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Key storylines for Atlanta

Despite Kyle Larson sweeping both stage wins and leading a race-high 269 laps, Ryan Blaney passes him inside of 10 laps remaining to win the NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Atlanta Motor Speedway officials couldn’t have asked for more out of last Sunday’s Cup race at Road America.

Dawsonville, Georgia native and reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott was the winner in front of a hearty crowd that cajoled him into an additional victory burnout.

Now, Elliott returns to his home track, which is opening its grandstands to full capacity after running its March weekend with limited crowds under COVID-19 restrictions.

In the March Cup race at Atlanta, Elliott was eliminated by an engine failure. So as he comes home, he has some unfinished business.

Problem is, so does one of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates - the one that’s arguably been the standard-bearer of the series since May.

Larson’s revenge?

Kyle Larson dominated in March at Atlanta, sweeping both stages and leading a race-high 269 laps. But with a great long-run car, Ryan Blaney emerged late and took the lead from Larson with nine laps to go before going on to win.

It was Larson’s second consecutive Atlanta race where he led the most laps but failed to win. In 2019, while driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, he led 142 laps at Atlanta before drawing a pit road speeding penalty while in the lead with around 100 laps to go. He settled for a 12th-place finish.

Doing the math, that’s 411 of 650 total laps led (63.2%) for Larson in his past two Atlanta appearances.

Larson should be a threat once again this weekend. While Atlanta is an outlier among 1.5-mile ovals due to its worn-out surface, Larson has been strong on this track type in 2021.

In five races held on 1.5-mile ovals this season, Larson is the only repeat winner (Las Vegas, Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte). He’s also earned four top-five finishes (tied for the most with Kyle Busch) and led the most laps (836) on this track type.

Off the latter note, Larson has led the most laps in the last four races on 1.5-mile ovals. Per Racing Insights, that ties a Cup record held by Hall of Famers Richard Petty and David Pearson.

“Rowdy” rolling along

After an up-and-down spring, Kyle Busch and his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team have found summer more to their liking.

Kyle Busch has posted three consecutive top-three finishes entering Atlanta: A runner-up and a win in the Pocono doubleheader, plus a third-place showing last week at Road America.

Going further, he’s posted five top-five finishes in the last six races. He’s also finished no worse than 11th in the last seven races.

He’s primed to keep the momentum going at Atlanta, where he’s posted four consecutive finishes of seventh or better.

Entering the March Atlanta Cup race, Kyle Busch had voiced frustrations about the team’s simulator set-ups not matching his car at the track, which in turn led to struggles early in races.

But Atlanta saw markedly improved performance from his No. 18 Toyota, which helped him overcome several mishaps (including a pit road speeding penalty) to finish fifth.

Fast-forward nearly four months later. While he and the rest of the Cup garage are still trying to slow down Hendrick Motorsports, the No. 18 team is much closer to where they want to be.

Playoff watch

With Tyler Reddick now more than a full race’s worth of points above the playoff cutline (15th, +75), the bubble focus is squarely on former Cup champ Kurt Busch and Chris Buescher entering Atlanta.

Kurt Busch holds the 16th and final playoff position by 25 points over Buescher with six regular season races to go.

The other drivers in the playoff picture frame - Ross Chastain in 18th (-69), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 19th (-70), and Matt DiBenedetto in 20th (-74) - are all more than a full race’s worth of points behind.

As the prospect of a surprise victory like Cole Custer’s last year at Kentucky hangs in the air, Kurt Busch needs to keep doing what he’s been doing.

With four top-10 finishes in the past five races, he’s gained 108 points on the cutline during that span to climb into playoff contention.

Kurt Busch has not won at Atlanta since 2010, but has posted five top-10 finishes in his last six there. The outlier, however, came this past March; a stack-up on a restart at Lap 113 ended with him getting pushed into the wall by Denny Hamlin.

As for Buescher, he remains in striking distance but has hit a rough patch at a bad time. He’s finished 16th or worse in his last five races.

However, Buescher notched a seventh-place finish at Atlanta in March and has also performed well on other low-grip tracks this season.

He earned a stage win before finishing 19th at Homestead-Miami, and turned in top 10 runs at Kansas (eighth) and Darlington (ninth).