In 2009, Kevin Harvick has seldom, if ever, resembled the championship-contending driver that he has been on the Sprint Cup circuit in years past.
But on Saturday night, driving his own No. 33 car, the Harvick of old was alive and well. With Cup stars Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton, as well as the JR Motorsports duo of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski all driving extremely fast racecars, Harvick blew away the field nonetheless on Saturday night, leading 131 of the 195 laps run to score his second win of the 2009 Nationwide Series season. Though Busch led sporadically throughout the evening, only a late-race cycle of green-flag stops that saw Earnhardt Jr. come within two laps of winning on fuel mileage seriously challenged Harvick for the win at Atlanta.
Harvick led a charge of Sprint Cup regulars that obliterated the Nationwide Series field, taking nine of the top 10 and 13 of the top-15 finishing positions. The frenzy of Cup activity at the front was matched only by the frenzied pace of the race; only three cautions slowed Saturday night’s race.
Busch’s runner up finish allowed him to extend his championship lead to 221 over Carl Edwards (who finished a lap down in the seventh position). Harvick, Busch, Earnhardt Jr., Keselowski and Burton were the only drivers to finish on the lead lap.
Well, hats have to go off to Keselowski and Michael Annett. Why? They were the only two Nationwide regulars to score top-15 finishes on Saturday night. And for both, their respective runs were commendable for reasons far beyond this 300-mile race. For Keselowski, his fourth-place finish was just the latest example of his being able to shake off a mediocre qualifying run to slash through the field to the front, and to stay there despite racing with nothing but Cup drivers for the vast majority of this weekend’s race. Considering that Keselowski will be driving a Cup car next year that will have to search for speed early on, proving able to race with the highest caliber of drivers and to move forward in traffic bodes nothing but well for both he and Penske Racing in 2010.
As for Annett, the Germain development driver scored his third top 15 in four races… a four-race stretch that has seen him score more points than any stretch of his brief NASCAR career. And though Atlanta broke a stretch of five consecutive lead-lap finishes for the former hockey player, the 14th-place finish was his best on an intermediate oval since Texas in the spring.
After an outing that saw both of its drivers getting loads of air times for spins, damage and various other calamities at Montreal, Atlanta was another disappointing outing for Rusty Wallace, Incorporated. Steve Wallace ended the night four laps down in 23rd, in the end racing for position amongst part-timers Shelby Howard and Robert Richardson in inferior racecars. As for Brendan Gaughan, his No. 62 made the hardest contact of the night with AMS’s retaining walls, pounding the fence in turn 1 early in the race after experiencing trouble with a right-front tire. Gaughan limped home 31st, completing only 132 laps.
Atlanta Motor Speedway is notorious for its high speeds… and the stress of those speeds and the amount of time drivers spend on the throttle being abusive to equipment. Saturday night was no exception, with a plethora of drivers suffering mechanical troubles… many who definitely didn’t need such troubles. Kelly Bires and Jason Keller, both free-agent drivers driving for teams needing sponsorship lost motors well before the checkered flag fell, while Jeremy Clements and the K-Automotive duo of Brian Keselowski and Michael McDowell all had their nights cut short with transmission failures. All of the above finished outside the top 30.
With a lack of wrecks in this latest Nationwide Series event (and that’s not a bad thing), the ugliest moment of the race came on pit road when Justin Allgaier ran into one of his own pit crew members during the first cycle of stops on lap 27. Coming into his pit way too fast, Allgaier for the second time in two weeks found himself out of control and overwhelming his brakes (much like his wreck at Montreal last week). Greg Biffle‘s crew members, whose pit stop was impeded by Allgaier’s out-of-position car, gestured at the youngster to “use his head.” They have a point, as for the second time in two weeks the current Rookie of the Year leader has acted awful green, even for a rookie, in terms of losing control behind the wheel.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Chase Austin. For those Nationwide fans out there living under a rock, two weeks ago the young Austin made a rookie mistake that absolutely no driver wants to make… taking out a Cup star and the race leader in one fell swoop at Bristol. Blame the spotter, blame a blown tire, whatever, the fact remains that Austin was behind the wheel for the aforementioned incident, and took the blame for one of the most bizarre wrecks this side of Kevin Lepage‘s merging into the pack move at Talladega last year. This weekend, in SK Motorsports’ first race back since Bristol, Austin delivered about the best redemption performance he could for his experience level and team; he qualified for the show on time, ran the distance, and brought his car home in one piece. Finishing nine laps down in 29th wasn’t flashy, but was a performance a far cry from where this team was a mere two weeks ago.
The Final Word
- Reed Sorenson faded from a top-five qualifying effort to finish 10th… the first top-10 finish for Phoenix Racing since the team fired Mike Bliss for “not winning enough.” Meanwhile, Bires finished 32nd with CJM Racing, a marked improvement over the development driver (Scott Lagasse Jr.) that he replaced… not. Driver by committee hasn’t been the road to the promised land for either the No. 1 or No. 11 cars… here’s hoping other NNS teams out there take notice.
- With the SK Motorsports No. 07 car having skipped Montreal, they are no longer eligible for a locked in spot in the field. That leaves K-Automotive all but assured of having their No. 26 car locked into the field at Daytona in February, as they hold a lead around 400 markers over the next eligible driver, Morgan Shepherd.
- Speaking of Shepherd, he failed to qualify again this weekend, just a week after he laid off nearly his entire race team because of a lack of money coming in. It’s a shame to see the same No. 89 team that posted back-to-back top 20s at Fontana and Las Vegas in the spring struggling so hard to even make the field during the summer.
- And while on the topic of qualifying for races, it was good to see Peyton Sellers get into a field and finish a race after what has been a disastrous summer stretch of wrecks and DNQs for the No. 77 team.
- Cup regulars or not, lots of green-flag racing and few cautions is always something good to see. That worn-down asphalt of AMS can really put on a race.
Oh, and Kyle Busch has this title in the bag… another tidbit for the Nationwide fans who have been living under a rock.