Who’s in the headline?
While Mother Nature tried hard, she failed to win on Sunday. The race started late, but once it got rolling, it went the distance.
Shocking absolutely no one, Kevin Harvick took the lead early in the race and dominated the first stage. Harvick rebounded from a pit lane malfunction to lead stage two, but Brad Keselowski beat him off pit road late under caution and left him on the restart to claim stage two. In the end, the threat of rain was real but the racing overcame and ran all the way to completion. For the first time in five years, Harvick led the most laps and actually scored the win.
While not leading green to green/white checkered in stage one, Harvick destroyed the field in the first stage. But the front tire changer on the No. 4 had a gun failure that resulted in the stage one winner having to restart at the end of the lead lap cars.
After starting 19th for stage two, Harvick carved through the field like a hot knife through butter and was back in the lead before the teams started hitting pit road for fresh tires. Unfortunately for Harvick, he lost the race off of pit road during a late stage caution and had a horrendous restart. As a result, Keselowski came through to claim the maximum points in stage two.
For the final stage, the race was unfolding and NASCAR let the teams know that they were racing to the rain. That resulted in Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano playing a strategy to try and make the final stage a two-stop race. The result was a possible timing win with Hamlin and Logano on track while faster cars were in the pits. Had the rain arrived, it would have rewarded them. But the race ran to completion, relegating them to top-10 finishes behind Harvick’s dominant car.
Why you should care
Harvick turned up the wick over the second half of 2017 and was a strong contender for the title as the season wound to an end. While Atlanta is a bit of a wild card due to the well-aged racing surface, it is still an intermediate racetrack and Harvick has thrown down the gauntlet that the Stewart-Haas teams will be a force to be reckoned with.
Keselowski finishing second and winning a stage once again points out that the Fords aren’t as handicapped as they’d like you to think. Clint Bowyer rounded out the podium to put an exclamation point on the Ford dominance. On the other hand, the Chevrolet teams have their work cut out with Kyle Larson being the top finishing bow tie in ninth. As the series heads to the West Coast, it will be interesting to see if the Chevys can improve and if the Toyotas can reestablish their strength from last season.
What your friends are talking about
NASCAR made a new policy in 2018 where the teams have to utilize spec impact guns, issued by the sanctioning body, for their pit stops. It has dramatically slowed pit stops, which is putting even more pressure on the pit crews. Everyone knew the time would come, and it happened during the pit stops after stage one, the pit gun for the front tire changer of Harvick’s No. 4 had a gun failure. Martin Truex Jr.’s rear tire changer also had a malfunction during the race. In the past, that was something the teams could only blame themselves for. Now they can scream and point the finger at NASCAR.
Darlington Raceway was nicknamed The Lady in Black because the facility used to put sealer on the track the night before the race. It would wear off and coat the cars, drivers and fans with black residue. All of the talk about repaving Atlanta brings the thought to mind. They don’t seal race tracks anymore, but wouldn’t putting sealer on the track stretch the life of the asphalt a little bit longer?
Hamlin and Darrell Wallace Jr. got together coming to the checkered flag at Daytona. During post-race interviews, Wallace made a joke about Hamlin possibly needing to take an Adderall. That was based on comments Hamlin had made earlier in the week about a large number of drivers in the garage taking Adderall. Hamlin confronted Wallace outside the media center after the race and exchanged heated words. Later in the week, Hamlin passed word to Wallace that he is no longer on Hamlin’s charity golf team or in his recreational basketball league.
Many people in the garage are curious to see what NASCAR decides to do with the potential penalties for Kyle Busch losing a left rear tire leaving pit road on Saturday in the Truck Series. NASCAR has a rule that suspends the crew chief, jack man and tire changer for a team who loses a wheel for an improperly installed tire. The twist of this scenario is the jackman and tire changer were crew members moonlighting in the Truck Series from the Stewart-Haas Racing teams of Bowyer and Kurt Busch. If NASCAR decides to suspend the crew members, based on how the suspensions were applied last year, it would apply to all three national, series which could have a negative impact on the SHR teams.
Speaking of suspended crew members, Truex’s car chief had to leave the speedway premises after the team failed pre-qualifying inspection three times on Friday. The new inspection system is supposed to be more consistent and accurate than the Laser Inspection System used last season. Teams try to get every thousandth of an inch they can and it bit the No. 78. Conspiracy theorists of course immediately screamed that the team was cheating all of last year and that is why they won the title. As much as the cars of race winners are dissected after races, that is a very unlikely scenario.
Terrance Cox dropped his lawsuit against NASCAR for racial discrimination that claimed the sanctioning body had prevented him from launching a minority race team and programs. He dropped the suit thanks to promises from NASCAR that they would not seek fees, expenses or sanctions against him. NASCAR has maintained from the beginning that the claims were baseless and most people around the sport would agree that they were quite off base.
Who is mad
Jimmie Johnson has been a poor plate racer for his Cup career but he’s rebounded many times over the years to grab wins in subsequent races. He’s done it recently at Atlanta, winning in both 2015 and 2016. However, this season looks to be more of a continuation of the end of 2017 when Johnson simply seemed out of touch with what the car needs to go fast. He was lapped in the first stage and went for a spin in the second, eventually destroying the right front of his car coming back to pit road on a flat tire. He finished a dismal 27th.
Wallace Jr. was riding a wave of momentum coming out of Daytona. He rolled off 19th at Atlanta and made gains throughout the race until Trevor Bayne blew an engine. As the cars came through the smoke, Wallace came up onto Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and had nowhere to go. The contact into the back of Stenhouse seriously damaged Wallace’s car and, while he was running at the end, he ended up 32nd, six laps down.
Who is happy
Bowyer might be happier than anyone might realize. He hasn’t won a race since 2012. An even more surprising statistic is that this top five at Atlanta is his first on a mile-and-a-half track since Homestead-Miami in 2013. Bowyer is in a season where he has to produce or his ride might be on the line. That is a big burden to carry and a finish like this goes a long way toward getting his mind right to get back to Victory Lane.
Keselowski was truly disappointed after Daytona, having had a car that was capable of winning only to be wrecked out based on what could be considered a bad choice. He won this race last season and looked like he was the only driver that was able to compete with Harvick without utilizing pit strategy. It’s early in the year and this season will change and evolve for months. For now, Keselowski and his Ford look like they’ll be a force throughout the season.
When the checkered flag flew:
Kevin Harvick won the Folds of Honor 500 for his 38th career victory in 612 starts.
This is Harvick’s second career triumph at Atlanta.
The victory is Harvick’s first of 2018.
Harvick is now 21st on the all-time wins list, one behind Matt Kenseth.
Brad Keselowski’s runner-up finish is his first of 2018.
Keselowski has finished in the top two the last two times he’s raced at Atlanta and those are the only two top twos at the track in his career.
This is the 22nd second-place finish of Keselowski’s career.
On the all-time top two list, Keselowski is tied for 37th with Kurt Busch and Fireball Roberts.
Clint Bowyer’s podium finish is his first of 2018.
This was the first top three at Atlanta in Bowyer’s career.
Bowyer has finished in one of the first three spots 35 times in his career.
Tied with Cotton Owens, Bowyer is 61st on the all-time list.
The top finishing rookie of the race was William Byron, who came home in 18th.
For the year Darrell Wallace Jr. and William Byron have at each won Rookie of the Race once.
Austin Dillon and Kevin Harvick have each won a race in 2018. Assuming there are 16 or fewer unique winners in the regular season, they will both be locked into the playoffs based on winning a race. The remaining drivers who would qualify for the playoffs and their associated playoff points:
1. Joey Logano – 0
2. Ryan Blaney – 1
3. Denny Hamlin – 0
5. Clint Bowyer – 0
7. Martin Truex Jr. – 0
8. Kurt Busch – 1
9. Paul Menard – 0
10. Aric Almirola – 0
11. Kyle Busch – 0
12. Brad Keselowski – 1
13. Kyle Larson – 0
14. Darrell Wallace Jr. – 0
15. Michael McDowell – 0
16. Ryan Newman – 0
What is in the cooler (one to six beers where one is a stinker and six is an instant classic)?
A race that sees the winner lead eight times for 181 laps is usually not going to garner a big rating. An event with five cautions, three of which are for the end of stages or competition, isn’t going to grab a big rank either. In typical Atlanta fashion, the race overcame all of that with great racing and differing strategies to earn four cold Red Headed Haleys from Eventide Brewing Company.
Where do you point your DVR for next week?
The West Coast swing begins next weekend when the series heads to Las Vegas for the Pennzoil 400. Action can be seen on Fox at 3:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, March 4. It can also be streamed on the Fox Sports Go app. To listen to the event you can hear it on your local PRN affiliate. It can also be heard on www.goprn.com and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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