 42 stage points Elliott has earned through the first five races, all without having actually won a stage. The only driver in the series with more stage points is Byron (55), who won Stage 1 Sunday. The series shifts to Circuit of the Americas next weekend, where Elliott won Cup’s inaugural event at the Texas road course in 2021.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell: Bell was the second driver across the finish line Sunday but was sent back to 23rd in the final rundown, the last car on the lead lap. That was the penalty for going beneath the double-lined boundary on the inside lane while passing Ross Chastain for second place on the final lap. The No. 20 team was in serious need of a good run and its driver seemingly delivered. But the move below the line, a rule implemented for the first time outside of Daytona and Talladega, eliminates what would have been Bell’s first top five of 2022. Instead, Bell leaves Atlanta with his fourth finish outside the top 20 in five races and sits 30th in points.

Bubba WallaceFor the third consecutive superspeedway-style race, Wallace found himself in contention to win on the final lap. Unfortunately, unlike his victory at Talladega in 2021 or runner-up effort in this year’s Daytona 500, Wallace wound up wrecking at the checkered flag and finished 13th. The No. 23 Toyota was second at the white flag, but Chastain charged to his inside and forced Wallace to stay high. A push from Chase Briscoe to Ryan Blaney sent Blaney into Wallace, ruining the momentum in their lane. Wallace was then a victim at the stripe when Chris Buescher and Justin Haley collected him in a vicious crash. The result is still Wallace’s best since Daytona, but there are lots of what-could-have-beens for him leaving Atlanta.

Aric AlmirolaAlmriola hadn’t finished worse than 12th all season and found himself inside the top five with less than 20 laps to go. But just as quickly as he’d gotten there, Almirola was sent spinning through the grass on the front straightaway after contact from behind courtesy of Ross Chastain. Almirola was able to keep rolling without significant damage, but the No. 10 Ford crossed the line 22nd, the team’s first finish outside the top 20 in Almirola’s farewell tour.

Denny HamlinWhen will Hamlin’s year start turning around? The answer needs to be found quickly. After three consecutive seasons in the Championship 4, the No. 11 team is desperate just to finish within the top 10. Hamlin has failed to finish three of the year’s first five events, including Sunday in Atlanta after being involved in two crashes. Hamlin admitted after the race that he’s “just making some bad decisions” behind the wheel that has put his entire team in a bind. The season is young and Hamlin will likely find his way. But sitting 26th in points can’t be comfortable for him, especially watching the two 23XI Racing cars he co-owns sit fifth (Kurt Busch) and 18th (Wallace).

Kyle BuschBusch had done a masterful job of maximizing his results through each of the season’s first four races. But contact with Austin Dillon at Lap 102 sent Busch into the wall and triggered a multi-car accident, breaking suspension pieces in the No. 18 Toyota that eventually made the car undriveable. Busch finished 33rd, his first DNF of the season. Busch was a detractor of the superspeedway-style ideas being brought to Atlanta from its launch and maintained that stance Sunday. Hard to blame him after freefalling nine spots in the points standings to 11th place this week.