Intense battle defines race for final playoff spots
HAMPTON, Ga. — With victory close for so many seeking a win to make the playoffs and rain approaching, Sunday night’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway turned into a series of breathless laps with cars diving, weaving and trying to squeeze into holes barely big enough to do so.
“I don’t know if you guys have ever raced against AJ and Daniel,” Michael McDowell said of AJ Allmendinger and Daniel Suárez, “but it’s intense no matter what. Then you put three guys that haven’t won a race (this year) and need to get into the playoffs and you know rain is coming, it was stinking intense. It was elbows out, for sure.
“Man, I just wish I could have held them off. We all know what we’re all fighting for. We were really close to it.”
Instead of a new driver grabbing a playoff spot with a win, it was William Byron claiming his series-high fourth victory of the year when NASCAR called the race after 185 of 260 laps.
That left Suarez (who finished second) Allmendinger (third) and McDowell (fourth) still looking for a win. All three entered the night outside a playoff spot.
With Bubba Wallace (25th) and Ty Gibbs (34th) each having issues Sunday, they fell out of a playoff spot. They were replaced by Suarez and McDowell. Allmendinger trails McDowell by 13 points for the final transfer spot. Seven races remain in the regular season.
While the rain helped Suarez score his best finish of the season, he wanted more.
“I wish I had one more shot at it,” he said. “With that being said, I had two cars in third and fourth, they also needed to win. If they could pick somebody to help, it wasn’t going to be me.”
Still, Suarez could look positively on this race. The finish was just his second top 10 in the last nine races. This weekend he had talked about how “we just have to quit beating ourselves.
“I feel like I’ve been doing that a lot. My team has done also some of that. We have to be a little bit patient. We have plenty of speed. We just have to be a little smarter.”
With all the chaos and tight racing, though, Allmendinger didn’t see anything too unusual. That’s just NASCAR racing these days.
“Obviously, we know as it’s getting closer (to the playoffs), a win locks you in and that makes a huge difference in your season, but, at least for me, I’m still trying to make the right moves to get the best finish possible,” Allmendinger said after his first top-five finish of the season.
“We had a race car that handled really well. Probably didn’t lead very well. We probably had a little bit too much drag in it. But we kind of had that idea that we came with handling, so once I got to the lead I couldn’t really defend because they would get such big runs, but we could stay up front.”