Five NASCAR Atlanta finishes as good or better than last Sunday's three-wide thriller

There was a minor stir in the NASCAR social media world this week over the merits of Sunday’s razor-tight, three-way finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

This wasn’t about whether the race was good. Even the most contrarian corners of the Internet will pass on that fool’s errand.

The debate centered on how to rank the spectacular three-way shootout between Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch.

A self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports has decreed that the third-closest finish in Cup history was only the 10th-best sporting event of the day.

This, of course, is blasphemy (especially when Atlanta checked in behind a minor-league hockey goal, a Wemby slam, a Giannis outlet pass and various other run-of-the-mill highlights from varying inferior leagues of competition).

But it also was easy to get lost in a haze of postrace hyperbole that had many proclaiming Feb. 25, 2024 to be The Greatest Race in NASCAR History.

A veteran sportswriter (and a twice former co-worker whose work we greatly admire) suggested that the Atlanta finish was No. 2 all time in NASCAR history behind the 1976 Daytona 500.

With due respect, Sunday was (at best) the No. 2 finish all time at Atlanta.

How quickly we forget the 1.54-mile oval was where Kevin Harvick beat Jeff Gordon in his fourth Cup start ever, kick-starting the healing after the greatest loss in NASCAR history with an epic side-by-side battle that was no outlier.

Atlanta always has been known for heart-pounding, fist-pumping, tear-jerking moments that overdeliver on drama – and they also can carry long-term significance.

Sunday was great but also was the second race of the season with no championship or career-defining stakes on the line. For historical legacy, it lacks the watershed quality of many previous Atlanta barnburners.

Here are five finishes, moments and races at Atlanta that were as good and memorable (or maybe better!) than Sunday’s classic:

5. Jimmie Johnson’s mad dash in 2008, Kurt Busch’s video game move in 2013 (tie)

Before its surface was repaved and reprofiled for the first time in 25 years, Atlanta’s weathered asphalt was beloved by Cup drivers. These two moments perfectly illustrate why.

After rallying from 30th to seventh from a pit penalty, Johnson’s bid for a third consecutive title still was under threat with chief rival Carl Edwards in the lead.

Sacrificing several positions for a late stop under yellow, Johnson restarted 11th (in the era of single-file restarts) and proceeded to gain nine spots in the last eight laps to blunt Edwards’ points moment. “Man, Jimmie’s magic,” Edwards said.

Five years later, Busch did as much work in a single lap to cement taking Furniture Row Racing to the playoffs for the first time, zooming from 11th to second on a restart with 32 laps remaining. “The seas parted,” he said.

4. Carl Edwards’ coming out party in 2005

This was the race weekend in that heralded the arrival of Carl Edwards, who followed the first Xfinity Series victory of his career with his first Cup Series win a day latter – and doing it in style.

The Roush Fenway Racing driver barely had enough energy left to complete his signature corkscrew backflip after outdueling Johnson by 0.028 seconds on a last-lap pass in only his 17th start.

The fender-banging finale marked the first time a driver had swept an Xfinity-Cup doubleheader at Atlanta. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Edwards said.

3. Dale Earnhardt outduels Bobby Labonte in 2000

The 75th and last unrestricted victory in the career of “The Intimidator” was nearly as unforgettable as his unbelievable rally at Talladega several months later. Earnhardt staved off several challenges by Labonte, the master of Atlanta for many years. Earnhardt won by 0.019 seconds, or about 2 feet.

“That was good racing,” he said. “That was fun.”

2. Alan Kulwicki, Bill Elliott and a Race of Destiny in 1992

A season finale so epic there have been books written about it, Bill Elliott won the season finale for his fifth victory and leading 102 laps.

But he lost the championship by 10 points to runner-up Alan Kulwicki, who led a race-high 103 laps for a five-point bonus that clinched his only title over Elliott and Davey Allison (within a year, Kulwicki and Allison would die in aviation-related crashes).

This also marked a crossroads of 11 championships with the final race of Richard Petty’s career and the Cup debut of Jeff Gordon.

1. Kevin Harvick edges Jeff Gordon and heals NASCAR Nation in 2001

In only his third Cup start after filling the ride vacated by the death of Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, a relatively unknown Harvick won by 0.006 seconds over Gordon (who would win the last of his four championships this season) in a finish that left grown men crying in the grandstands and the pits.

Harvick has called it the most important moment of his career. “It was hard to wrap my head around the magnitude,” he later would say.