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.
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.
Full race results, qualifying and practice times and Nationwide points standings