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Long: Atlanta finish left even those who lost smiling after chaotic, exciting race

HAMPTON, Ga. — Only 10 minutes earlier, Ryan Blaney had shouted an expletive on his radio after he lost Sunday night’s Cup race by the third-closest margin since 1993.

But as Blaney discussed the race, he suddenly stood on his toes, widened his eyes and tilted his head to see over the media surrounding him on pit road. He gazed at a video board as it played the three-wide finish with him, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Busch.

“I haven’t seen it,” Blaney said to no one in particular.

The video showed the three cars approaching the finish line frame-by-frame. They were almost perfectly aligned.

“Holy s—-, man,” Blaney said.

Then came the definitive frame. Suarez’s bumper hit the finish line just before Blaney’s car. The margin of victory was three-thousandths of a second.

“That was so close!” Blaney said, his voice rising.

His reaction mirrored that of most of the fans at Atlanta Motor Speedway. While this is only the second race of a season that goes to November, it will take a lot for Sunday’s race not to be the best race of the year.

Sunday night’s race was important because it changed the narrative for the sport. The talk since last week’s Daytona 500 had been about the excessive fuel saving by the field. Only a day before Sunday’s mesmerizing race, Busch said how he felt “disgraceful” about the way everyone raced at Daytona.

After losing by seven-thousandths of a second Sunday night, Busch even managed to smile.

“We could have won,” he said. “But got us a third.”

The fans, though, got a great show.

Two-wide racing was typical. Three-wide racing was prevalent. Austin Cindric even went four-wide to take the lead at one point. He could laugh about the jaw-dropping move afterward.

“I did have enough time to think about if it was a good idea,” Cindric said after his fourth-place finish. “It was a good idea. I’m sure it made for good pictures.”

Yes, it did.

Cars yo-yoed for position throughout the race — unlike last week’s Daytona 500 when drivers were stuck two-wide and felt like they were driving in rush-hour traffic

“I actually had a lot of fun today,” Kyle Larson said even after he was eliminated by a crash. “It was super intense and it’s been a great race. It’s been the opposite from (the Daytona 500) with no fuel saving and guys going at it, so it’s been fun.”

Drivers could make passes and other dramatic moves Sunday because the cars separated from each other in the corners based on their handling. The draft then brought them together on the straightaways, creating the dramatic runs.

The 48 lead changes Sunday were seven more than last week’s Daytona 500 despite being 100 fewer miles.

It made for a great race for fans but not so good for the leader, particularly Blaney.

He tried to keep the field close behind in the final laps but that ploy didn’t work.

“Both lanes just got massive runs,” Blaney said of the cars behind him. “… When you got two lanes (charging at) you, I don’t know where to go. I guess I could have bailed to the top and made (Suarez) hit me in the ass, but it all happens so quick.”

Suarez tried to explain what it was like to race so close for so long.

“I hope that everyone at home and you guys,” Suarez told the media after his second career Cup victory, “were able to see how much movement our cars had. They were not comfortable. … It was not easy, not easy at all.”

He wasn’t complaining. He was relishing the moment. Drivers want to make a difference. They want to be able to do extraordinary things with the cars. Much of last week’s Daytona 500 didn’t look too difficult. Sunday’s race at Atlanta showcased the skills drivers have.

Chase Briscoe didn’t make it to the finish after he was involved in an accident while in a tight pack, but didn’t walk away bitter.

“It was just fun,” Briscoe said, “because you could be aggressive.”

Everyone was Sunday night. While NASCAR had one of its most memorable finishes in years, even those who lost couldn’t leave too disappointed.

“I feel great about how the race went,” Blaney said. “Yeah, just in that moment, you’re like ‘Damn that sucks.’ We just lost by three inches. But then to realize, ‘Hey, it’s a good day. It’s fun racing for the lead like that.’ … I had fun tonight.”