The Headline(s): After missing the final round of qualifying Friday and much of Saturday’s happy hour while battling the stomach flu, Brad Keselowski stormed to the front and preserved just enough of his tires to hold off Martin Truex Jr. to score the first Cup points win for the Ford Mustang. The win was the 28th of Keselowski’s career and his second at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the last three years.
How It Happened: The first two stages of this race looked very much like intermediate races of the past few seasons, even with NASCAR’s vaunted, partial new rules package rolled out. Kyle Larson proved nearly impassable on the high side of the track, leading more than 100 laps, winning stage one and challenging Atlanta-master Kevin Harvick for much of the second stage before Harvick took the victory.
Larson took the lead back as the race entered the final stage and held off a charge from Kyle Busch until a lap 223 caution, which saw him blow a right rear tire on the backstretch. Larson, who won the battle off pit road under that yellow, was busted for speeding and sent back into traffic, from which he’d never recover.
The final 100 laps saw Ford’s Mustangs put their Daytona tribulations in the rear view mirror. A short stint up front by Harvick saw Ryan Blaney take the point on lap 232, the beginning of a Penske blitz at the front of the field. Blaney would hold the lead until a lap 273 yellow for a whopper of an accident on pit road (more on that later), handing the lead to Joey Logano. Logano kept the lead until lap 298, when a hard charging Keselowski took the point and never looked back.
That didn’t deprive the fans of a trademark Atlanta finish though; holding a two second lead with 10 laps to go, Truex cut the gap to less than a quarter second coming to the white flag, though Keselowski’s defensive driving did not allow Truex to make a final charge for the win.
Should You Care? Yes, because on this Sunday, though the racing did look different (as in the cars looked slower, sounded different (all the in-car cameras showed just how little the RPM band changed in these cars over the course of the race), racing at Atlanta was still racing at Atlanta. The Goodyear tires the cars ran on were ripped to shreds lap after lap, cars were able top to bottom all over the track, and, as previously discussed, the race finished just like so many before it; a strung out battle for the lead closed up as the checkered flag approached.
Through a completely unscientific process of comparing intervals from this race to last season’s 500-miler at Atlanta, it’s all the more obvious that the more NASCAR changes the rules, the more the racing stayed the same. 22 laps into last year’s race, the leader led by 0.42 seconds, the fifth place driver was 4.31 seconds back, the tenth place driver 10.46 seconds. 22 laps into Sunday’s race? 2.09 seconds, 4.09 seconds, and 7.54 seconds.
Roughly 25 laps into the second stage, 1.26 seconds vs. 0.62 seconds, 3.90 seconds vs. 4.86 seconds, and 9.45 seconds vs. 9.13 seconds. Roughly 25 laps into the final stage, 0.56 seconds vs. 0.59 seconds, 7.59 seconds vs. 4.25 seconds, 12.39 seconds vs. 9.00 seconds. To the naked eye on the race track, no difference whatsoever.
The takeaway? This package was not the apocalypse it could have been; Sunday’s race was worth watching. This package also did just about nothing to improve/change racing at Atlanta; Harvick won a stage in an Atlanta race for the third consecutive year, Keselowski finished on the podium for the third consecutive year, Truex was a close also-ran for the third consecutive year.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be more representative of what intermediate oval racing in 2019 will look like. Sunday’s Atlanta race saw the ancient asphalt star again. Every year it survives is another year to indulge.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
The stakes were nowhere near as high as Michael Jordan’s “flu game”, but Keselowski’s performance less than 24 hours removed from stomach flu that kept him out of the car for much of Saturday’s happy hour practice was a memorable one nonetheless. The accomplishments that Keselowski checked off with Sunday’s win are myriad. The No. 2 team is now locked into the playoffs, giving them 24 races to test with NASCAR’s new rules package before the stakes actually ramp up. Keselowski and crew shook off a disappointing Speedweeks in which they were a non-factor, passing power players Harvick, Truex and Logano to score this win.
The proud driver scored his 60th career win with Team Penske, breaking the organization’s all-time record previously held by open-wheel legend Mark Donohue.
And just like Denny Hamlin the week before him, Keselowski put a disappointing 2018 in the rear-view mirror by winning early, and doing so with a driving performance of note. Though it’s hard to call a 2018 that saw Penske’s No. 2 team win the Southern 500, the Brickyard 400 and three races in a row in September, the reality is Keselowski was never a serious factor in the title chase, bowing out of the playoffs in the round of 12 after another non-factor performance in a plate race at Talladega.
Teammate Logano shook off a disappointing 2017 and ended up winning the Cup title last year. He’s going to have plenty of title defense challenges coming out of his own Penske shop.
The driver that nearly stole this win from Keselowski, Truex, went from the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver to finish outside the top five at Daytona to carrying the flag for his new team at Atlanta. Despite complaining for seemingly the entire 500 miles Sunday (Truex got snippy with crew chief Cole Pearn during the first stage over tire wear, threatened to ram Logano’s Ford off the jack on pit road after nearly being blocked in his stall and lambasted every single lap car in the field for not getting out of the way), Truex was arguably the most consistent and most potent JGR Toyota in the field. Their strength on the intermediates was apparently not left in Denver.
In his 650th Cup start, Kurt Busch scored the first podium finish on an oval for Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 team since Texas last spring with a third-place result, and his first podium finish at Atlanta since winning the spring race in 2010 (ironically, in Team Penske’s No. 2 car).
Daniel Hemric was running in the fourth position inside of 15 laps to go before having to pit for a late tire issue. Considering how only his fourth Cup start began (Hemric spun on pit road coming to his box), Sunday was quite the performance.
Harvick’s fourth-place finish marked his fifth consecutive top-10 finish at Atlanta. Aric Almirola finished eighth after winning his first pole since 2012.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Daytona 500 darling Ryan Preece was on a crash course with superstardom, leading a top-10 charge that saw both JTG Chevrolets running in the top 10 inside of 100 laps to go at Atlanta. Then came one of the worst mistakes pit road has seen in recent memory.
Preece, “looking down at his tachometer” as the driver admitted, plowed into the back of BJ McLeod exiting pit road, destroying the front end of his No. 47 Chevrolet and sending him to the garage. As far as “rookie” mistakes go, this one was about as bad as they come. We’ll just leave this Tweet here:
— MJ Dobreski (@MJD_310) February 24, 2019
Now, having pointed out Preece’s mistake, let’s be very very clear here: McLeod was not without fault for this incident. As repeated viewings of Preece’s visor cam made clear, McLeod was crawling down pit road in the outside lane as Preece exited his stall. His lack of speed was one issue, and as FOX’s Mike Joy pointed out, when McLeod pulled into the pit stalls, he was still five stalls away from his own when Preece hit him. And though the same Rick Ware Racing that spent the week after winning the bonehead of Daytona Beach trophy bashing this outlet in social media, their own driver conceded that yes, this one wasn’t solely on Preece:
— Tom Bowles From Frontstretch.com (@NASCARBowles) February 24, 2019
Two weeks into the Cup scene, two race-altering incidents on pit road.
While Truex’s hours-long tirade on the radio will likely be shrugged off thanks to a top 5 finish, the same may not be the case for Austin Dillon, who within 20 laps of taking the green Sunday saw any momentum from a strong qualifying effort Friday go out the window. Dillon dropped like a rock in the opening laps, and before the end of the first stage was heard eviscerating his team for their bodywork decisions leading into the race:
Dillon finished off the lead lap in 21st.
Larson leaves Atlanta with a playoff point courtesy of a Stage 1 win, and led 142 laps in Sunday’s race. However, as has been the case more often than not in his Cup career, leading loads of laps early did not translate into a race win. Larson was busted for speeding after pitting (and winning the race off pit road) under a lap 223 caution, and was never able to make it back through the field in the final 100 laps. Seen this movie before? The Hollywood Hotel certainly had:
.@KyleLarsonRacin failed to win last 5 races after he led the most laps – 4 Times last season. This is the 9th time Larson led 124 or more laps in a race. He failed to win previous 8 times.
— Patrick Perrin (@P2Inc) February 24, 2019
For all the strength seen early in this race, Larson is leaving Atlanta with a lot more questions than answers. Especially on a day that saw his new teammate finish in the top five.
Insight, Opinions and Fake News
The fact that this Atlanta race surface, which appears to be more sealant than asphalt at this point, suffered from no weepers despite being under constant moisture for nearly 24 hours Saturday is a testament to the work of the AMS track crew. And even with chunks of that sealant proving hazardous to front grills (ask Clint Bowyer) and FOX’s turn 3 camera, the surface it’s keeping together kept pack racing from unfolding hours east of Talladega and delivered another race worth watching. I’m with Tyler Reddick when it comes to repaving:
— Tyler Reddick (@TylerReddick) February 24, 2019
The issues seen with Sunday’s race were exacerbated not by the rules package or the track surface/configuration, but a frustratingly narrow coverage window provided by FOX. Those not following along with the radio, Internet or some other social media to complement the broadcast weren’t aware that Garrett Smithley spent much of the first half of the race behind the wall, that Landon Cassill cut a tire down in the first 10 laps of Sunday’s race, that Michael McDowell’s strong performance in qualifying Friday was derailed by a broken tie rod well short of the finish, that Matt DiBenedetto was forced to pit road with a tire rub immediately following the lap 178 restart…hell, anything that happened to a driver outside the top 20 not named Busch or Larson (or McLeod).
The same lack of detail applied at the front of the field, while the booth reiterated on multiple occasions that Keselowski was driving under the weather, there was no reference to his falling from sixth to 17th during the second stage thanks to a broken jack. This keeps up, and we at Frontstretch might have to bring back our old 2010 practice of inventorying drivers in the field that go unmentioned over the course of four hour marathon broadcasts. FOX, you’ve been warned.
Now having said that, credit where credit’s due. FOX’s sidebar feature calling out Georgia late model standout Bubba Pollard was both unexpected and a spot on inclusion for a sport trying to reconnect with its roots. Spotlighting a local short track ace each race would be a very welcome addition to the broadcast.
After seeing Christopher Bell and Kyle Busch ruthlessly stomp out any hope of their Toyotas being challenged seriously in the Xfinity and Truck races Saturday, it was almost a relief to see Harvick’s vaunted No. 4 come back to earth this Sunday. NASCAR must be over the moon that for two consecutive weeks, the Cup Series has been the best race of the weekend.
Remember what I wrote last week about NASCAR’s awful charter system and how Rick Ware Racing is benefiting to an almost criminal degree from it? A week later, it’s still relevant.
Now having said that, RWR might have a friend in Keselowski because there’s no driver in the field of late that has benefited more from back marker incidents changing the course of races. Keselowski’s team used masterful pit strategy to win both the Southern 500 and Brickyard 400 last season despite not being contenders until late in those events. In both cases, those strategies were made possible by late-race incidents involving an off-the-pace, erratic Jeffrey Earnhardt (who was anything but in scoring a top five in Saturday’s Xfinity race).
Now, this Sunday, Keselowski ended up benefiting from a lap traffic shuffle that left him one of only a handful of lead lap cars after the Preece/McLeod incident on pit road occurred in the middle of green flag stops. Harvick may have competition for the “closer” title if this trend keeps up.
That “closer” title, however, won’t apply if Team Penske doesn’t get their performance on pit road sorted out, fast. Keselowski losing 11 spots on pit road during Stage 2 due to a broken jack is hard luck. But it wasn’t hard luck that saw Keselowski overshoot his pit box under yellow following the Preece/McLeod episode.
It wasn’t hard luck that saw Blaney overshoot his box and then proceed to back up with the jack inserted under his car, taking the No. 12 out of contention after leading 41 laps. And it wasn’t hard luck that saw Logano have to give up second place in the running order to pit under green with a loose wheel inside of 20 laps to go.
We’ll close this section on pit road, seeing as it’s seen almost as much attrition as the race track thus far in 2019. For one, NASCAR needs to make up its mind on whether pit road safety is going to be of paramount importance or not. After last week’s Truck race saw one of the most horrifying pit road incidents in recent memory after Bryan Dauzat’s brakes failed and he hit his jackman, Sunday’s race saw another crewman sent to the care center after the Preece/McLeod debacle.
Two injuries in two weeks is perhaps an overdue reminder of just how dangerous pit road is in big league racing. Yet just 48 hours before this incident, group qualifying at Atlanta saw Dillon and Bowyer barreling down pit road to make a lap, with Dillon coming within inches of forcing Bowyer into the wall on pit exit.
I’ve never been a fan of group qualifying (though changing the length of the first and second rounds from 15 minutes to 10 was a welcome improvement), but if NASCAR is going to stick with groups (and insist that pit road safety is important) they need to do something to prevent the type of literal racing seen on pit road this Friday.
And while on the topic of pit road speed, there’s another hard question to ask beyond Larson’s ability to close races. That is, do race fans really want to see big league NASCAR races decided by whether a driver’s tachometer has them going 50.1 mph on pit road instead of 49.9? Pit road speed, it can easily be argued, decided Sunday’s race. Larson, the driver who led the most laps Sunday, never recovered from his speeding penalty, and Preece’s inattention on pit road was exacerbated by McLeod’s snail’s pace on pit road, causing a caution that interrupted a cycle of green flag pit stops and shuffled the field inside the final 100 miles.
The technology is easily there to make pit road speed a button to hit on the dash as opposed to a frustratingly imprecise practice behind the wheel. And frankly, I’d rather see a race decided on the track at full speed, rather than in the pits at highway speed.
Best Paint Scheme: Kyle Larson There’s been no shortage of McDonald’s cars in big league NASCAR racing, but this one stood out. Especially when Darrell Wallace’s No. 43 was also in the field to remind us how ugly a Golden Arches scheme can turn out.
The McDonald’s Ice Cream Machine Trophy: Larson’s tachometer. Runner up to Wallace’s race car. For context, see here:
— Haseeb Design (@HaseebDesign) February 24, 2019
Do You Know Who I Am? Martin Truex Jr. Come on Cup racers! This man won the 2017 Cup championship. Clearly, every car not in the top 5 should yield to the No. 19!
I Thought This Was a Tesla: Ryan Preece and BJ McLeod, who were clearly in autopilot mode when they collided on pit road.
The FOX Iron Man Trophy: Kyle Busch Because nothing says “iron man” like a driver that won a championship after missing 11 races with injury. Come on FOX. There’s plenty of appropriate adjectives to describe Busch’s talent and accomplishments that don’t equate him with the Cal Ripkens and Ricky Rudds of the world.
The Daytona 500 Front Row trophies: The way Hendrick Motorsports is running, that may be the only hardware they take home in 2019.
Where it Rated: This race was a good, not great, visit to The Varsity. There’s few things on earth an old-school cheeseburger and shake won’t cure, even if this Sunday’s “whaddaya have” came off a bit rude and was served without a smile.
What’s the Points?
We’re two races into the season. Come back after the West Coast swing is done.
Dust Off the VCR
NASCAR heads west to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway next Sunday. Coverage of the Pennzoil 400 from Sin City begins at 3:30 p.m. ET on Fox.