Kevin Harvick was heading for glory in Sunday night's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night, when suddenly they were caught off-guard by a brilliant strategy from Jimmie Johnson and his long-time crew chief Chad Knaus.
After early domination of the race by Harvick's Stewart-Haas Racing team mate Kurt Busch who had started from pole position, Harvick dominated the afternoon's race with 131 of the 330 laps out in front. Whenever Harvick briefly lost the lead during rounds of green flag pit stops, Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr. was there to pick up the baton and assume temporary command of proceedings.
Behind them the #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy was good, but didn't seem to have that final edge that could get him around Harvick and Truex and so Johnson had to settle for running most of the race in third place. After 211 relentless consecutive green flag laps without interruption, only 11 cars were still on the lead lap when there was finally relief in the form of debris on the backstretch.
It looked as though that could well be the one and only caution of the entire afternoon, as it was followed by another 107 green flag laps which put all the emphasis on the flawless pit stop execution. SHR's servicing of the #4 had been exemplary all afternoon, but at the crucial final scheduled stop they stuttered and lost vital seconds. Meanwhile Johnson came in early and his crew pulled off a lightning-fast short stop for the #48.
"We've talked a lot that we want to be aggressive," Johnson said of Knaus' decision. "I knew when he pulled me to pit lane that we were going to be on the early side, and then I made lap after lap after lap and no one else was on pit road, and I was like, are we going to two‑stop it from here? What's going on? I didn't realise how aggressive he was willing to be. I really felt like that was going to hurt us, and late in the run I assumed Kevin would just run me back down."
"We were able to get out there and race and race our way to the top four or five I think it was, and just kind of manage that position all day long, waiting until the end," explained Knaus. "I don't think we necessarily had anything for the #4 and the #78.
"Around 40 laps [to go], everybody wanted to pit and everybody was getting nervous about their tyres. As we were going through the race ours was getting better, so we were like, shoot, let's go ahead and throw it out there and see what happens," Knaus added. "It gave everybody an opportunity to come down pit road with us at that point. It would have been kind of a moot point, but they were nervous I think, obviously, and didn't want to get tyres on that early, and it worked out. After the pit cycle I think we had a ten second lead."
Suddenly Johnson was out in front and by a big margin. Just as Johnson had feared, Harvick put everything into the attempt to run him down and started to eat into the margin, but after almost losing it in turn 4 and wiping out he was forced to concede that only a late caution could give him any hope of catching Johnson. And a late caution was exactly what he got when Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman blew a tyre and spun on the front stretch on lap 323, closing up the field for a final overtime restart attempt.
All eight drivers still in contention for the win opted to pit before the green flag, and it was Johnson who got the perfect getaway. Harvick struggled and spun his tyres, dropping from second place to sixth which helped to back-up the cars behind him which saw a multi-car wreck on the final lap that tore up Ryan Blaney and Landon Cassill, while worst hit was the Richard Petty Motorsport #43 which caught fire, sending driver Aric Almirola scrambling for safety.
"This was certainly not the finish that we had hoped for," rued Almirola. "It was disappointing to have a wreck on the last lap, especially with how hard our team worked, but I know that we'll be able to bounce back next week in Las Vegas."
"They just kind of wrecked in front of me," noted Cassill. "I had the car slowed down to where I felt like I was going the pace of the wreck. It wasn't clear in front of me yet, but it was going to be because it looked like he was going to go to the bottom and somebody hit me from behind. It was a frustrating way to end the day."
“I didn't know what happened initially," said Blaney. "I guess the #43 got a big run off the top and I was inside the #14 and got tagged in the back. Unfortunately that sent me around, which kind of stinks. We were just trying to salvage a decent day out of it and it just stinks to run all those laps and then get wrecked at the end of a race."
The caution meant that the race was over and positions frozen at the moment that the yellow flag had come out: Johnson was the winner, his fifth victory at Atlanta and the second time he's scored back-to-back wins at the venue. More significantly it was his 76th victory in 509 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, which puts him tied in the all-time wins list with series icon Dale Earnhardt. Appropriately enough, it was Earnhardt's son - and Johnson's team mate - Dale Jr. who endorsed the achievement by finishing in second place.
"I remembered it on my victory lap coming down, and I had to come by and throw a '3' out the window to pay my respects to the man," said Johnson. "I entered the sport just hoping I could win a race and keep a job for a few years, and to have 76 and tie Dale Earnhardt Sr is something I'm very, very proud of.
"I didn't have a chance to race against him, unfortunately," Johnson continued. "There's been a big void in my mind about not having that chance to race against him, and it was literally a handful of months away from having that opportunity. So to tie him today, for myself personally, it gives me a little something. It's a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt and something I'm very proud of."
"He's pretty good," smiled Dale Jr. who was among the first to congratulate his team mate on equalling Dale Sr.'s record. "I don't have a problem calling him the best of this generation even as a competitor of his and having to go out there and race against him. Obviously he will credit his crew chief and his team. That all has been real consistent throughout his career, and they do deserve some credit, but Jimmie is just a phenomenal talent."
Remarkably, third place went to Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch despite the #18 starting from the back of the field after failing post-qualifying inspection on Friday. Even though the race had gone more than half distance without a caution, Busch was able to work his way up into the top ten by the time the first yellow flag was shown. While he hadn't have the speed to challenge the race leaders for the outright win, the restart gave him a real shot at stealing victory.
"Once I cleared the #4 getting into turn one I thought I had a really good shot at being able to overtake the #48. I tried running a little bit higher than him to see if I could get some momentum off two and I never really got any. We got down to three and I was like, 'Well, the only opportunity I have is to try to go out of his wake and not follow him,' and when I did that, man, it landed on the splitter and just plowed up the race track.
"Pretty good race I felt like, a lot harder than some of us may want it to be, but that makes it good for the drivers and the crew chiefs to have to work together to come out here and build a good package for themselves and a comfortable race car," added Busch, whose third place is enough to put him at the top of the championship points standings by three points from Truex.
Having started from pole, Kyle's brother Kurt didn't lead again after lap 79 but nonetheless ran the whole afternoon in the top ten to finish one place behind his younger sibling in fourth place, while Kyle's JGR team mate Carl Edwards managed to just get ahead of Harvick before the caution flags froze the final positions.
"It was hard driving with the lower downforce," said Kurt Busch. "We had a really good car short run speed; we just didn't have it on the long run speed. That is sometimes what happens to a pole sitting car. You are feeling confident like 'hey alright', but we were just too aggressive on the tyres."
"We had issues about the last three runs," sighed Harvick. "I had to start driving the car different. It just required a little bit different handling. And then we had a slow pit stop there. We got way behind and the #48 was way out front and I had to drive the car really hard and got the right rear burned up. We just didn't execute today but everybody on our Jimmy John's/Busch Chevrolet hung in there all day and we'll keep at it."
"This is real racing," enthused Edwards. "We're driving hard. You can see the guys out here just digging for everything they're worth. I'm worn out. That's a tough race and just a lot of fun. I just can't thank NASCAR enough and Atlanta – don't ever pave this place – it's a perfect race track."
Having spent much of the afternoon running just behind Harvick, Truex finished in the same situation albeit now for seventh place. Hendrick Motorsports' rookie driver Chase Elliott, Penske's Brad Keselowski and Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rounded out the top ten. The final drivers shown on the lead lap at the end thanks to the late-race cautions, wavearounds and lucky dogs were RCR's Austin Dillon and Penske's Joey Logano.
"Out of control all day long, so it was a lot of fun to race like that," Truex reported. "We always know this is the slickest track on the circuit and it's always going to be handful and then you add less downforce, the tyres burn out like they did. It was pretty wild. Sideways on the straightaways is pretty much how you can sum it up."
"I am really proud of the effort today," said Elliott, in his second race as a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup driver having taken over the #24 car from Jeff Gordon over the winter. "Really really solid NAPA Chevrolet. Just happy to be a part of this team everybody fought awfully hard. We are excited about today. I think it is something to build off of. It's not perfect, it's a start."
"We seemed to have real good short-run speed, but not very good long-run speed and we didn't get a lot of short runs," said Keselowski, who was still marvelling at how long the race had run without stoppages. "That race felt like I was in 1975. That was kind of awesome. I should grow my sideburns out after that one!"
"We weren't real good for the first ten laps of a run, but really good at the end of the run," Stenhouse pointed out. "We lost some track position there, where I feel like we may have got a seventh or eighth-place finish out of it, but all in all I'm really happy with all the hard work that these guys put in."
There was frustration for JGR's Matt Kenseth who led for 47 laps early in the race but who was then penalised for a safety violation involving improper refuelling on lap 117 (specifically, a wedge wrench being placed on the car's bodywork.) Confusion within the team meant that Kenseth wasn't informed in time to serve his drive-thru and he was black flagged instead which left him two laps off the leaders and ultimately finishing in 19th place.
"I got black flagged for some type of pit road penalty and I didn't know it and pitted the lap they told me to do a pass through," explained Kenseth. "I'm assuming they were black flagging us before that and they pulled our card, so I never heard anything about it or at least saw the flag or anything, so I came when they told me to come and I guess they must have penalised us a couple laps or something. I don't really know. I haven't really seen it."
Logano and Chip Ganassi Racing's Kyle Larson were handed less eventful drive-thru for commitment line violations during their pit stops on lap 150.
Next on the calendar is NASCAR's west coast tour starting with the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway followed by races at Phoenix and Fontana before the Easter break.
Full race results and updated Sprint Cup Championship standings
Less than 24 hours after first winning and then being stripped of pole position for the Cup race, Kyle Busch took the top spot in qualifying for Saturday's Heads Up Georgia 250 Xfinity race, and parlayed that success into his first series win at Atlanta having been runner-up on five previous occasions. Busch led for 119 of the 163 laps, the race culminating in close-fought duel with Chip Ganassi Racing's Kyle Larson who was just 0.466s behind at the finish line. It's Busch's 77th victory in 312 Xfinity races, extending his existing record of wins. Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Erik Jones was the highest placed Xfinity regular in third place despite an early drive-thru for jumping the start, with Richard Childress Racing's Ty Dillon celebrating his 24th birthday by clinching fifth place just behind team mate Paul Menard. JR Motorsport's Elliott Sadler was ninth on the day but still leads the championship points by three points over JGR's Daniel Suarez who finished in seventh.
Camping World Truck Series:
NEMCO Motorsports' John Hunter Nemechek claimed his second win in the Truck Series, becoming the youngest NASCAR national series winner at Atlanta Motor Speedway at the age of 18 years, 8 months and 16 days. He beat ThorSport Racing's Cameron Hayley to the line by 0.305s after a two-lap sprint finish to the chequered flag following the final start in Saturday's Great Clips 200. Hayley's team mate Matt Crafton had earlier won pole position and led for a race-high 76 of the 130 laps, only to be involved in a big wreck on lap 111 sparked by Kyle Busch Motorsports' Christopher Bell making contact with team mate Daniel Suarez. RBR Enterprises' Parker Kilgerman finished in eighth place to lead the points standings by one point from Brad Keselowski Racing's Daniel Hemric, with Nemechek a further point back in third.
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