For much of Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kyle Larson’s singular focus seemed to be on sucking all the suspense from the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. He went to the front early, easily won the first two of three stages of the race and even had the broadcast crew at one point playfully pleading with him during an in-car interview to not ruin the show.

It looked as if all Larson needed to do was set the cruise control and keep at least one hand on the wheel and he’d have his second win in his last three races.

But dominance turned to dust just nine laps — a mere 14 miles from the finish — as the aged yet toothy AMS asphalt snacked on his tires and slowly ate into his lead. Like youth, his speed gradually faded. And that allowed Ryan Blaney to swoop to the lead and win his fifth career NASCAR Cup race.

Hardly seems fair. Larson led for 269 of the race’s 325 laps. Blaney led but 25 total laps. But life isn’t fair. And the only lap that really matters is the last.

And with Blaney’s win, NASCAR had its sixth different champion in its first six races of 2021, none of them familiar names lifted off past Cup championships. It hints at a kind of competitive egalitarianism that has been most uncommon in this sport.

“I’m happy I’m one of them, right?” said Blaney, who now has won one race in each of the past five seasons.

Among the less fortunate of Sunday were some of the biggest names in racing. Start the list with Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott.

Chase Elliott’s pit crew pushes him off the track to the garage with apparent engine trouble during the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Sunday, March 21, 2021, at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton.  (Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton /

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Credit: Curtis Compton /

The defending NASCAR Cup champion from Dawsonville found only disappointment at his home track once again. Getting a nice send-off during drivers’ introductions from the estimated 20,000 fans allowed on the property, Elliott enjoyed little else about his day.

First, he failed pre-race inspection and was ordered to start at the rear of the field. To be clear, his car failed inspection. His own parts were all deemed perfectly acceptable.

Then, on the same lap-113 restart chain reaction that sent Kurt Busch into the wall at Turn One, Elliott’s car suffered both cosmetic and aerodynamic damage to the front end. Elliott was able to stay on the track for another 165 miles, hardly competitive but still turning laps, until his engine gave up in a cloud of smoke. Now winless in six Cup starts at AMS, Elliott had his worst finish ever here, a next-to-last 38th.

“Obviously, we broke a motor there later on. We got some damage there on that restart,” Elliott said. “Kyle (Busch) kind of spun his tires and then I was pushing him and Kurt (Busch) was pushing me. We all just really jammed together hard and ended up hurting the nose some. So, I don’t know if that had something to do with breaking the engine or not.”

“I hate it, for sure,” he added. “I feel like our car was pretty decent. We drove up there — we got up to tenth, or so (very briefly as high as fourth, actually, before the restart mishap). I felt like we were in a decent position to work on it throughout the day.”

Otherwise, misfortune seemed to be training its attention on former Atlanta winners. Three-time AMS winner Kurt Busch was out after his restart crash, finishing last. The acknowledged master of this track, Kevin Harvick, winner of two of the last three races here and three overall, won the flukiest mishap of the day award. He suffered self-inflicted trouble during a pit stop 117 miles into the race when his crew damaged a valve stem during a tire change. Having to re-pit to change out the flat tire took Harvick out of the chase. He did well to finish 10th.

Otherwise, it turned out that Sunday was a rare victory for patience, not an attribute common to any stretch of Atlanta road.

Larson owned this place during the early stages of every run following pit stops. His ride was the most perfect under the most perfect conditions.

Ryan Blaney's No. 12 car passes Kyle Larson with eight laps remaining on his way to winning the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Sunday, March 21, 2021, at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton. (Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton /

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Credit: Curtis Compton /

But Blaney knew there was hope in biding his time.

“I knew the strong area of our car was not the short run,” he said. “We could just kind of maintain. After 15-20 laps we would start coming forward. And toward the end of those longer runs we would really start coming forward.

“If I tried to hang with Larson (early in that final run), I was just going to burn my stuff up,” Blaney added. “Then when he started to come back to us, being patient was obviously paying dividends. It was about understanding, trying to be a little smarter about this stuff, not just have a heavy right foot. It’s cool to win when you have to finesse a little bit and think ahead.”

Said Larson, When I realized he was better than me (on long runs), I was hoping for a caution to get some new tires on it and hopefully come out the leader and control the restart and try win that way. It didn’t turn out that way.” No indeed, it was a long, 50-lap green flag run at the end.

There is talk about repaving AMS, that the old lady needs a facelift.

That effort will get no endorsement from your latest winner here. Team Blaney loves a rough road.

“Don’t repave. I said that last five years and I’ll say it the next 10,” said Blaney’s crew chief, Todd Gordon.

“I would keep this surface as long as can, until it keeps coming up. I love that we can run another race here this year,” Gordon said.

The second race falls on July 11. It’s a scheduled 400-miler, which comes just four months too late to help Larson.