HAMPTON, Ga. — Ryan Blaney knew he had to let Kyle Larson go. Patience was the key, especially on a Sunday when Larson looked unbeatable at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In the end, Larson faded on a battered set of tires, and Blaney raced by him for an improbable NASCAR Cup Series victory.
"I was not going to be able to stick with him," said Blaney, a 27-year-old Team Penske driver. "I've got to save my tires and see what happens."
Blaney became the sixth driver to win in six races to start this season, surging to the front with nine laps to go after Larson easily won the first two stages and led 269 of 325 laps on the 1.54-mile tri-oval. The Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet's tires didn't stand up to the punishing track after Larson made his final pit stop with 56 laps to go.
Blaney stayed close enough to make his move, his No. 12 Ford hugging the outside wall through the fourth turn and cutting to the inside to pass Larson as they crossed the line in front of the main grandstands. Blaney pulled away to win by 2.083 seconds, having gone just as long as Larson on the final set of tires but getting much more out of them.
"It's cool to win at a place where you've got to finesse it a little bit and think about it," Blaney said after the fifth victory of his Cup Series career.
He led just 25 laps, but one of them was the one that mattered most. When it was over, Blaney strolled over to the stands and grabbed the checkered flag, which he handed to a young fan wearing the driver's T-shirt.
It was a bitter loss for Larson, who missed a chance to become 2021's first two-time winner after a victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway two weeks ago. Still, he is off to a strong start in his new job at Hendrick, less than a year after blurting out a racial slur on the live stream of a late-night video racing game, which led to NASCAR suspending him for the rest of the season and cost him his job at Chip Ganassi Racing.
"I hate to lead a lot of laps and lose," Larson said. "The car was stupid fast for a long time there."
Hendrick's Alex Bowman was third for his best finish this year and first in the top five since last October at Texas Motor Speedway.
Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin, who started from the pole position and finished fourth, remains first in the points standings after another strong run. Hamlin has finished in the top five in every race except the third week of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he was 11th.
Still, the three-time Daytona 500 winner is clearly perturbed about not making it to victory lane after doing so seven times in 2020.
"We're just not fast enough," Hamlin said. "We need more speed."
Kurt Busch had the look of a contender until the restart to begin the second stage. As the cars stacked up behind Larson, Busch got bumped from behind by Hamlin and slammed into the outside wall going into turn one, sustaining heavy damage that ended the No. 1 Chevy's day.
The Ganassi driver conceded Hamlin "didn't do anything vicious or malicious," but he was still ticked off.
"These are the days that hurt the worst," said Busch, who finished last in the 39-car field. "It's a restart. Where are we gonna go, man? Just chill."
It was also a tough day for reigning Cup Series champion and Georgia native Chase Elliott.
Scheduled to start fifth, he had to take the green from the back of the field after his Hendrick No. 9 Chevy failed multiple inspections before the race. Shortly after a restart to begin the final stage, the engine blew coming off turn four and the car was pushed to the paddock with a 38th-place finish.
For NASCAR, the day was an overall success as it returned to the track where the racing world came to a halt a year ago. In March 2020, Atlanta was the first track with a race postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
This time, the Cup Series event went off as scheduled in front of a socially distanced crowd of about 20,000 — far below capacity because of the lingering outbreak, but a welcome change from last June, when no fans were allowed for the makeup race. The Cup Series will be back July 11, the first time since 2010 that Atlanta has hosted two races in a season.
The circuit visits Bristol Motor Speedway next Sunday for a highly anticipated dirt race on the half-mile oval in eastern Tennessee. It will be the first dirt race for NASCAR's top tier since 1970, two years before a revamp led to what is considered the modern era for the Cup Series.