Daniel Suarez wins a chaotic, crowded, debris-filled Atlanta race on the line

Atlanta hosted a chaotic race on Sunday. (Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

HAMPTON, Ga. — NASCAR stirred up chaos by scheduling two back-to-back superspeedway races to start the 2024 season, and on Sunday, chaos took hold and made itself at home.

In a literal photo finish, Daniel Suarez held off Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney to win the Ambiter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The triple-wide finish capped off a hectic, wreck-and-spin affair in which it was easier to identify the drivers who weren't in a wreck than all the dozens of drivers who were in a wreck.

“It was a surprise party around every corner,” Martin Truex Jr. told Fox Sports' Kevin Harvick during a red flag stop late in the race. “Even though it was crazy, it was also fun.”

Two years ago, Atlanta Motor Speedway transformed itself to move up the ante and join Daytona and Talladega in the superspeedway class. The AMS banks grew from 24 to 28 degrees while the track width shrunk from 55 feet to 40 feet. This created tighter, faster races – and also created the perfect conditions for a devastating festival. Where Daytona and Talladega are both more than 2½ miles away, Atlanta is only 1½ miles away, and is a tighter, less forgiving track. Add to that the fact that the February sunset hits drivers' eyes right in the middle of Turn 1 for the final third of the race, and you've got the makings of chaos.

Trouble began almost immediately, as a second-lap wreck resulted in 16 cars, including Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott. The wreck sent Josh Williams to the bathroom early, and he wasn't happy with his fellow drivers or the track as a whole.

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“This is supposed to be a Cup race,” he said after the accident. “Man, it's just crazy. I had five guys passing me while we were still destroying.” When asked where he would race next with the College Racing team, he replied: “I hope it's not on a track like this. Hopefully he's in a place where talent means something.

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

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

Talent may or may not mean something in Atlanta, but a steel spine certainly does. Spins and crashes have captured notable figures like Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano, and the combination is still going strong. With 50 laps remaining, the drivers adopted a “hell” mentality, stacking four wide tires – door-to-door, the width of the track – for more than a full lap.

The bill came due a few laps later, when he collected the wreckers Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Corey LaJoie and John Hunter Nemechek, moving them from the front of the pack to the back — or to the garage — within a few yards. . On lap 239, with 21 minutes to go, Chase Briscoe became aggressive as he worked his way through the pack and spun, collecting Hamlin, ending the afternoon and red-flagged the race. More cautions followed, with the race reverting to the final green with just five laps to go.

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, the most in the track's history. The final change in the lead came with just inches remaining in the race, with Suarez overtaking Busch and Blaney.

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Most years, drivers — especially those coming out of racing — put Atlanta in the rearview mirror and head to Vegas with their eyes ahead. But this year, Atlanta will be the first race in the playoffs, meaning its threats and opportunities will loom large throughout the NASCAR season throughout the summer.

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