That is how many laps Kyle Larson led in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway out of the 325 laps in the race. As fate would have it, Larson would not cross victory lane as the winner as Ryan Blaney, who hung around the top five for most of the race, chased down Larson with eight laps to go, making the decisive pass to pick up his first win of 2021 in the Cup Series.
There are many reasons why this was such a huge win for him. First, it locked him into the Round of 16 in a year where fringe contenders must win to lock themselves into the playoffs after five drivers had already clinched their spot in the playoffs through the first five races. With drivers that did not make the playoffs in 2020 such as Christopher Bell and Michael McDowell picking up race wins to begin 2021, the pressure was on the young Penske driver to pick up a win and secure his place in the playoffs. Also, relying on winning at a chaotic superspeedway race is not an ideal recipe for punching your ticket to the playoffs.
When looking through the 2021 Cup Series schedule, the best chance for Blaney to pick up that much-needed win was at the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Apr. 25. After all, that track has been one of Blaney’s best as he won back-to-back races at Talladega, winning the Fall race in 2019 to clinch his spot in the round of 8 and in June of last season, he won in a photo finish over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to lock himself into the Round of 16 last season.
His two wins at Talladega accounted for half of his four career wins in the Cup Series with the other two being at the Charlotte Roval in 2018 and the first race at Pocono Raceway in 2017. This means that in his previous 73 races in the Cup Series at intermediate tracks, he went 0-73.
The 2021 season did not start off well for Blaney, finishing outside the top 10 in the first three races. He crashed out of the Daytona 500 in the big wreck on lap 15, finished a meager 15th on the Daytona Road Course and finished a disappointing 29th place at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Luckily for Blaney, he began to perform better and gave himself plenty of momentum heading into Sunday’s race at Atlanta. He finished fifth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (tied with two other races at Las Vegas for his best finish at the track) to pick up his first top-five finish of 2021. He followed that up with a 10th-place finish at Phoenix Raceway, giving him back-to-back top 10 finishes to vault him back into playoff contention.
This past Sunday, Larson was clearly the dominant driver with his 269 laps led. However, toward the end of the final stage, Larson began to slow on the long run, allowing Blaney, who had hung around the top-three for most of the race, gained that long-run speed and put himself in the perfect position to pass Larson with eight laps to go. Blaney held on to win by 2.083 seconds.
Blaney now sits seventh in overall points in the Cup Series standings with 191. After failing to make the round of 12 last season in the playoffs, Blaney will look for redemption and stake his claim in the championship race in 2021. Winning at an intermediate track is huge for Blaney considering there are four throughout the playoffs.
Time will tell if Blaney has turned it around at intermediate tracks long term but for now, Blaney can celebrate a huge win in his career and a postseason berth in 2021.