Kyle Busch won the pole at Atlanta, for the Nationwide Series but Kevin Harvick won the race. When practices were complete, on Friday and Saturday, Harvick had the fastest or second-fastest ten-lap average runs in both sessions. Being fast on the long run is key, and Harvick’s crew chief, Ernie Cope, admitted that the team lost last year’s race because they did not have tires at the end to make that final push.
They vowed not to make the same mistake this year. As a result, when the caution flew with 13 laps to go, Harvick led the parade down pit lane and barely managed to beat the No. 22 of Joey Logano off pit road to secure the lead and the coveted inside line. When the final green flag flew, Busch put on a serious charge for several laps but Harvick held him off to claim the victory. Sam Hornish, Jr. rebounded from a subpar showing at Bristol to show, once again, why he’s the point leader and came home in third place. Kasey Kahne rebounded from an early race spin to bring home a fourth-place finish while Kyle Larson, fresh from the announcement that he will be running the No. 42 in the Cup Series next year, rounded out the top 5.
Busch took the lead from the pole at the drop of the green and led the first 37 laps. He lost the lead for one lap during the pit stops that occurred during the first caution period of the night and then failed to lead the second lap after the restart for resuming his spot at the point until lap 59, when Harvick completed his run from his 20th-place starting position to assume command of the race. From that point on, except for five brief laps under green-flag pit stops, Harvick led the remainder of the race.
The caution flag flew four times: one for debris, two for spins and one for an accident. Robert Richardson brought out the first caution with a spin on lap 36 exiting turn two. That was followed by a spin off Turn 4, four laps after the restart, by Kahne. Lap 105 saw a debris caution for metal on the backstretch before the final caution that flew on lap 182, when Jeff Green blew a right front tire and collected Ken Butler on the front straight.
The race saw seven total leaders with Harvick leading a race-high 132 of the 195 laps. When you add Busch to the mix, that total jumps to 189. Michael Annett led once for two laps while Jeremy Clements, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson and Regan Smith each led a single circuit.
Sam Hornish, Jr. leaves Atlanta with a 10 point lead over Austin Dillon while Elliott Sadler, who finished 18th, is 26 points out of the top spot. Hornish leads the series in top-10 finishes with 18 while only accumulating two DNFs. Brian Vickers has the most top 5s while, among drivers running for the point championship, Regan Smith has the most wins with two.
The owner’s point battle finds the No. 22 ahead of the No. 54 by 11 points after Saturday night’s race. Both cars are driven almost exclusively by Cup Series regulars.
Kyle Larson had a pretty good week. He has been announced as the driver of the No. 42 for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Less than a year after signing a driver development deal with Ganassi, Larson will be stepping into the top series in NASCAR. Larson started last night’s race in the 13th position and was loose to start the race which prevented him from making much progress early. Once Trent Owens made an adjustment on the first pit stop Larson’s No. 32 started working toward the front. By lap 90 he was in third position and led lap 92. Larson slipped back to the second half of the top 10 for much of the race after leading the lap but made a strong move to the front at the end of the race and came home with a fifth place finish.
Bristol was a rough race for Sam Hornish. While he’d been running strong for the previous three weeks he only managed a 12th place finish at Bristol. He picked up where he’d left off before Bristol with his effort at Atlanta, coming home with a third place finish. Hornish has finished in the top three in four of the five races since Indianapolis and increased his point lead over Austin Dillon to 10 points. The battle for the championship is going to go down to the wire at Homestead but if Hornish keeps running like this it is going to take a superhuman effort by the No. 3 squad to wrest the title from Sam’s hands.
For the sixth time this season, Chris Buescher started a Nationwide race for Roush Fenway Racing. For the fourth time he finished in the top 13 and has only had one finish worse than 17th. After two very successful years in ARCA competition, with the 2012 championship to his name, Buescher has continued to develop as a top flight racer. His ability to run complete races, advance his position from where he starts and bring home cars primarily undamaged is going to secure a position in a national touring series for years to come.
Elliott Sadler is working hard to stay relevant in the title chase, but he needs to start stringing together top 5 finishes instead of runs like Saturday night if he’s going to make that happen. Sadler started the race in the seventh position but slipped back steadily to the 12th spot by lap 40. His fall didn’t stop there, as he ended up in 19th by lap 60. He spent much of the remainder of the race struggling to get above the 15th position before settling for a 18th place finish as the last car on the lead lap. Sadler has made a habit over the last few years of battling for the point lead throughout the season only to fade over the last two or three races. If he’s not careful, he won’t even be in contention by that point in time.
Mike Bliss has spent the year overproducing in the underdog Tri-Star No. 19. While the team doesn’t have the big budget that Penske, Roush or Gibbs has, they do have the passion. Bliss qualified in the 15th position and the underdog fans were buoyed to think he would make a run at a top 10 finish. Unfortunately, from the time the rag dropped he rapidly fell back to the 20th spot and ran around there the rest of the night, coming home with a 22nd place finish. Not that 20th is a bad run for Tri-Star but it looked like it was going to be a much better day at the onset.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. While racing in the Nationwide series isn’t insane, sometimes it can feel that way when you have a night like Jeremy Clements. Clements started the race in the 23rd position. He ran as high as 21st and as low as 25th before finishing the race in 23rd. Sometimes you have to wonder if it is really worth all of the effort when you end up where you started.
Alex Bowman has had some good runs and some bad runs this season. The last two weeks have been two to forget. After four solid runs from Indianapolis through Mid-Ohio Bowman has run 33rd and 34th the last two weeks. Bowman only completed 32 laps before his engine expired on Saturday night. With Larson sitting seventh in points and almost 140 ahead of Bowman, his hopes for Rookie of the Year are pretty much over, but he is still looking to impress potential future employers. Hopefully he can get this turned around over the coming weeks.
Blake Koch 5 laps, Josh Wise 7 laps, Chase Miller 8 laps, Mike Harmon 8 laps. Can’t we make this whole start and park thing a little more exciting? How about, anyone who doesn’t run to the first fuel stop gets their car number thrown into a hat. At the end of the race a number is drawn and robosaurus comes out and eats that car. It would just make for a little bit of excitement for the back of the pack race. Although, there were no reports of Jennifer Jo Cobb trying to drive off in Harmon’s hauler.
Underdog Performer of the Race
In a race where 90% of the cars finished roughly five spots from where they started, it is difficult to find a driver who ended well above his equipment’s ability. Robert Richardson, Jr. started the race in 33rd position, spun off of turn two to bring out a caution but then soldiered on to a 25th-place finish. With so few drivers really making any moves, we’ll give a shout out to someone who is chasing the dream and overcame the odds to improve his position by eight spots.
Start and park cars occupied six of the 40 starting positions and pocketed $58,564.00. Fortunately, no drivers failed to qualify so the start and park cars performed the service of providing a full field.
There were four Cup regulars in the starting field on Saturday night and they garnered four of the top six finishing positions, including first and second. $125,540.00 in prize money went home with them instead of Nationwide regular drivers. For those of you without calculators handy, that is 13% of the total prize money.
The Final Word
Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of the best race tracks on the schedule for two reasons. 1) Long, sweeping corners, 2) Old, worn out pavement. Thankfully, Goodyear has come up with a tire that will wear out but doesn’t fail provided the teams aren’t too aggressive with their setup so, unlike 90% of the rest of the tracks on the schedule, tires still matter. When the caution flew with 13 laps to go, every one of the 10 cars that were on the lead lap came to pit road for four fresh tires. Ernie Cope told the assembled media that, if there were five laps left when the caution flew he still would have come and taken four tires. Hopefully we will see more of that in the near future.
Speaking of tires, the new combination tread was a huge success in the Nationwide race. The No. 22 team had a tire deflation and another tire that looked like the inside shoulder was beginning to give up, but they were the only team on pit road with such a problem. That would insinuate that they were being too aggressive with their camber. The No. 7 had a very small blister on one tire and one other team had a small blemish. All of the other tires performed exactly as expected. Hopefully the success of the weekend will carry over to the Cup series and ultimately all of the race tracks. Tires that wear out can only make the racing more competitive and enjoyable for everyone.
Finally, while the racing at Atlanta is fantastic and the facility is top notch, there is something wrong about racing this far West on Labor Day Weekend. If we are only going to visit Atlanta Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway once each during the regular season can’t we find a way to make the switch to put Darlington back in its rightful place, on Labor Day weekend.
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