Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Kevin Harvick was dominating a race until a problem on pit road removed a sure win out of his hands. Many times, I know.
But on Sunday in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 from Atlanta Motor Speedway, it was a driver error, not pit crew, from Harvick that cost him the win. He was nabbed for speeding on the final round of pit stops with 15 laps to go and was forced to start at the rear of the field.
He ended up finishing in ninth place after leading a whopping 292 of 325 laps, and Brad Keselowski swooped in for a victory thanks to a late pass on Kyle Larson with six laps to go.
Keselowski led 21 laps on the afternoon en route to his first career win at Atlanta. On lap 319, he passed Larson for the top spot and didn’t look back. But the win didn’t come easy.
He had to overcome a loose wheel on lap 270, which forced him to come down pit road after snatching the lead from Harvick on that round of pit stops under caution. It was at that point where Keselowski came over the radio and told his guys: “We’re a team.” Well, a short 55 laps later, that team was hoisting the hardware on the frontstretch in victory lane in Hampton, Ga.
“We had a lot of adversity today, there’s no doubt about that,” Keselowski told FOX in victory lane. “These races aren’t easy […] and a lot can happen, and when you think you’ve got it, they slip away. I know how it goes. This one kind of fell in our lap at the end, and my team put it all together when it counted.”
LARSON LOSES LEAD LATE
What’s the deal with the No. 42 leading late but not closing the deal? In the past three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races (Homestead, Daytona and Atlanta), the 24 year old Elk Grove, Ca. native has been leading with 10 or less laps remaining, but hasn’t won.
Larson, who is known for riding the high lane, was stuck to the bottom for most of the afternoon. But when Keselowski was in his mirror, he moved up, trying to block him.
“I raced around Brad a lot throughout the day,” Larson told FOX post-race after leading seven laps in the FOHQT 500. “Any time I was in front of him on short runs, he’d drive around me up top. So I knew I was going to have to take his line away on that start there for a couple of laps and try it. I just didn’t have enough grip—or not as much as I’d hoped. He did a good job being a lane lower than me and getting to my inside.”
UNHAPPY HARVICK SNAKEBITTEN AGAIN
Harvick has dominated Atlanta Motor Speedway for the last half decade, he just hasn’t pulled his car into victory lane. Not since 2001, at least, the only time he ever has at AMS. He led 194 laps in 2014, 116 in 2015, 131 in 2016 and a monstrous 295 in 2017. His driver rating (130.7 coming into the race) was the highest of any driver since 2014. Alas, he has zero wins to show.
He was clocked going 50.7 mph in two sections on pit road on the last round of pit stops. Pit road speed is 45 mph, but NASCAR gives drivers a five-mph buffer. Harvick wishes he could have that 0.7 mph back.
“Sorry, guys. I didn’t even think I was pushing it,” he radioed to his team in disbelief after he was notified of the penalty. He went on to finish ninth.
“[The team] put a great car under me, we did everything we thought we needed to do,” Harvick, who started on the pole, told FOX post-race. “It gets to bouncing around, and I thought I was being conservative. Apparently, I wasn’t. I was just pushing it too hard.”
The day wasn’t all lost for the Bakersfield, Ca, native, though. He won segments one and two and earned 31 points for his ninth-place finish. Meaning that after all that, he’s your points leader in the Cup Series. Being rewarded for performance throughout the race was something the new competition enhancements wanted to address. Well, look no further.
Following Keselowski and Larson across the finish line was Matt Kenseth in third. He had to overcome a speeding penalty, which we’ll get to later, and was mired one lap down for more than 200 laps. But the No. 20 team never gave up, and ended up the highest finishing Toyota.
Kasey Kahne came home fourth at his best track. Chase Elliott, who also overcame a speeding penalty, was fifth. Joey Logano sixth and Kurt Busch seventh. Martin Truex Jr., who also overcame a speeding penalty, eighth. Harvick ninth and Jamie McMurray 10th.
Other notables included Clint Bowyer in 11th, Erik Jones in 14th, Jimmie Johnson (speeding penalty) in 19th, Daniel Suarez in 21st, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (speeding penalty and flat tire) in 30th and Denny Hamlin in 38th after a rear end issue ended the No. 11’s day prematurely.
Oh yeah, and lots of it, evidently, on Sunday. The cops (A.K.A. NASCAR) were out in full force.
Harvick’s penalty was the 13th (and last) speeding penalty handed out by NASCAR at Atlanta. This comes with the advent of new timing lines being added to pit road at the 1.5-mile track. Three Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Jimmie Johnson, Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr., were nabbed for speeding as well as Truex Jr. and Kenseth, among others.
“I think I know why [there were so many speeding penalties], but I really don’t want to share why,” Elliott said post-race. “There’s something that I think a lot of guys are kind of aware of that goes on, and that’s something we need to address kind of internally. But I have a pretty good reasoning, and I think why it was, but I really don’t want everybody else to know.”
Seems like the 21 year old Dawsonville, Ga. native has some secrets to share…
WHERE THE CAUTIONS AT?
Barring the cautions to end stages, there was only one yellow flag for an on-track incident that came when Bowyer hit the wall. There were zero in stage one, and zero in stage two.
The yellow flag flew once for debris, another time for Gray Gaulding, who blew an engine and let oil down on the track, one time for Bowyer and one last time for Dillon (see below). But this begs the question: “I thought with this new lower downforce package, plus Atlanta’s asphalt, drivers would be searching for grip and spinning out all the time. Why didn’t it happen?”
Well, in short, these guys are good. Really good. They have extreme car control and can hold onto an ill-handling race car when they need to. Will the lower downforce package be more prevalent moving forward? Probably. But was it a surprise at Atlanta? Definitely.
TROUBLE FOR RCR & JTG
Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon ran inside the top 10 for most of the afternoon before battery issues plagued the drivers,. Paul Menard was the highest finishing RCR driver in 25th, three laps down. Newman came home 35th and Dillon came home 32nd.
The No. 3 suddenly lost power but opted to stay on the race track, ultimately causing a caution, which ultimately had Harvick lose the race on pit road. The move didn’t go unnoticed by the NASCAR Twitterverse, including Harvick’s wife, DeLana.
The No. 47 Chevrolet of AJ Allmendinger was found to have three of the five lug nuts not properly installed in post-race inspection. This penalty, according to the NASCAR Rule Book, classifies at the L1 level and warrants a $65,000 fine and three-race suspension for crew chief Randall Burnett as well as a deduction of 35 championship driver points. He finished 26th.
SECOND THOUGHTS ON A REPAVE
FOX reported pre-race that Marcus Smith, president, CEO and COO of Speedway Motorsports Incorporation, who owns Atlanta Motor Speedway, as well as Ed Clark, president of the track, were second guessing the decision to re-pave the track amid pleading from fans and drivers to leave it the way it is.
Smith said the track should have been repaved three years ago, according to engineers, but the project might be on hold thanks to fans and drivers speaking their mind.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads West for a three-race swing in Las Vegas, Phoenix and California. Next week, the Kobalt 400 will go green just past 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX. And I’ll be there (woohoo!), so follow me on Twitter for updates throughout the weekend and be sure to subscribe to the Victory Lane podcast on iTunes for automatic downloads.