Checkmate: Logano wins high-speed chess match at Atlanta

HAMPTON, GEORGIA - MARCH 19: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Autotrader Ford, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 19, 2023 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Finally. Growing up, Joey Logano lived in a condo about Atlanta Motor Speedway, racing legends cars. Sunday after 18 starts in NASCAR’s top series, and two titles, Logano was able to celebrate his first NASCAR Cup win at Atlanta after a last lap pass capped off a dominating day.

“So special to win Atlanta for me,” Logano said. “So many memories of me and my dad racing right here on the quarter mile. This is the full circle for us. So many memories gritting over there with the Legends car, racing, having a big time.

“Dreaming of going straight at the quarter mile and going on to the big track. That was always the dream to do it. To finally win here means so much to me here personally, but the team.”

Logano led a race high 140 laps, but it was Brad Keselowski who tried to spoil the party. Keselowski was grab the top spot from Logano on lap 231, but as was the case all day wasn’t able to pull away. Logano remained on the inside while Keselowski held the outside and was barely in the lead.

Keselowski was able to break away with 5 laps to go and had the top spot at the white flag. But Logano was able to get onto the high lane, which had been the fastest all day, and with a bump from Christopher Bell was able to get to the front holding off Keselowski at the line by .193 of a second.

“The bottom came with a huge run,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know how. I thought I had it blocked. Joey just kept shaking. His car didn’t stall out. I couldn’t get the push down the back. I thought just get a push down the back. The 20 car just hauled down there.

“But great run all in all for the RFK King’s Hawaiian Ford Mustang. Glad a Ford won. A heck of a battle.”

Behind Keselowski, Bell held on for third with Corey Lajoie fourth and Tyler Reddick completing the top five.

For much of the race it was an all Penske show as Logano led his Penske teammates Ryan Blaney and Austin Cindric. Logano easily won Stage 1 while Cindric was able to sneak by him to grab Stage 2.

As the last quarter of the race started, thanks in part to green flag stops, Logano fell back in the field and it was up to Aric Almirola who would swap the lead with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., then Denny Hamlin, and finally Kevin Harvick who took the top spot on lap 189. It all came apart just two laps later.

While Harvick was charging on the bottom Ross Chastain got behind him; the two cars didn’t appear to touch, but Harvick spun out of the lead and set off a multi-car crash. When the dust settled, Harvick was out of the race as was Harrison Burton, Chris Buescher, and William Byron.

““I think he just caught me so quick right there in the middle of the corner,” Harvick said of Chastain. “Then he kind of was up on the right rear part of the corner and he came back down and when he came back down it just spun the thing out.  I don’t think he actually even hit me, but it started chattering the rear tires and then I was just along for the ride.”

After pit stops, Almirola again took the lead. But while being chased by Kyle Larson on lap 210, Almirola lost a tire coming out of Turn 4 and get into the outside wall hard. Larson also crashed and swept up Daniel Suarez, and Reddick. Almirola, Larson, and Suarez were all done for the day.

“It knocked the wind out of me, mostly because it caught me by surprise, but I’m OK,” Almirola said.  “I blew a tire.  I just blew a tire.  I have no idea why.  We had way less laps on that set of tires than we had earlier, so I don’t know.”

That fifth and final caution set up the final battle which went 43 green flag laps and saw Logano scoring the first win for Ford of 2023, and his 32nd career victory after a high speed chess match in the final laps that left fans on the edge of their seats.

“Coleman (Pressley) is amazing,” Logano said. “He’s the best spotter on the roof by a longshot. Gave me great information the whole time to be able to make the right moves on the racetrack. He understands it so well, that on top of the car that Paul gave me. A really special race team to be able to maximize what we had here today. Fast car, great team.”

Denny Hamlin was sixth, Blaney seventh with Erik Jones, Ty Gibbs and Kyle Busch rounded out the top 10.

Sunday also marked the third time NASCAR has raced on the new surface, and the feedback continues to be positive.

“The coolest thing about this race is two veterans showed you can run a race here side by side, bump-drafting, and not wreck the field,” Keselowski said. “It can happen if you race respectfully. I thought everybody did a great job.”

The NASCAR Cup series heads to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin Texas next Sunday.

Photos: NASCAR at Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday March 19, 2023

NASCAR Cup Series Race Results Ambetter Health 400
Atlanta Motor Speedway
Hampton, Georgia
Sunday, March 19, 2023

1. (1) Joey Logano, Ford, 260.
2. (4) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 260.
3. (10) Christopher Bell, Toyota, 260.
4. (31) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 260.
5. (16) Tyler Reddick, Toyota, 260.
6. (14) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 260.
7. (3) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 260.
8. (28) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 260.
9. (35) Ty Gibbs #, Toyota, 260.
10. (17) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 260.
11. (2) Austin Cindric, Ford, 260.
12. (22) Noah Gragson #, Chevrolet, 260.
13. (18) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 260.
14. (15) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 260.
15. (23) Todd Gilliland, Ford, 260.
16. (30) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 260.
17. (27) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 260.
18. (21) Josh Berry(i), Chevrolet, 260.
19. (29) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 260.
20. (13) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 260.
21. (12) Michael McDowell, Ford, 260.
22. (20) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 260.
23. (26) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 260.
24. (8) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 259.
25. (32) Cody Ware, Ford, 258.
26. (34) JJ Yeley(i), Ford, 258.
27. (19) Bubba Wallace, Toyota, 255.
28. (24) Ryan Preece, Ford, 244.
29. (25) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, DVP, 213.
30. (5) Aric Almirola, Ford, Accident, 208.
31. (9) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, Accident, 208.
32. (11) William Byron, Chevrolet, Accident, 192.
33. (6) Kevin Harvick, Ford, Accident, 190.
34. (33) Harrison Burton, Ford, DVP, 190.
35. (7) Chris Buescher, Ford, Accident, 189.
36. (36) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, Accident, 189.

Average Speed of Race Winner: 138.8 mph.

Time of Race: 2 Hrs, 53 Mins, 5 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.193 Seconds.

Caution Flags: 5 for 34 laps.

Lead Changes: 20 among 13 drivers.

Lap Leaders: J. Logano 1-63;C. Ware 64;K. Busch 65-69;R. Blaney 70-74;K. Busch 75-76;J. Logano 77-131;C. Buescher 132-136;C. Bell 137-142;J. Logano 143-159;A. Cindric 160-164;A. Almirola 165-168;R. Stenhouse Jr. 169-175;D. Hamlin 176-188;K. Harvick 189;R. Chastain 190-194;D. Hamlin 195;A. Almirola 196-208;B. Keselowski 209-226;J. Logano 227-230;B. Keselowski 231-259;J. Logano 260.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Joey Logano 5 times for 140 laps; Brad Keselowski 2 times for 47 laps; Aric Almirola 2 times for 17 laps; Denny Hamlin 2 times for 14 laps; Kyle Busch 2 times for 7 laps; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 1 time for 7 laps; Christopher Bell 1 time for 6 laps; Ross Chastain 1 time for 5 laps; Ryan Blaney 1 time for 5 laps; Chris Buescher 1 time for 5 laps; Austin Cindric 1 time for 5 laps; Kevin Harvick 1 time for 1 lap; Cody Ware 1 time for 1 lap.

Stage #1 Top Ten: 22,2,6,12,11,20,8,17,99,19
Stage #2 Top Ten: 2,22,48,45,24,17,19,11,6,7

Greg Engle