Kevin Harvick ran away and hid from the field for 157 of 195 laps on Saturday night. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t get to lead the last lap. After a late-race caution for debris, then a wreck that resulted in a red flag, Harvick had to withstand the onslaught of Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. with the help of Brad Keselowski in order to win the NRA American Warrior 300.
That’s when dominance turned to disaster. Taking advantage of the short run, Stenhouse made a pass on the outside of turns one and two and held onto the lead for the last ¾ of a lap to score his fourth win of the season. Brad Keselowski, who pushed Stenhouse past Harvick on the final lap was able to hold off Harvick to come home in second. Harvick was forced to settle for third while Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier rounded out the top five.
For 95% of the race, the story of the event was Harvick running roughshod over the entire field, but a caution that flew with 11 laps to go changed the entire mood of the post race. While NASCAR says the caution was for debris elsewhere on the track, ESPN showed Keselowski tossing a water bottle out of his car and implied that the caution was for the garbage. When the cars stopped on pit road after the race, Harvick approached Keselowski and gave him an earful about the move that he felt cost him the race. In the postrace press conference, the two traded barbs before the official question and answer session and Harvick gave Keselowski a playful slap on the neck as he exited the dais. Rest assured, this won’t be the last we’ll hear about ‘Bottlegate’.
While Stenhouse won the race and scored 47 points, Sadler finished fourth and leaves Atlanta still sporting a 12-point lead over last year’s series champion. Sam Hornish, Jr. finished ninth and sits 32 points in arrears to Sadler. Austin Dillon, the highest finishing rookie in the race crossed the line in sixth and is 37 points back. Allgaier caps off the top five in points but is a distant 94 back and is essentially out of the title hunt.
*Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.* had a perfect opportunity to stand pat and finish the race in second or third, staying content with a solid points result. Instead, he listened to the wishes of the fans, who have been screaming for years about the lack of aggression in order to “save for the championship,” and he went for the win. The bold move to the outside on the final lap, after nearly wrecking from the push he received on the front straight from Keselowski, plus the subsequent victory proves that there are still some competitors in the sport who will let it all hang out — damn the consequences.
(Kevin Harvick* won’t want to hear it, but his car was unbelievably good. Were it not for a debris caution on lap 106, he almost certainly would have lapped the field. Sadly for him, as is all too often the case in racing, the fastest car did not win the race.
*Justin Allgaier* might have stolen the show from everyone were it not for the final caution of the night that brought out the red flag and led to the two-lap shootout for the win. Allgaier’s crew chief Jimmy Elledge observed all of his competition short pitting once their window opened to make it to the end of the race on fuel on their penultimate runs. Elledge decided to stretch his fuel and hope for a caution. The disputed caution on lap 184 fell as Harvick was within feet of passing Allgaier for the lead. Allgaier was the only lead lap car to pit on that caution and came out with tires that were 13 laps fresher than anyone else’s. He moved from ninth to sixth on the one lap before the final caution, but only gained one more spot on the last two laps. Had the final eight laps gone green, he just might have stolen the show (along with Keselowski’s fresh rubber) thanks to the fact that tires actually matter at Atlanta.
*NASCAR or ESPN:* whoever is responsible for showing the debris that results in a caution being thrown. When the disputed yellow flag came out on lap 184, ESPN showed video of Keselowski throwing the water bottle out of his car – a clear insinuation that was the “debris” which caused the slowdown. They never showed anything else that would have remotely represented a reason why the cars had to be brought in check. What happens when you do that, especially in this age of crew members being able to check out the live TV broadcast? Harvick felt that Keselowski intentionally threw it out to bring out a caution and robbed the two-time Nationwide champion of the win; now, there’s a conflict between the two. With NASCAR’s continued credibility issue over debris cautions, this dispute could have easily been avoided if the television broadcast had shown the actual “yellow flag” debris. And if NASCAR is lying about the reason for the yellow? Shame on them.
While the engineers were able to find punctures in all but one of the tires that failed during the NRA American Warrior 300, *there seemed to be quite a few tires shredded during the race.* At least five in particular failed, with the resulting incidents ruining the nights of at least three drivers. Reed Sorenson started the night with a strong run but had it ended when his right-front tire failed and he took Robert Richardson into the wall with him. While Richardson ran some more laps, he ended the night 31st. Kasey Kahne’s night also turned sour thanks to his right rear tire coming apart and eventually putting him multiple laps down. While tire durability it seldom a problem these days thanks to the ultra durable tires that Goodyear has developed, it seemed as though something was amiss Saturday night.
Everyone knows that cars start and park in races. It is a fact that has existed for years and in the modern era seldom affects more than a couple of teams who legitimately want to race from time to time. For whatever reason, the teams that practice the start and park technique now go through the charade of pulling their cars onto pit road for a pseudo inspection to discover the ‘issue’ with their car before pulling it behind the wall. Some 10 cars pulled the stunt on Saturday, where the car pulls into the pit box, a crew member (usually a single person in the pit box or one of two people) jumps over the wall, looks under the back of the car, and then motions to the driver that they should pull it off the track. When anyone who can see, and even some of the blind fans of racing have noted, that the cars are parking because they have no intention of running the race, why can’t they just pull into the garage rather than going through this foolish exercise? Please give NASCAR fans a little more credit and stop this ludicrous practice.
As mentioned before, Harvick gave Keselowski a playful slap on the neck as he was exiting the post race press conference. Keselowski realizes how this game is played and doesn’t let much of anything bother him, so nothing came of the gesture. However, you can bet he also won’t forget that it happened. Had it been another driver, possibly one who just last week launched a helmet at a car after a ‘racing incident’, the outcome could have been different. Drivers are all big boys and one would hope that they wouldn’t result to fisticuffs over something playful like that, but it wouldn’t have surprised too many people if it had escalated. Let’s hope that it was an isolated incident and it doesn’t start a feud between two of the more colorful personalities in the garage.
*Underdog Performer of the Race*
While some might give the award to Michael Annett for his top 10 finish, or Danica Patrick for coming home 13th, both of those drivers run for bigger organizations. Our shoutout goes to *Joe Nemechek.* ‘Front Row’ Joe soldiers on every week in this series on a shoestring budget that is largely funded out of his own pocket and the winnings he’s able to garner from his efforts in the Cup Series. Nemechek caught a piece of the final caution of the night but was able to bring his car home in 14th. While it isn’t his best finish of the year, he has not scored a top 10 all season and this is the first time he has scored back-to-back top 15 finishes.
Start and Parkers occupied at least 12 of the 43 starting positions, taking home $129,842.
Cup Regulars occupied 3 of the top-10 finishing positions, took up 5 of the starting 43 spots and pocketed $100,285.
274 of 1,032 starting positions occupied (26.6%)
$5,642,973 dollars won
12 of 24 trophies collected (50%)
*The Final Word*
* It is a basic tenet of racing that most of the time, the fastest car doesn’t win. Saturday night saw it happen once again as Kevin Harvick was in another zip code from the rest of the field for the entire race but circumstances conspired against him at the end and he came home in third. The pill was doubly bitter for Harvick to swallow because it appeared as though another competitor caused a caution which eventually stole the win from him. Hopefully the sanctioning body will be able to point out to him that, in fact, the caution was not caused by a water bottle and that it was a legitimate piece of debris that brought out that next to last caution that bunched the field and ultimately robbed Harvick of the win.
* On a positive note, it was great to see a driver, embroiled in the heat of the points battle, lay it all on the line and go for the win rather than settle for a ‘good points night’. That kind of attitude is what the sport needs to bring more fans back into the fold and fill the stands with the bodies that it used to see.
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