Posted: 10:15 am Monday, March 6th, 2017
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
As we saw at Daytona last week, leading the last lap is the one that really counts. Brad Keselowski overcame unscheduled pit stops for a loose wheel and a flat tire to stay in contention, then take the lead after race dominator Kevin Harvick sped on pit road. His 22nd-career win is his first at Atlanta Motor Speedway and he almost won the Xfinity Series race the day before. Here is how the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, a hard fought race on AMS’ 20-year-old pavement, played for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Flag to flag: This will be kind of simple: Kevin Harvick won the pole Friday and then straight whipped the entire field. He won stages 1 and 2 and only ever lost the lead during green flag pit stop sequences. Harvick led the most laps at AMS for the fourth-straight year, but faded from contention with the most on the line.
When Austin Dillon (finished 32nd) lost power and stalled on lap 311, the entire field came to pit road for four tires and fuel. Harvick had the lead, but sped entering the pits, meaning he had to start at the tail end of the longest line on the lap 315 restart.
Speeding penalties fell left and right throughout the 325-lap affair. Jimmie Johnson (19th) got nailed twice and assessed a one lap penalty for pitting at the wrong time on the final stop. There were 13 speeding penalties, including to two to contender Matt Kenseth (3rd). Dale Earnhardt Jr. (30th) sped twice, but also had multiple tire issues and never could dig out of the hole. Joey Logano (6th) got a speeding penalty on lap 119 and had several issues, through the day, but rebounded. Martin Truex Jr. (8th) got a speeding penalty on lap 211 and had clutch issues that forced the No. 78 team to push him after each pit stop, but they valiantly salvaged a good finish after that. Chase Elliott (5th) was running solidly in the top 3 before his lap 212 penalty that brought forth a pass-thru penalty on those green flag stops.
Elliott says he thinks there is something internally amongst drivers they can rectify to make for less penalties going forward. His teammate Kasey Kahne (4th) says that teams and drivers are probably rusty in only the second race and are pushing the limits and underestimating the added pit road timing lines.
With Harvick aside, Kyle Larson (2nd) led the field the green for the 10-lap sprint to the checkered flag. Larson tried in vain to keep Keselowski at bay. But Keselowski took the lead for the final time with seven laps to go, executing a gutsy pass. He won by half a second.
Top 10: Keselowski; Larson (actually used the bottom lane most of the day and almost won); Kenseth (stuck off the lead lap after two speeding penalties, really surged after getting on the lead lap late); Kasey Kahne (best finish since Charlotte in October); Elliott (had a top 3 car); Logano (overcame a speeding penalty and damage to the right front hood cowling flap); Kurt Busch (one of only three drivers with a top 10 in the first two 2017 races, along with Logano and Kahne); Truex Jr. (very resilient recovery from clutch trouble); Harvick (another Atlanta race lost); Jamie McMurray (decent all day, still has never led a lap at AMS).
RaceTweet: Harvick dominates and can’t blame pit crew on loss. Keselowski comes back twice to win first AMS race. #dontrepave
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kevin Harvick – Sorry, has to be. Harvick absolutely crushed the field. Any talk about Stewart-Haas Racing being behind after their switch to Ford can stop. The Fords have a ton of horsepower and Harvick and the No. 4 team have not lost a step.
North Korean Missile Dud: Kyle Busch – The No. 18 team started 3rd, but immediately dropped faster than bank account levels for NASCAR fans in Busch’s hometown of Las Vegas next week. Busch got lapped early, was two laps down most of the day, and finished 16th – this after winning the NXS race and running well in the NCWTS event.
You Can Comeback, But You Can’t Stay Here: Brad Keselowski – Easily. Several drivers came back from problems, but Keselowski pitted twice under green. The No. 2 team got lucky, because the problems allowed them to short pit and gain track position and the field was strung out enough, that they did not lose much ground. Then Keselowski drove like a boss and passed Larson to take the win.
Ghost Driver: Chris Buescher – The sophomore driver is with a freshman team – the No. 37 of JTG/Daugherty Racing – and they showed their youth Sunday. Buescher was out to lunch early and struggled to stay in the top 30, eventually rising to finish 24th, two laps down. Crew chief Trent Owens and I talked for a while before the race and he thought that a lead lap finish of 15th to 20th would be a good day. They obviously have some work to do, considering Buescher’s former Front Row Motorsports team finished just ahead of him on the track Sunday.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Cole Whitt – Whitt had the day that Owens wished Buescher had. The No. 72 Chevy for the small TriStar Motorsports team fought to a 20th-place finish, ahead of some much healthier, experienced teams. Whitt has driven garbage the last few years, but now has back-to-back top 20 finishes to start 2017. Crew chief Frank Kerr and company can hang their hats on that.
Wheel of Misfortune: Ryan Newman – First, Newman just misses winning his 8th AMS pole…and first in 10 years…on Friday. Then he runs up front all day, only to get two pit road penalties (one of his and one of his team’s doing) and have a power issue knock him out of the race. Newman has run well for Richard Childress Racing in 2017, but has nothing more than a couple of empty Monster Energy cans to show for it…whatever that means.
Jimmie Johnson’s Golden Horseshoe: Clint Bowyer – Bowyer crashed out of the Daytona 500, but was running well in the top 10 late in the race. Then contact with rookie Erik Jones caused Bowyer to scrape the wall and cut a tire on lap 280. He looked done for the day, but the No.14 wreck patched up the right-front fender and got Bowyer back on track to not just finish on the lead lap, but solidly in 11th. Bowyer has not had a top 10 since Daytona last July or a top 15 since Watkins Glen last August.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: The Atlanta Motor Speedway repave story took a twist this weekend. After most drivers spoke publicly in high favor of the aged surface, SMI CEO Marcus Smith said Sunday morning he would reconsider when the pave the track. (And the crowd goes wild).
Most drivers like this, but waiting another year only delays the inevitable. AMS soon will have to be repaired before “Pothole-gate” or “Weeper-gate” bites it. Having only one race per year and moderate winters makes aging the AMS pavement more difficult. But the track’s natural configuration lends itself to multi-groove racing, regardless of the pavement.
Fans seem to mostly be in favor of leaving the asphalt alone, but consider this: news is surfacing that Las Vegas Motor Speedway is close to getting a second NASCAR date. Where will that race date come from? Probably not Atlanta. But to ensure that Atlanta keeps its race, fans should go ahead and home SMI invests in that repave. The company would not spend millions and then drop the race.
NXS Tweet: Harvick and Keselowski dominate, but Kyle Busch and his illegal car win Atlanta. #encumbered
NCWTS Tweet: Christopher Bell spanks the field…and his boss Kyle Busch…to win an exciting doubleheader capper at AMS. Dirt guy+AMS=trophy.
Georgia On My Mind: Chase Elliott was impressive yet again, running as high as second and being one of the only drivers to put pressure on Harvick. But like Harvick, a speeding penalty did him in and he placed 5th.
David Ragan crashed in qualifying but drove to a very decent 23rd-place finish, two laps down. He is 29th in points. Reed Sorenson’s first race of the season was in the yellow No. 15 Toyota for Premium Motorsports and he drove to 31st, five laps down.
The Xfinity Series race saw Brandon Jones lead the Georgia gang with a 14th-place run. He crashed in practice, so he did so in a backup car. Ryan Sieg had a pedestrian 22nd-place finish. Garrett Smithley had a tire go down and finished 27th. And Chris Cockrum had his hands full all day and good and well ticked off Brad Keselowski as he chased down Kyle Busch at the end of the race – Cockrum finished seven laps down in 34th.
The Camping World Truck Series race was Elliott’s first 1.5-mile start in the series and he was running in the top 10 in the No. 23 GMS Racing entry, when he cut a tire. He rebounded to finish 5th, but his truck was too low in post-race inspections.
Korbin Forrister’s start to the season has been abysmal. He got damage in a lap 1 wreck, later cut a tire, then spun Jordan Anderson on the frontstretch. Forrister finished 22nd. Austin Hill’s first race of the season in the Young’s Motorsports No. 02 was 18th-place. And Wendell Chavous survived in the No. 49 to place 20th.
Next: Well, first NASCAR has to announce the penalties for Busch’s and Elliott’s post-race inspection failures. Then they have to officially announce the fate of the No. 47 team and driver A.J. Allmendinger, whom NASCAR found to have three loose lugnuts at the end of the race. Based on the set penalty structure, the team should receive a large fine and loss of points and crew chief Randall Burnett should get a three-race suspension.
But then we go to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Cup and Xfinity Series. Both races will be heard on PRN’s app,GoPRN.com, and on Sirius/XM Ch. 90. The Cup race will be on FOX at 3:30 Sunday and the Xfinity is Saturday at 4:00 on FS1. Will the Fords be fast again? They very well could be.