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Byron wins wild NASCAR race at remodeled Atlanta

William Byron cruised to the checkered flag for the third victory of his NASCAR Cup career.
Credit: AP
William Byron (24) poses with the trophy after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., Sunday, March 20, 2022. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

HAMPTON, Ga. — William Byron had a freight train in his rearview mirror. A sitting duck, it seemed. Fortunately for him, all those challengers started jostling against each other rather than working together to take down the leader.

While Byron cruised to the checkered flag for the third victory of his NASCAR Cup career, one last crash unfolded behind him Sunday in an appropriate finish to a chaotic, thrilling race at remodeled Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“Pretty wild,” the 24-year-old Byron said. “I’m out of breath. It was crazy.”

The track makeover — with new pavement and steeper banking — lived up to predictions of frenzied pack racing at blistering speeds approaching those seen at Talladega and Daytona.

It was like a short-track race at a superspeedway.

There were 46 lead changes among an Atlanta-record 20 drivers, a traffic jam of tightly bunched cars that never got too far away from each other in a more than four-hour race, nine wrecks that took out several top contenders, and a bunch of smashed-up race cars to lug home.

“It’s difficult, it’s stressful, it’s a different type of racing,” said Rudy Fugle, the winner’s crew chief.

Bryon was leading off the final restart with 13 laps to go. Bubba Wallace briefly grabbed the top spot, only to have the No. 24 Rick Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet pass him right back.

Going for his second career victory, Wallace still seemed to be in the most enviable position, especially if he could get a helpful push for a slingshot on the final lap. But everyone behind Byron started dueling for position, all of them wanting to put themselves in position to make the winning move.

That worked out perfectly for Byron, who pulled away to win by 0.145 seconds over Ross Chastain while the final wreck of the day sent four cars — including Wallace — spinning across the line.

“It’s tough to be the leader,” Fugle said. ”We just had a lot of things go right for us.”

Wallace finished 13th. The remainder of the top five was Kurt Busch, Daniel Suárez, and Corey LaJoie in his best career showing.

In one last twist, Christopher Bell actually crossed the line second, but NASCAR penalized him for dipping below the double white line on the backstretch of the last lap to get past Chastain. Bell was dropped to 23rd.

Chastain made quite a comeback after blowing a tire early in the race while leading. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also blew a tire while running up front. Reigning series champion Kyle Larson, the front of his No. 5 Chevrolet patched with tape, had just surrendered the top spot when Denny Hamlin bumped him from behind, looking to give him a helpful push — only to send him into a spin that knocked them both out of the race.

“Everyone is kind of hanging on for dear life,” Ryan Blaney said during a caution period.

That summed things up perfectly.

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