Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Matt Kenseth struggled in the first stage of Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. A speeding penalty on pit road left the 2003 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion a lap down in 31st after the first round of green-flag pit stops.
Kenseth was able to recover to finish 24th in Stage 1, but then had to restart at the tail end of the field due to another speeding penalty at the start of the second stage. He finished 18th in Stage 2, driving up to 14th and getting the free pass position on a mid-race caution. The Wisconsin native was running fifth when the final caution of the day came out with 16 laps to go, advancing to third when the checkered flag waved.
“Yeah, it was a good comeback,” Kenseth said. “It was an uphill battle all day. For some reason, our speed was off on pit road and we got two penalties there that put us behind and just the cautions fell and everything and it took all day to get our laps and get back in position, so everything kind of when our way at the end, except for that outside restart hurt us, but we had a good car and glad we got a decent result.”
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Stewart-Haas Racing hasn’t lost a step in their transition from Chevrolet to Ford. In fact, they might even be better than they were at the end of last year.
In addition to Kevin Harvick’s dominance for much of the race from the pole, and Kurt Busch backing up his Daytona 500 victory by finishing sixth today, Clint Bowyer bounced back from smacking the wall on Lap 279 to finish 11th. Danica Patrick finished 17th, five positions above her average finish of 22nd in 2016.
On the flip side, Joe Gibbs Racing seems to be struggling to begin the season after dominating the last two. Though Kenseth finished third, Kyle Busch was a non-factor the entire race and finished 16th, Daniel Suarez finished 21st and Denny Hamlin finished 38th after the rear track bar mount broke. It might be a step back, bad luck, or maybe the Ford teams are just plain better than them this year. We’ll see as the series goes west next week.
Where… did the pole-sitter and the defending race winner end up?
Kevin Harvick dominated the majority of the race from the pole, leading 292 of the first 311 laps and winning the first two stages. But a pit road speeding penalty on the final stop sent Harvick to the tail end of the field. The 2014 Cup Series champion sliced and diced his way back up to ninth when the checkered flag fell to end the race.
Jimmie Johnson entered this weekend looking for his third straight victory at Atlanta, a feat no driver has ever done in the history of the 57-year-old speedway. But instead of contending for the win, Johnson spent most of the day a lap down in the pack thanks to a costly speeding penalty in stage one, then having another speeding penalty in the final stage. After taking the wave-around on the final caution, Johnson went to pit road the lap before the field went back to green and was held a lap due to NASCAR rules. The seven-time champion finished 19th, one lap down.
When… did it all get sideways?
Newman had a penalty under the second-to-last caution due to his front tire changer going over-the-wall too soon and served it by restarting at the tail end of the field. Then, just a few laps after the restart, the No. 31 went into the garage to change the battery. Newman finished 35th, 16 laps down.
With 15 to go, Dillon lost all power to his No. 3 Chevrolet coming into turn three and didn’t go onto pit road on orders of crew chief Slugger Labbe, who banked on Dillon being able to re-fire. He couldn’t, and caused the final caution of the race by stalling out on the apron of turn two.
Why… did Brad Keselowski win?
He didn’t give up. Keselowski had to make an unscheduled pit stop during the second-to-last caution to tighten a loose wheel, and he roared back to fifth before the last restart. Then, after Harvick’s speeding penalty, the inside line on the restart was able to move up and Keselowski restarted third.
Keselowski passed Kyle Larson for the win by psyching the young driver out. Larson, who spent most of the day in the top five by racing the low line of the racetrack, went to the high line to block Keselowski after being passed by the No. 2 Ford on the high side a couple of times before in the race. The end result was that Keselowski simply passed Larson on the inside, then pulled away from him with six to go.
“Everybody stayed focused and nobody had to say anything,” Keselowski said when asked about how his team kept focused after his unscheduled pit stops. “We know the deal. We know that this isn’t going to be easy. You have to keep your head down and keep fighting at all times and that’s what we did.”
Did… anybody remember there’s a speed limit on pit road?
One thing you may have noticed while reading this article: there were a lot of pit road speeding penalties. A grand total of twelve were given throughout the day. To compare, as Chris Myers on the FOX broadcast of the race pointed out, only one speeding penalty was issued in last season’s race at Atlanta. The culprit for such a dramatic shift from year-to-year? A dramatic increase in timing lines on pit road. NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin sounded off about it on Twitter:
I think the pit road speed lines are to close together now. These cars struggle to run a consistent speed and now no time to correct speed.
— Mark Martin (@markmartin) March 5, 2017
Obviously, the largest one of the day was Harvick’s after the last round of pit stops, which denied the dominating driver a chance at a win. The saddest part of Harvick’s penalty? After spending most of last season with a pit crew that failed Harvick at crucial moments, they’ve been perfect these first two races. It took a mistake by Harvick himself to lose the race due to a pit stop, not his own pit crew. If the Cup Series points leader can keep up the pace and his pit crew can continue their good start to the season, this No. 4 Ford could be an even larger obstacle for the rest of the field to overcome every week.