Martin Truex, Jr. was certainly a contender for a win at Phoenix but not the first name that came to mind. He was a no show in Stage 1 after brushing the wall but was running second to Joey Logano at the end of Stage 2.
In leading 64 laps on his way to Victory Lane, he was not the race lap leader — that honor goes to a disappointed Joey Logano who led a race high 143. In fact, it was a pretty good day for Team Penske aside from not winning. Ryan Blaney (P10) led 35 laps and led Stage 1 while Brad Keselowski (P4) led 19 laps. That put all three Penske Fords in the Top 10.
Joe Gibbs Racing also put three of its four cars in the Top 10 as well. In addition to winner Truex, Denny Hamlin (P3) led 33 laps, Christopher Bell (P9) ran well but the nagging question once again is what is wrong with Kyle Busch? Busch ran P25 and didn’t come close to leading a lap. He ran P6 in Stage 1 but then dropped to P27 at the end of Stage 2. Sure, he spun out with a little help from Ross Chastain, but he was loose and on his way around before Chastain ever touched him. Busch was even heard saying that maybe he just wasn’t getting all he needed to out of the car which is most definitely not like Rowdy. No practice and qualifying still seems to be plaguing the 18 team.
Denny Hamlin ran well all race long and looks like he may break through at any time with his first win of the season.
Brad Keselowski has to be as disappointed as Logano. Both drivers have had speed and Atlanta may just be what the doctor ordered before the Bristol Dirt race. Keselowski won in 2017 and 2019 so 2021 may be his time.
Kevin Harvick showed some speed but was never really a threat to break out of the Top 5. Harvick used to be dominant at Phoenix but didn’t look like the same car and driver from that time. He should be considered a contender at Atlanta as the defending Atlanta race winner and with another win in 2018.
Chase Elliott (P5) and Kyle Larson (P7) were also missing their usual speed and seemed to be stuck running between 5th and 10th. William Byron gave Hendrick a trifecta in the Top 10 with a finish of P8. Alex Bowman followed up in P13 which wasn’t too bad considering he struggled most of the day.
As I noted last week, Bell and Byron were candidates to crack the Top 10 again and Almirola needed a Top 10.
Kind of a good day
Last week, I said that Aric Almirola (P11) needed a Top 10 to show some improvement so he was just shy of that. They struggled a bit again but this has to be kind of a positive day for the team. He has only one Top 10 at Atlanta since 2018 so they will need to follow up with a strong Top 15 finish.
Bubba Wallace (P16) led 4 laps on pit strategy which is perfectly fine. They were gambling on another yellow and that didn’t fall when they needed it. While a Top 15 would have been better, this felt like the kind of day that Almirola had: kind of a positive day. I would give the team the edge over the 10 since the 223 is a new team and the 10 should be better. If they can maintain seed and stay out of trouble at Atlanta and geta Top 15, that would be awesome. Heck, a Top 20 may make them happy.
Finishing P14 had to feel good for Matt DiBenedetto. We’ll see if they can crack the Top 15 at Atlanta, which would mean a lot for this team and driver. More than likely, they’ll be happy with a Top 20.
Kyle Busch Watch
Since 2018, Busch has just one Top 5 and two other Top 10 finishes while averaging a Top 5 finish. But that is prepandemic Kyle Busch. With no practice, he might once again run well for a time and drift off at the end. We all know that when Kyle isn’t running well, he can get kind of pissy. If he struggles and runs P12-17 for much of the race, his team will have to keep him pumped up to stay after it. If he can stay in the hunt for a Top 10 and compete with his teammates, they might be able to keep his mood up.
Who To Watch At Atlanta
Well, the usual suspects as they say, but specifically I am watching to see if Keselowski and Harvick can bring it this week. Martin Truex, Jr. may also be a threat if they can keep up with the track and give the car the balance he needs. Truex is a threat to be the first two race winner.
My dark horse would be Kurt Busch. He has been kind of running under the radar this year and he runs pretty well at Atlanta. He could be the sneaky spoiler this week.
Chase Elliott should be a Top 10 finisher. I am also looking to see where Christopher Bell runs this week. Can the team maintain the speed they have shown at this track? If so, this kid is a real threat.
Ryan Blaney and team need to step up this weekend and show some speed and staying power. A Top 5 would be amazing but a solid Top 10 would be OK.
Who do you have? Leave me your thoughts in the comment section below!
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(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images/NASCAR Media)