Ryan Blaney was two turns from winning the first race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. Instead, he ended that exhibition Busch Clash backwards once good friend Chase Elliott spun him seconds from the finish line. Such hard-luck endings have haunted Blaney for years. Since moving to Team Penske full-time in 2018, he's led 1,811 laps, -- eighth-best on the circuit behind six former Cup champions and three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin.
That puts Blaney in an exclusive club. The difference is the drivers ahead of him are winning multiple races, crown jewel events and Cup championships.
So, it was impressive to see Blaney the hunter, not the hunted, as he blew by a dominant Kyle Larson in the closing laps of Sunday's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Some 20 years after his father Dave lost his best shot to win a Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the son finished the job by managing tire wear brilliantly over the final 50-plus laps of the race.
"Just had to run my tires too hard," Larson said of Blaney's charge. "I didn't have anything there at the end. I was sliding around."
That downturn in handling provided the opening Blaney needed.
"I had confidence we made really good changes to our car," Blaney said. "[I thought] save my tires, save my right rear and we'll see what happens. It's cool to win here today at a place that you have to finesse it a little bit, kind of think ahead."
Staying patient paid off, as Blaney toppled a rival who led 269 of the first 317 laps. In the process, he became the first Penske driver to win at the Cup level, besting two teammates who made the 2020 Championship 4.
Can Blaney propel this momentum into sustained success? Five years on the Cup circuit have produced just five victories and two Round of 8 appearances. It's led to whispers Blaney's a step behind where he should be. But one of the sport's cooler heads hasn't been rattled, even during a first month of ugly finishes outside the top 10. The payoff is becoming the sixth winner in six 2021 races, a weird start in which some of the biggest names aren't on that list.
Taking that playoff pressure off early could finally give Blaney the edge needed to move up a tier.
"You keep yourself in the hunt at all these races, you keep yourself running up front, you're going to capitalize," Blaney said Sunday. "We weren't the best car the first half of the day, we kept working on it. Everyone did a great job, pit crew included, of keeping us in the game, keeping us top three all day. We got our car where it needed to be."
Now, the trick is for Blaney to put that package together over a full, 36-race season. Will Lady Luck finally cooperate?
Green: Kyle Larson. Larson's 379 laps led this season tops the series after Sunday's phenomenal Atlanta performance. Two stage wins are a nice consolation prize, although it's the fourth time in Larson's career he's missed out on a three-stage sweep.
Yellow: Chase Elliott. The reigning NASCAR champ popped the equivalent of a metal zit on his hood, then blew an engine at Atlanta. It was an awkward showing at his hometown track and dropped him to ninth in points, sitting with a net position differential of -50. The 0-for-6 winless drought stands out, considering two of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates have already won.
Red: Stewart-Haas Racing. Defending Atlanta winner Kevin Harvick led 100+ laps in seven of the last nine races there. On Sunday? He led zero. Sound the fire alarm! But at least Harvick recovered for a top-10 finish. Aric Almirola, Chase Briscoe and Cole Custer don't have a single one of those all season and could do no better than 18th at AMS. Keep in mind this team put four cars in the Chase just last year.
Speeding Ticket: Anthony Alfredo. The freshman made a rookie mistake at Atlanta with a late-race spin on pit road that could have turned tragic. Losing control, his No. 38 tapped the back of an Aric Almirola pit crew member changing tires as he slid into the No. 10 pit box.
"Thankfully, the situation wasn't as bad as it could have been," Alfredo said on Twitter, apologizing after the race while everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Remember, Atlanta's the reason there are limits in the first place after Bill Elliott crew member Mike Rich was killed by Ricky Rudd's spinning car in November 1990.
NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Noah Gragson tops the list after backing into rival Daniel Hemric during a late pit stop. Gragson says it was an innocent mistake, realigning his car after Hemric slid into his box first.
Let's just say Hemric doesn't see it that way. Some post-race bickering turned to blows almost instantly as both men had to be separated.
"He punched a hole in the nose of our car, I punched him in his eye," Hemric said afterward. "Now we're even."
Gragson has a history of altercations, from punching Harrison Burton to wrecking JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier to win at Bristol Motor Speedway last June. Is Gragson at fault for this one after Hemric came in heated during a post-race interview? Like the tweet says ... judge for yourself.
For its part, NASCAR decided both men won't be penalized. Revenge likely comes in the form of a bumper once the series get back to action at Martinsville Speedway April 9.