Editor’s note: Full results, race notes and updated driver standings are at the bottom of this file. And don’t forget to check out Part Two — the UGLY part of Sunday’s race.
If Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race would have been made into a movie, it would have been an updated version of a reel classic, with a title that would be a no-brainer: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
Instead of starring Clint Eastwood, the 2022 version would star Chase Elliott (the Good), Corey LaJoie (the Bad) and the Ugly (Ross Chastain).
We’re going to give you two columns about Sunday’s race here at AutoRacingDigest.com. First will be about the good and the bad. The second column will be about the ugly – and it definitely was and likely will lead to even more ugliness as the season goes on.
First, was the good.
Sunday’s Quaker State 400 was a finish that was as good as it gets, as Elliott emerged with the win, holding off runner-up Chastain, who was deprived of one more last-second bid for the lead when a last-lap caution froze the field and gave Elliott the win.
There’s even more good news for Chase: he joined his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, as only the second father-son combo to win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the other being Dale Earnhardt and son Dale Jr.
And, Elliott became the first Cup driver this season to earn a third win, with four others having two wins each and eight drivers who have won just once thus far. Sunday’s race was the 19th of the season, meaning just seven races remain to reach the end of the 26-race “regular season” – in other words, the run-up to the 10-race, 16-driver playoffs.
It wasn’t a perfect race for Elliott, but it was darn near there. He not only won the race, he also captured each of the first two stages.
“This one’s up there, for sure, man,” Elliott replied when asked by NBC/USA Network where his first-ever Cup win on his home racetrack – he grew up about 90 miles north of Atlanta Motor Speedway in tiny Dawsonville, Georgia – ranked among the other 15 races he’s won in his Cup career.
“To win at your home track is really a big deal to any race car driver,” the younger Elliott said. “I’ve watched a lot of guys do it (winning on their home track) over the years, like Jimmie (Johnson) in California. We haven’t really had a very good run here, so I felt like today was a great opportunity for us.
“This is obviously home for me, home to a lot of great fans who made a lot of noise today, home for NAPA, right down the road in Atlanta. I couldn’t be more proud of our team
“What a car. I’m not sure we’ve ever had a speedway car that good. If we had, I probably wrecked it down at Daytona. Man, what a few weeks it’s been. I feel like I gave one away last week and to come back and put on a performance like that, I’m really proud of that.”
And tiny Dawsonville was proud of Elliott in return, as its infamous pool hall sounded its well-known emergency warning siren after Elliott’s win, a tradition that dates back to when Bill was driving and the siren would go off in his honor with each Cup win. It’s a tradition that has continued since Chase reached the Cup level full-time in 2016.
Atlanta Motor Speedway, which was reconfigured and repaved following last season, was outstanding from a racing standpoint. In fact, several individuals I spoke with both during and after the race all said the same thing or a derivative thereof: If you didn’t know it, you’d think the race was run on a shorter version of Talladega Superspeedway, the racing was that close and competitive.
And yes, we even had a big one — but we’ll cover that in column Part 2.
Then there was the bad.
Corey LaJoie drove the race of his Cup career, leading 19 laps and appeared as if he was the only driver left with much of a chance to overtake Elliott on the final lap.
But that’s when the bad stuff happened – bad luck, that is.
Unfortunately, LaJoie washed up the track after being blocked by Elliott, lost control of his Chevrolet Camaro, sideswiped the outer wall and then bounced back into traffic, collecting several other drivers. NASCAR immediately threw the caution and Elliott was anointed the winner.
“Closest I’ve ever been, for sure (to winning),” LaJoie said after the race. “It was fun. It was nice to have that thing out in the wind for once.
LaJoie went from what appeared to be an almost guaranteed runner-up or third-place finish – if not a win – and ultimately finished a very disappointing 21st due to the wreck.
“I made my move and it didn’t work out,” he lamented. “(Chase) made a good block and the sirens are (going off) in Dawsonville, unfortunately. … I wish the 7 car was in victory lane. But if we keep running like this and more consistently, our time will come.”
In a sense, Corey – the son of former Busch Series champion Randy Lajoie – was in completely uncharted territory. Up until this season, he had led a grand total of just 27 laps over the previous 2 ½ seasons.
But he learned some valuable lessons Sunday that will help him down the road.
“I was going to school,” he said. “That was the first one I’ve been leading a restart at one of these superspeedway style racetracks, and how much you have to drag back, time your runs, cover the lanes, it’s all new to me.
“When it get myself in that position again next time, I’ll be a little more prepared and hopefully we can do a little better job and can throw the blocks as opposed to make the one who makes that late-race move because the guy usually in that position is in the catbird seat. I was having fun, I know that, and hopefully we can have that 7 car up front more often.”
LaJoie admits his bid to overtake Elliott – if the race-deciding crash had not happened – was a longshot at best.
“Obviously, I knew he was going to have a big run,” LaJoie said. “I really didn’t want to give him the bottom. I tried to give it one good real aggressive block. I felt like I had enough room to kind of give it a second one.
“And he was right there on the right side of my back bumper, far enough on the back side of the bumper to launch me forward. I hate we tore up some cars, but I don’t know what you do. You either go for the win or don’t. I’m going to go for Option A every day of the week.
“We almost caught that Hail Mary we tried to throw today, but unfortunately we came up a little short. Nonetheless, I’m proud of my guys here at Spire (Motorsports) and we’ll keep running.”
Next, read Part Two, all about the Ugly part of Sunday’s race
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