Blaney became the sixth driver to win in six races to start NASCAR’s Cup season, surging to the front with nine laps to go after Larson easily won the first two stages and led 269 of 325 laps on the 1.54-mile trioval.
Larson’s tires didn’t stand up to the punishing track after making his final pit stop with 56 laps to go.
Blaney stayed close enough to make his move, hugging the outside wall through the fourth turn and cutting to the inside to pass Larson as they crossed the line in front of the main grandstands.
Blaney pulled away to win by 2.083 seconds in his No. 12 Team Penske Ford, having gone just as long as Larson on the final set of tires but getting much more out of them.
“It’s cool to win at a place where you’ve got to finesse it a little bit and think about it,” Blaney said after his fifth career victory.
He led just 25 laps, but was out front for the one that mattered.
When it was over, Blaney strolled over to the stands and grabbed the checkered flag, which he handed to a young fan wearing the driver’s T-shirt.
It was a bitter loss for Larson, who missed a chance to become 2021’s first two-time winner after a victory at Las Vegas two weeks ago.
Still, he is off to a strong start in his new job at Hendrick Motorsports, less than a year after blurting out a racial slur on the livestream of a late-night video racing game, which cost him his job at Chip Ganassi Racing.
“I hate to lead a lot of laps and lose,” Larson said. “The car was stupid fast for a long time there.”
The Cup series returned to the track where the racing world came to a halt a year ago.
In March 2020, Atlanta was the first NASCAR Cup race to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
This time, the race went off as scheduled before a socially distanced crowd of about 20,000 — far below capacity because of the lingering COVID-19 outbreak, but a welcome change from last June when no fans were allowed for Atlanta’s makeup race.
The Cup series will be back July 11, the first time since 2010 that Atlanta has hosted two races in a season.