The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series made their first 1.5 mile track stop of the season on Sunday at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. This would be the first time fans and drivers get to see how NASCAR’s new 2017 low-downforce aero package would perform on track.
After fantastic racing in both the Camping World Truck Series, and the NASCAR XFINITY Series, drivers from all three national series pleaded to Marcus Smith, President of Speedway Motorsports Corporation, to rethink a repave at the historic facility.
The Atlanta Motor Speedway has been known for three things in past years of racing. It’s track surface, with history in the cracks, has been known to be a demanding track surface for Goodyear Tires. Fantastic finishes, such as the classic Earnhardt Labonte finish in 2000, and who could forget Kevin Harvick’s first career win, just 3 weeks after replacing the late Dale Earnhardt at RCR. If you love long green flag runs, this is your track.
The weekend started with Kevin Harvick charging his Freaky Fast Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing earning his first pole of the 2017 season, after teammate Kurt Busch landed Ford their first win of the season with the Daytona 500. Ryan Newman, who was replaced by Kevin Harvick at SHR, was gunning for his 8th pole at Atlanta, which would have placed him as the all-time pole leader at Atlanta, would start beside Harvick.
Jimmie Johnson had won the past two Atlanta races, and was looking to make it three in a row at the track, which would have been a first in history. When the green flag fell, the tone of the race was set right away – very long green flag runs. The race failed to see a caution until lap 241 – disregarding the stage ending cautions at lap 87 and lap 172 respectively. Long green flag runs mean green flag pit stops and some drivers might have had a few too many Monster Energy’s before the race. 13 drivers were assessed speeding penalties on the 45 mph pit road, with the #88 of Dale Jr. and the #48 of Jimmie Johnson making two trips down pit road for two separate speeding infractions.
Harvick set the pace very early on, winning both stage one and stage two, earning crucial points for both the regular season and the playoffs. Harvick would led the most laps on the day. Harvick was looking to change his own personal record – the last five races where Harvick led the most laps, he failed to win. Young guns Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott hung around the top 5 for most of the day, while the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota brigade failed to make any real noise for most of the race. Kyle Busch, who won the NASCAR XFINITY Series race, was at one point two laps down in 19th going backwards. Erik Jones showed an impressive start for Furniture Row Racing, hanging around the top-10 for most of the day. Denny Hamlin was forced to the garage early in the race due to a rear-end problem in his FedEx Camry. Hamlin would leave Atlanta finishing 38th.
With Atlanta’s old, worn-out track surface, the slip-and-slide style track played a host of plenty of tires going down including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer, who would finish 30th and 11th respectively. The track surface eats tires up early, resulting in up to 3 seconds of fall-off from a restart to just 4 laps into a run. Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman would have battery and alternator issues late in the race just within laps of each other. After Dillon was told to remain on the track, the car would never re-fire and a late race caution was called.
For the optimal performance, the leaders came into pit road with 12 to go for a set of four fresh Goodyear tires. Kevin Harvick came to pit road, and once again, the No. 4 crew would get Harvick out first. However, Harvick was caught speeding on pit road, resulting in him having to go to the tail end of the longest line. Harvick’s personal streak would continue – six races where Harvick has led the most laps, he has failed to win the race.
All eyes would turn to Kyle Larson, as he was given the led with just nine laps to go. With NASCAR’s brand new low-downforce aero package, drivers such as Larson and Elliott excelled last season at both Michigan races where the aero package was tested.
Larson jumped out to an early lead, but a questionable move he made left fans and broadcasters scratching their heads. Kyle would run the low line in turns one and two, and then jump to the high line in turns three and four, to try and take 2nd place Brad Keselowski’s line away. However Larson would flip this dynamic, and run high in turns one and two, where Keselowski was stronger, and run low in turns three and four.
Keselowski would successfully make the pass on Larson with just a handful of laps to go, and would never look back. Brad Keselowski would take home the win at Atlanta, with Larson settling for second, and Harvick settling for ninth. The 2014 Champion took full responsibility for his speeding on pit road.
NASCAR will head to Las Vegas to begin a three-week West Coast Swing on Sunday. The telecast will be on FOX.