Does anything in racing hurt quite so much as dominating an entire race, leading 157 of the total 195-lap race distance, only to have the race stolen out from under you in the last 1.5-miles seemingly because of a carelessly discarded water bottle? Ask Kevin Harvick, who is waking up on Sunday after just that scenario happened to him on Saturday evening in the NRA American Warrior 300 NASCAR
Nationwide Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"Heck, yeah, we stole it," said the race winner in victory lane. "We've had a few stolen from us. You go out and get as many as you can, any way you can!"
That last-minute thief in the night was Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who had led for the opening laps after he had successfully taken the lead from polesitter Kyle Busch on the first lap and held it through two cautions (Joey Gase hitting the wall on lap 4, Fain Skinner's engine putting oil on the track on lap 11) only to succumb to Harvick's superior pace at the second restart on lap 16.
Once in front, Harvick appeared completely in control for much of the ensuing race, while Stenhouse had his hands full continuing to deal with Busch and with debris on his front grille that threatened to cook his engine in its own steam. Following a round of green flag pit stops around lap 50, Harvick's lead had stretched out to an almost absurd 15s over the rest of the field.
A yellow flag on lap 65 for Reed Sorenson and Robert Richardson Jr. crashing in turns 1 and 2 bunched up the field again, and there was a fourth caution on lap 83 when Denny Hamlin's right-rear tyre went down on him in the same spot, but Harvick was still in charge and still quickly racing away from Stenhouse again at the green flag. At the halfway point, his lead was back up to over six seconds.
A tyre blow-out for Kasey Kahne on lap 105 closed the field up once more, with the restart lasting only six laps before Eric McClure brought out the sixth caution with a trip into the wall. The 13 cars still on the lead lap by this stage all came onto pit lane, but X-Games superstar new boy Travis Pastrana enjoying an opportunity to star out and lead a lap in NASCAR
before getting comprehensively blown away by Harvick getting up to rocket ship speed once more.
After that normal service resumed and the race ran green for the next 55 laps, during which time the final round of pit stops needed to be completed under green. Justin Allgaier and Brad Keselowski gambled on trying to stay out as long as they could, which put them in front of Harvick as the race entered its final stage; but even with a pit stop in hand, Keselowski still found himself staring at Harvick's rear bumper.
And that's when a caution for debris came out on lap 182, with just 13 laps remaining of the race. Once again the field was closed up, with Allgaier and Keselowski making their stops under the highly advantageous yellow but everyone else staying out for green. But cautions breed cautions, and this time was no different: as soon as the green came out, James Buescher and Danica Patrick made contract on the backstretch that ultimately saw Buescher wreck with Mike Bliss and Kyle Fowler to put the race straight back under caution for the eighth time tonight.
With the race so near the end, the race officials were forced to throw a brief red flag to clean up rather than have the scheduled end of the race roll by under the caution. By the time things were cleaned up and ready to go again, it meant that it was a de facto two lap shootout for the race win, with Harvick lining up alongside Stenhouse on the front row, and Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch immediately behind them.