Harvick once again got away in front and looked to have the win safely in his hands as he cleared Stenhouse through turn 4, but then on the final lap the #33 got loose in turn 2 and had to check up, handing Stenhouse the momentum as he was boosted past Harvick courtesy of a push from Brad Keselowski. Harvick could only watch on as both cars took the chequered flag ahead of him, and he had to settle for fending off Elliott Sadler to retain third place for himself.
Harvick was not happy: he has also failed to win the previous seven races in which he has led the most laps. To rub salt in that wound, on the cool down lap he saw on the big screens mounted around Atlanta Motor Speedway a clip of Brad Keselowski throwing out a spent water bottle from his car just seconds before that fateful penultimate debris caution that had changed the complexion of the final stages of the race, and he was furious.
"It's pretty obvious," fumed Harvick after storming over the Keselowski in the pits to accuse him of intentionally causing a yellow in order to get a favourable pit stop under the caution. "They put it on TV and showed when the caution came out on the same lap," he said. "He told me after the race that he'd never thrown a water bottle out, and you know what that means. He told me it was intentional. It is what is.
"The car that caused the caution pushed the car that won the race by us and we weren't able to get by him, but what can you do?" he said at a frosty post-race press conference. Harvick finished by turning to Keslowski and adding: "Sleep good tonight."
Keselowski dismissed the criticism, saying that despite how it had been edited on the TV replays the water bottle had been thrown out 15-20 laps before the caution, and that jettisoning empties in this fashion was routine practice.
"Everybody throws water bottles out of the car," said Keselowski. "That's how racing works. If you go around the infield at these tracks, I'm sure after the race you'll find 20 water bottles."
NASCAR's vice president of competition Robin Pemberton later confirmed that the cause of the debris caution has been a piece of aluminium and not a water bottle, but Harvick was still fuming: "The run was really good, but obviously it wasn't what NASCAR wanted so we kept throwing cautions for things," he thundered.
At least Stenhouse was a happy, excitable presence at the post-race press conference as he celebrated his last-gasp victory, cheerfully admitting that he knew he'd "stolen" it and that it didn't matter a jot if he had. In fairness, Stenhouse was emphatically the next-best car on the track after Harvick, running almost the entire race in second place.
"It was a great night and fun racing with Kevin there," he said. "It was good, hard, clean racing, and I'm glad that we could put on a show for fans".
Stenhouse's win means that he moves up to within just 12pts of Elliott Sadler in the Nationwide Series points standings, with Sam Hornish Jr. and Austin Dillon also keeping themselves in contention with top ten finishes here at Atlanta this week, with nine races remaining in the 2012 championship.