Daniel Suarez wins a chaotic, crowded, wreck-filled Atlanta race at the line

Atlanta's new configuration was meant to create up-close-and-personal racing, and on Sunday, it did exactly that.

A photo finish. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)
A photo finish. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

HAMPTON, Ga. — NASCAR courted chaos by scheduling two superspeedway races back-to-back to start the 2024 season and, on Sunday, chaos dropped in and made itself at home.

In a literal photo finish, Daniel Suarez edged Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney at the line to win the Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The three-wide finish, the third-closest in NASCAR Cup Series history, capped a frenetic, wreck-and-spin-filled affair where it was easier to identify drivers who hadn’t been in a wreck than all the literal dozens of drivers who had.

After the race, Blaney stood along pit road, looking up at a large-screen replay of the nearness of the finish — he's the top car in the photo above — and shook his head at the missed opportunity. A few feet away, Busch called it a "Lightning McQueen" finish, a reference to the race in the movie "Cars" where three cars finish in a dead heat.

"It's been a surprise party every corner," Martin Truex Jr. told Fox Sports' Kevin Harvick during a late-race red-flag stop. "As crazy as it is, it's been kind of fun, too."

Two years ago, Atlanta Motor Speedway gave itself a makeover to level up and join Daytona and Talladega in the superspeedway class. AMS’ banks grew from 24 to 28 degrees while the track’s width shrunk from 55 feet to 40 feet. That generated tighter, faster racing — and also created the perfect conditions for a wrecking fiesta. Where Daytona and Talladega are more than 2½ miles apiece, Atlanta is only 1½ miles, a much tighter and less forgiving track. Add the fact that the February sunset hits drivers right in the eyes midway through Turn 1 for the final third of the race, and you’ve got the makings of pandemonium.

The troubles began almost immediately, as a wreck on lap 2 snarled up 16 cars, including Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott. The wreck sent Josh Williams to the showers early, and he wasn’t pleased with either his fellow drivers or the track as a whole.

“This is supposed to be Cup racing,” he said after the wreck. “Man, it’s just insane. I had like five guys pass me while we were still wrecking.” Asked where he would next race for Kaulig Racing, he replied, “Hopefully it’s not at a track like this. Hopefully it’s somewhere where talent means something.”

Chris Buescher (17) was one of many drivers who left Atlanta a bit more dented than when he arrived. (AP Photo/Skip Williams)
Chris Buescher (17) was one of many drivers who left Atlanta a bit more dented than when he arrived. (AP Photo/Skip Williams)

Talent may or may not mean something at Atlanta, but a steel spine definitely does. Spins and collisions caught up notables like Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano, and still the pack rolled on. With 50 laps remaining, drivers just adopted a hell-with-it mentality, stacking four wide — door to door, the width of the track — for more than a full lap.

The bill came due a few laps later, when a wreck collected Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Corey LaJoie and John Hunter Nemechek, taking them from the front of the pack to the back — or to the garage — within the space of a few yards. On lap 239, with 21 to go, Chase Briscoe got aggressive weaving his way through the pack and spun, collecting Hamlin, ending his afternoon and red-flagging the race. More cautions followed, with the race going back to its final green with just five laps remaining.

From there, with the sun below the horizon and the lights on, the drivers still rolling began a frantic dash to the finish. Over the course of the race, the lead changed hands 48 times, most in the track's history. The final lead change came with only inches remaining in the race, as Suarez edged out Busch and Blaney.

Suarez beat Blaney by 0.003 seconds, and Busch by 0.007 seconds. For reference, the blink of an eye is about 0.1 seconds ... meaning Suarez won by 3/100th of an eyeblink.

In most years, drivers — particularly those who wrecked out of the race — would put Atlanta in the rear-view mirror and head to Vegas with eyes forward. But this year, Atlanta will be the first race of the playoffs, and that means its threats, and opportunities, will loom over the NASCAR season all through the summer.