By AMANDA VINCENT
Joey Logano dominated the Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but it took passing Brad Keselowski on the last lap of the 260-lap race to claim his first NASCAR Cup Series win of 2023. Sunday’s win also was Logano’s first at Atlanta and broke a streak of four-straight wins by Chevrolet to start the season.
“We lost our track position there for a minute, but was able to just stay patient and work on it, and this amazing fast race car allowed me to really make some great moves on the race track and getting the push, there, on the last lap to get to the outside of Brad,” Logano said. “Just getting to break the plane of his back bumper was gonna be my only chance, there, and I was able to get him, there, and get the push from the 20 (Christopher Bell) on the backstretch. Overall, just a really fast Ford Mustang is what it came down to. It’s nice to win with Autotrader on the car. I don’t think I’ve ever won a race without Shell on the car. It means a lot to get this one in victory lane. It’s been a lot of years coming. Atlanta, this means so much to me to win here. So many memories of driving my Legends car right here where we’re standing when I was nine years old. This is a really special one and a dream come true.”
Keselowski finished second, Christopher Bell was third, Corey LaJoie fourth, and Tyler Reddick finished fifth.
“The bottom row came with a huge run,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know how, and I thought I had it blocked, and Joey just kept shaking, and his car didn’t stall out. I couldn’t get the push down the back. I thought, ‘I’ll just get a push down the back,’ and the 20 car (Bell) just hauled down there. A great run, all-in-all, for our RFK King’s Hawaiian Ford Mustang. We were right there. I’m glad a Ford won. It was a heck of a battle. The coolest thing about this is two veterans showed that you can run a race here side-by-side, bump drafting and not wreck the field. It can happen if you race respectfully, and I thought everybody did a great job. We were right there. I’m proud of my team and the effort, just not much we could do there.”
Keselowski was the leader for the final restart on lap 217 after a lap-209 caution when Aric Almirola blew a tire while leading, and then-second-place Kyle Larson was collected. Logano soon was up to second, challenging Keselowski for the lead, taking the top spot briefly on lap 227.
“I’m okay. It knocked the wind out of me, mostly because it caught me by surprise, but I’m okay,” Almirola said. “I blew a tire. I just blew a tire. I have no idea why. We had way less laps on that set of tires than we had earlier, so I don’t know.”
Before the blown tire, Almirola was on older tires than his fellow competitors. He took fuel only to get off pit road first with the lead with just under 100 laps to go, and utilized the same strategy during a lap-190 caution for a multi-car crash that began when then-leader Kevin Harvick got loose and wrecked when Ross Chastain disturbed his air when drafting behind him in second.
“I think he (Chastain) just caught me so quick right there in the middle of the corner, and then, he kind of was up on the right-rear part of the corner, and he came back down, and when he came back down, it just spun the thing out,” Harvick said. “I don’t think he actually even hit me, but it started chattering the rear tires, and then, I was just along for the ride.”
Most of Logano’s race-high 140 laps-led came in the first 160 laps race. He won the 60-lap stage one after starting on the pole and leading the entire stage. For most of the stage, he had Team Penske teammates Austin Cindric and Ryan Blaney in second and third after the trio started the race in the top-three positions. But in the final feet of the last lap of stage one, fellow-Ford driver and former Penske teammate Keselowski moved by Blaney into third.
Stage one also included the first caution of the race on lap 10 when Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. spun into the inside wall.
Cindric won the 100-lap second stage by passing Logano just before the end of the stage. Reddick also got by Logano for second.
Reddick, then, pitted twice during the caution that followed stage two when his team failed to get the car full of fuel on the first stop.
Logano’s domination continued into stage two. Kyle Busch got off pit road first after stage one to restart for stage two with the lead. After a back-and-forth battle with Blaney to open the second stage, Logano retook the lead on lap 77.
Logano gave up the lead to pit during a green-flag cycle of stops on lap 132. He cycle back to the lead on lap 142. Meanwhile, Blaney was caught speeding on pit road.
Busch also lost several positions after pitting early in the cycle. He was forced to pit road early after his crew failed to get the car full of fuel after stage one.
Denny Hamlin finished the race sixth, Blaney was seventh, Erik Jones eighth, Ty Gibbs ninth, and Busch rounded out the top-10.