ONE: Fords To The Front, Take Two
Camaro who? Camry what? Ford may have the oldest car in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series but they’re certainly learning new tricks to beat their manufacturer competition straight into submission.
Kevin Harvick’s dominating Atlanta performance came with fellow Ford driver Brad Keselowski in tow. Combined, the duo led 219 of 325 laps as part of a 1-2-3 Ford finish with Clint Bowyer. Their Camaro rivals looked more like clunkers by comparison; Chevy’s new 2018 model could do no better than ninth with Kyle Larson.
What’s making the Ford teams click? Early on, it looks like teamwork. The drafting freight trains we saw at Daytona continued this week in the form of comparable setups.
Just look at how each of the multi-car giants fared. Team Penske? Three cars inside the top 12. Joey Logano’s leading the points, Ryan Blaney led the most laps at Daytona and Keselowski was runner-up on Sunday. Stewart-Haas Racing? They had four cars inside the top 13, combining with Penske to put all seven of their drivers on the lead lap.
Even some of the smaller Ford teams are making an impact. Paul Menard showed he wasn’t a one-week wonder; the intermediate-track specialist ran a solid 17th with the Wood Brothers. Front Row Motorsports put both their underdog cars inside the top 25; Michael McDowell sits in a playoff spot two weeks in.
It’s clear the Fusions have a good working relationship with each other and some solid engineering behind them. Two weeks does not a season make, of course; they won the first two races of 2017 before fading into the background. But, so far, they’re off to a flying start.
“It’s a moving target, right? You’re going to — we’re going to go to Vegas with some momentum and some decent racetracks for us coming up, but everybody else around us is working just as hard,” said Stewart-Haas vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli. “They’re not sitting home and just taking time off from work. That’s what makes this sport so interesting. I think it gives us a little confidence working together and what we brought here. But by no means is that a victory for the year.”
TWO: Aric Making Danica Look Silly? And Other SHR News
Speaking of SHR, Sunday showed their growth as a four-car team. Now in their second year with Ford, all cars showed speed with Harvick dominant, Clint Bowyer a surprising third and Kurt Busch a promising eighth. For Bowyer, it’s his first top five at a 1.5-mile track since Homestead in November 2013 while Busch has already led more laps (68) than he did all of last season (16).
But it’s Aric Almirola’s start that has SHR grinning from ear-to-ear. First, he comes a half-lap from Daytona 500 victory before Austin Dillon bumps him into the wall. (Keep in mind that was accomplished with a backup car after Almirola crashed in his Duel qualifying race).
Then, the No. 10 car excelled at Atlanta. Almirola started 11th, stayed within the top 15 virtually all day long and wound up the last lead-lap car in 13th. Already, he has the same number of top-15 runs (two) through two races than Danica Patrick had for the entire first half of last season.
It all makes me wonder what Patrick must be thinking. Perhaps she doesn’t care, on to her many other pursuits (wine, working out, Aaron Rodgers). But as a newly-retired driver, forced out of her No. 10 ride due to lack of sponsorship Almirola’s early success doesn’t make her look very good.
I understand teams change, new drivers mean fresh chemistry and sometimes, it’s just the wrong fit (see: Joey Logano, Gibbs). But Almirola has come into a No. 10 car that never worked right for Danica and, almost immediately, it’s a weekly contender. The rest of SHR has also seen their performance lift up in the first two races A.D. (after Danica).
It’s certainly not all Danica’s fault; it never was. But Almirola is making it look like the driver was a part of the problem here.
THREE: The Hendrick Horror Show
What in the world is going on with Hendrick Motorsports? If the playoffs started today, do you know not one of their four drivers would make the field? (Gasp).
Chase Elliott, Georgia’s hometown boy fought inside the top 10 Sunday but it felt like far too much work. His frustration was magnified by Alex Bowman (20th) who looked nothing like his pole-winning self from a week ago. Jimmie Johnson (27th) was the only driver to spin out during the race, looking like a shell of his former self. The 42-year-old has now gone eight straight races without a top-10 finish; that’s the longest drought of his Cup Series career.
But the guy I’m watching (and worrying) about thus far is much-heralded rookie William Byron. He was an invisible 18th at Atlanta one week after wrecking multiple times in the Daytona 500. Keep in mind Byron is driving the remnants of a No. 5, formerly Kasey Kahne team that spent years as the Hendrick caboose. Technology these days means a great driver can only do so much to make up the gap. Is the teenager due for a letdown, the first of his NASCAR career? And what happens the first time he hits a wall? (Figuratively, not literally, guys).
FOUR: Atlanta’s Awkward Imbalance
It was one of the more bizarre races, really we’ve seen the past few years. Harvick laid waste to the field at Atlanta; if not for a late caution, Keselowski would have been the only driver to finish within 15 seconds of the No. 4. We’d have likely seen just six cars finish on the lead lap… maybe less.
And yet the different lines and aging pavement at this 1.5-mile track kept it interesting. There was passing everywhere, even if FOX stayed stubborn and followed Harvick around far too much. Pit strategies from Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano kept fans guessing on the winner; Harvick’s push through the field after a poor pit stop was fun to watch.
It feels like Atlanta is a Cup track that still has character. But that’s not enough to get fans to come. Reports on the ground had campers at an all-time low surrounding the speedway. Camera shots showed the crowd was, eh, only about average at best. That’s not good for a one-race track badly in need of (expensive) repaving and its owners looking to maximize profit margin.
Sure, the weather may have had something to do with it. But it’s also why Atlanta once saw its late winter date moved in the first place. Is a schedule switch coming once again? It may be a last-ditch effort to keep this underrated track from becoming the next North Wilkesboro/Rockingham casualty.
FIVE: Has It Really Been 16 Years?
Finally this week, Harvick’s trip to Atlanta Victory Lane was an emotional one. It’s been 16 years since his first Cup win there, a side-by-side duel with Jeff Gordon to the checkered less than a month after the sport lost Dale Earnhardt Sr.
“It means a lot to me,” he said Sunday. “It’s funny and ironic how all these things line up, and it’s kind of ironic how we wound up in Victory Lane that day, and Dale’s teams won the first two races and we were able to win the next race in 2001. You see that No. 3 back in Victory Lane and us back in Victory Lane tonight, it’s just almost — it’s just how it’s meant to be.
“I think for me, to be able to kind of do that celebration again, very similar to what we did in 2001, I’ve been waiting a long time, because 2001 was very confusing. It was my first win and don’t feel like I remember really anything about it because it was just such a really confusing time in my life, and just on the racetrack and with Dale gone and getting in his car… so it felt good to pay tribute to that and park it in Victory Lane with a smile on my face and watch everybody smile with me.”
It’s a long way from the brash 25-year-old rookie, thrust into the spotlight into the 41-year-old veteran we see today. Rare is the athlete that can compete straight from one generation to the next and Harvick clearly appreciates the opportunity to look back – while still on top of his game.
“I said and did a lot of dumb things,” he said of 2001. “I guess you could call them building blocks and now we can laugh about them, but it was entertaining at the time. Got me a couple of vacations. Richard chewed me out a lot.”
“But for me right now the sport is what enthuses me and kind of is very intriguing to me because there’s a lot of things that need some help and guidance with so many of the young guys coming up through the ranks, and there’s so much to learn. But we have to teach them about it. Jimmie Johnson and myself have talked about it. Somebody has to explain to them how things work and show them the ropes. And that to me is fun.
“For me, I’ve just got a much better appreciation of how cool it is to sit in that race car and really enjoy the things that I do.”