The second race of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season took place in Hampton, Georgia with the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. While the race was dominated by Kevin Harvick, he was unable to close the deal as Brad Keselowski instead recorded the victory.
Harvick started on the pole and established himself as the dominant driver during Sunday’s race. He led all but three laps during the first stage and continued his success with another stage victory in the second; at day’s end, he led a whopping 293 out of 325 laps. Various drivers, particularly Ricky Stenhouse Jr., provided pressure on Harvick during the early stages of the race, but were unable to hold him off.
In January, Atlanta Motor Speedway announced plans to repave the aging asphalt surface, a plan that many drivers, including four-time champion Jeff Gordon and Camping World Truck Series veteran Matt Crafton, protested. In a conference on Sunday morning, Speedway Motorsports Incorporated (SMI) president Marcus Smith stated the track was reconsidering moving forward with the repave.
“We have cracks in the track that we’ve had to seal, and we have them everywhere,” AMS president Ed Clark added. “But I’m sure we’ll talk more about it and have another look. If we have a three-wide finish and great racing today, who knows what might happen.”
As Sunday’s race showed, the old surface wore out the tires quickly and newer tires proved to be the advantage for drivers; this is especially displayed when Harvick (on new tires) erased a ten-second gap held by Keselowski (on older tires) in just ten laps.
The race itself was remarkably clean, with no cautions for reasons beside the end of a stage occurring until lap 240 for debris. The second non-stage caution came to on lap 269 when rookie Gray Gaulding blew an engine, followed by another for Clint Bowyer hitting the wall with 48 laps to go. Including the stage cautions, there were five total yellows. Atlanta has proven to be a tame track when it comes to cautions in recent years, as 2016’s race featured only three.
While Harvick dominated the race, the rest of the field was marred by penalties and other misfortunes. Cody Ware, making his Cup Series debut, fell behind early and retired from the race for alternator and right front ball joint problems. Denny Hamlin broke his track bar mount and was unable to continue racing. Keselowski was forced to pit on two occasions for tire issues. On pit road, eleven drivers were penalized for speeding on pit road during green flag stops; in comparison, the 2016 race saw just one penalty.
At the end of the first stage, Harvick earned ten bonus points as the leader. Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Stenhouse, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson comprised the rest of the top-10. After the second, Harvick won another stage, followed by Elliott, Newman, Truex, Larson, Austin Dillon, Keselowski, Erik Jones, Bowyer and Trevor Bayne.
With less than 20 laps in the race, it seemed Harvick was going to record his first win at Atlanta since 2001. However, on lap 309, Austin Dillon’s car lost power and brought out another caution. Although Harvick maintained his position at the lead for the restart, his chances of winning dissipated when he was penalized for speeding on pit road. He was ordered to move to the rear of the field, placing Larson in 1st.
“I didn’t even think I was pushing it,” Harvick commented on the radio. He would finish 9th.
On the restart, Larson led Keselowski early on, but began to run on the high line. This strategy allowed Keselowski to catch up to Larson, making the pass with six laps to go. The Michigan native held on to record his 22nd career Cup win and first at Atlanta. Larson settled for 2nd, followed by Matt Kenseth (who overcame two unscheduled stops of his own to finish 3rd), Kasey Kahne and Elliott.
“This one kind of fell in our lap at the end and my team put it all together when it counted,” Keselowski stated in Victory Lane. “They gave me a great AutoTrader Ford Fusion and we were able to get by Kyle (Larson) there at the end. I knew that he wasn’t going to be easy to pass. His car was great and I was able to make the right moves to get by him.”
Keselowski celebrated the victory by driving with the American flag hanging out of the window net, a celebration coined by the 2012 champion, who grew up in a military family and stated he would have enlisted if he was not a NASCAR driver. The act of patriotism was also fitting for the race sponsor Folds of Honor, named after the folded American flag given to families of soldiers killed in action.
With the win, Ford kicks off the 2017 season on a high note. After Kurt Busch’s victory in the Daytona 500 and Keselowski’s at Atlanta, they are now two-for-two on the season, a feat the manufacturer had not accomplished since 2009 when Matt Kenseth won the first two races of the year.
Next week, the Cup Series begins its West Coast swing with the Kobalt 400 from Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Keselowski enters the race as the defending winner.
Featured image courtesy of @NASCAR