William Byron wins rain-shortened Cup Series race at Atlanta

Published 11:01 pm Sunday, July 9, 2023

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — William Byron overcame a spin early in the second stage that knocked him back a lap, and then was in the right position when weather took control at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Byron won the rain-shortened NASCAR race at Atlanta on Sunday night for his series-leading fourth victory of the season. It was the second win in Atlanta in the last two years for Byron, who took the NASCAR points lead.

Byron said it was “kind of pins and needles” after his crew made changes to his No. 24 Hendricks Motorsports Chevrolet that had been damaged by the spin.

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“When I spun, I was like here we go,” Byron said. “… It was not good at that moment. We lost a lap, changed tires.”

The threat of rain affected strategy as drivers fought to move toward the front of the field before weather delayed or ended the race.

On lap 185, with 75 laps to go, NASCAR ordered cars to pit road due to rain and the possibility of lightning. Cars were covered while officials waited to see if the rain ended.

Only six minutes later, fans were warned of severe weather within eight miles of the track and were encouraged to leave the stadium immediately, and NASCAR called the race soon after that announcement.

“I 1,000 percent agree with erring on the side of caution,” said Kyle Busch, who finished fifth.

Daniel Suarez, looking for his first win of 2023, was second. AJ Allmendinger was third, followed by Michael McDowell.

A collision between Bubba Wallace and Ryan Preece caused another caution early in the final stage, leaving Byron in the lead, ahead of Suarez.

Suarez said he had “a little bit of mixed feelings” about NASCAR’s decision to end the race.

“I wish we had one more shot to get ahead and then it could rain all it wants,” Suarez said with a laugh.

The race became official after 130 laps. After that, the weather watch factored heavily into race strategy.

“We knew the rain was coming,” McDowell said. “We wanted to give ourselves the best chance to win the race.”

Kevin Harvick, a three-time Atlanta winner, had a spin with 89 laps remaining. Harvick was able to drive to pit road without a caution, but the spin all but ended his hopes of a win in his final Atlanta race.

Harvick’s first NASCAR win came on March 12, 2001, at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a No. 29 Chevrolet originally built for Dale Earnhardt Sr. before Earnhardt died in a crash at the Daytona 500 weeks earlier.

The 29 returned to AMS, this time driven by grand marshal Richard Childress, 77, who was the team owner for Harvick in 2001. With Harvick’s No. 4 Ford driving beside him, Childress led the field around the track to the green flag for Sunday night’s race. Childress held up three fingers in a tribute to Earnhardt after entering pit road, just as Harvick did after winning in 2001. Some fans answered Childress with their own three-finger Earnhardt tribute.

“I couldn’t be more excited about seeing it lead the field to the green and I know how excited Richard is,” Harvick said Saturday. “I’m excited as well but Richard has been super excited to drive it and that makes me happy, too.”

The increased threat of rain placed an increased emphasis on drivers to compete for top spots in the second stage, perhaps contributing to two wrecks that knocked out Ross Chastain, Kyle Larson and Austin Hill.

Denny Hamlin and Alex Bowman were involved in another crash late in the second stage, leaving Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney at the front of the field. The stage ended under caution.

Despite the stage win, Keselowski was left with a big decision as he talked with his crew about the threat of rain and the possibility of staying on the track. He chose to pit for fuel, saying he had no real choice.

“No, we had 12 to 14 laps left of fuel and that was not enough and we ended up running 15 laps or so,” Keselowski said. “I think we made the right call. We just needed the rain to be 10 minutes earlier or 10 minutes later.”