(Photo: NASCAR Media/Getty Images)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta

The Headline(s): The meaning of Harvicking has changed since Kevin Harvick played childish instigator on Brad Keselowski at Texas Motor Speedway in 2014. Now, it means dominating at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which is what the No. 4 team did on Sunday, June 7, leading 151 laps en route to an easy win. The victory was Harvick’s second of 2020, 51st career in Cup and 112th overall in NASCAR’s three main national touring series. In a further departure from 2014 Harvicking, paying tribute to both Dale Earnhardt and Alan Kulwicki on his victory lap was a classy move. 

Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top-five finishers. Further back, Bubba Wallace was taken to the infield care center post-race after fainting during a TV interview on pit road. Both Wallace and Josh Bilicki were treated and released from the care center later in the evening.

WALLACE TREATED, RELEASED FROM INFIELD CARE CENTER

How it Happened: Chase Elliott cruised from the pole to lead the first 25 laps up to the competition caution, which saw Joey Logano’s crew win the race off pit road for the No. 22. Logano then held the lead through a lap 31 restart that saw William Byron tag the wall in turn 3. Six laps later, Harvick took the point for the first time.

The No. 4 retained the lead through the first cycle of green-flag stops, cycling through on lap 69. Harvick would lose the lead to a lurking Truex on lap 87, though the first stage win for Truex wouldn’t come easy. The yellow flew on lap 95 when John Hunter Nemechek spun exiting turn 4.

Maintaining the point off pit road, Truex bested Harvick on a lap 100 restart that saw the No. 4 spin its tires in the outside line. With Harvick struggling in the closing laps and Tyler Reddick dropping from the top 10 with a tire issue, Truex won stage one.

Clint Bowyer prevailed during stage break pit stops and led the field to green at the lap 113 restart, battling with Truex for the lead over the next four laps. Weathering a challenge from Elliott, Bowyer would stay out front until lap 147 when forced to pit early for a cording issue on his right-rear tire. Bowyer would recycle to the lead on lap 163, but the extended run on his Goodyears would cost the No. 14, as Truex blew by for the lead on lap 185. Bowyer’s team would get a bailout on lap 202, though when Michael McDowell spun exiting turn 4 after apparent contact from teammate Nemechek.

Rowdy bested teammate Truex off pit road during the ensuing stops, but it would be Truex that prevailed on the lap 207 restart. Though the No. 19 started on the outside, Busch failed to get a push from Harvick on the restart, allowing Truex to use some high-side momentum to take the lead and a stage two win.

Again winning the race off pit road, Busch lost the lead after the lap 218 restart when Harvick bested him again on the high side. By this point in the race, Harvick checked out, leading until pitting from the top spot on lap 269. After Logano pitted around lap 272, Harvick reassumed the lead for good. Though Bowyer, Ryan Preece and Matt DiBenedetto all experienced tire issues in the closing laps, none brought out a yellow flag, and the No. 4 cruised to victory.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Harvick did what Harvick does at Atlanta: yet another convincing win. The rest of the Cup field should be breathing a sigh of relief in this playoff format that Atlanta doesn’t have its October race date anymore.

Listening to Toyota fans and the FOX booth lament how slow a start to 2020 it’s been for Joe Gibbs Racing has been the 2020 equivalent of listening to Jimmie Johnson fans cry a decade ago they’d never win another title because the No. 48 didn’t win 20 of the 26 regular season races. This Sunday, the Gibbs Toyotas won both stages and placed the three Camrys of Rowdy, Truex and Hamlin inside the top five. JGR fans, the horror.

After being forced to take a pass-through pit penalty in the opening laps for three pre-race inspection failures, Kurt Busch got the lucky dog under the competition caution. He charged back in the top 15 by the first stage break, then climbed to sixth as the top Chevrolet driver by race’s end. The FOX booth raised a good question about what the elder Busch could have done if he had started in 12th rather than 40th. 

Despite giving Truex a run for his money in the whining about lapped traffic department Sunday, Johnson carried the Hendrick Motorsports banner with a seventh-place finish. The result was Johnson’s first top 10 at Atlanta since 2016.

While Keselowski faded after an awkward final pit stop, Team Penske still enjoyed a strong day, with Blaney scoring his first career top five (and top 10, for that matter) at Atlanta. Also of note, Logano finished 10th despite incurring damage after contact on pit road with Matt Kenseth during a yellow-flag stop. Of all the drivers that had serious pit road issues Sunday, only Logano pulled that off.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

HMS was not lacking for speed this weekend, but Byron’s shot at even being relevant in Sunday’s race went out the door on lap 31 courtesy of a flat left-rear tire. 

It took six laps on pit road to repair the machine, which would limp home 33rd. Byron now sits 20 points outside the playoff cutline.

Quin Houff did his best Joey Gase at Bristol Motor Speedway impression Sunday. Houff got a warning from NASCAR after nearly wrecking Elliott on the frontstretch after failing to hold his line. He also incurred radio wrath from Kyle Busch on multiple occasions. Despite that, Houff still outran all the Rick Ware Racing cars (32nd). 

Both Bowyer and DiBenedetto lost out on top-10 finishes thanks to tire wear that forced them to make an extra pit stop in the final stage. Tough luck.

Though Jones was the first of the JGR Toyotas to show speed Sunday, charging into the top 10 within the first 12 laps, Sunday’s race became a comedy of errors. First, he had to swerve to avoid a pit road wreck on lap 95 after Reddick made a late turn into his box. The end of the first stage then saw Jones complaining about a sticky throttle under green-flag conditions. Come lap 209, he found himself having issues on track with Christopher Bell for the second time in recent memory, this time as part of a four-wide logjam. 

Coupled with a late-race pit road speeding penalty, the No. 20 ended up three laps down in 28th, equaling Jones’ worst finish of 2020.

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

NASCAR’s longstanding wish to join the ranks of professional stick-and-ball sports has been realized, with Sunday’s pre-race show and pace laps entirely politicized. Between this Sunday’s sudden show of awareness, concern, whatever you want to call it, coupled with the campaign ad that the season’s Daytona 500 pre-race became, NASCAR has crossed the Rubicon into overt political activism. Those of us that watch for escape and don’t give a flying F about what millionaire athletes of all colors/creeds do/say/think other than wheeling their damned cars safely get to grin and bear it. NASCAR would do well to take note that there’s no need to buy tickets to real life.

Speaking of NASCAR emulating real life, for the second year in a row pit road proved to be every bit as hazardous as traffic on Atlanta’s infamous highways. Drivers on pit road incurred eight speeding penalties. Logano and Kenseth both received damage on pit road Sunday. Matt Crafton nearly destroyed his front end in a pit road accident in Saturday’s Gander & RV Outdoors Truck Series race. Lastly, Bowyer was irate having to deal with Truex playing games with pit exit trying to avoid having to restart on the outside lane. Can you say choose cone?

There’s an irony to Bowyer complaining about pit road safety, however, as it was Bowyer front and center of a high-speed drag race with Austin Dillon off pit road during group qualifying at Atlanta just a year ago that saw his Ford nearly slam into the pit wall during live competition.

Continuing on the irony train, though he wasn’t the only driver to have trouble with a rookie corporate teammate on Sunday (see: Nemechek and McDowell), it’s hardly surprising to see Bell and Jones having a tough time with each other on track. For one, Bell is certainly Jonesing for the No. 20 car in 2021. And two, who can forget this gem?

There’s no getting around it, Sunday’s race was a snoozer, picking right up from Saturday night’s sedative of an IndyCar race at Texas. First things first, a history lesson for those advocating that Atlanta Motor Speedway ought to be reconfigured. Atlanta is owned by SMI, the same company that levigated Charlotte Motor Speedway and reconfigured Texas to be the sleep-inducing nightmare it was Saturday. Do not tell SMI to reconfigure an intermediate oval. Ever. Again. Nor do they need to repave the glorious worn asphalt at Atlanta. This tweet isn’t an exaggeration.

But, even more prevalent than social media posts about changing AMS were those that didn’t want to see 500-mile Cup races continue at the track. One even went as far as to suggest a new name for the event.

This criticism is completely misguided. For one, the 500-mile distance isn’t the problem here. Rewind back to the early 2000s and Atlanta’s 500-milers were all but guaranteed to feature compelling racing and a photo finish. Up the horsepower, shorten the spoilers and get away from this asinine 2020 procedure of stages breaking races into virtual thirds instead of allowing for a lengthy final segment to encompass pit strategy. You do that and Hotlanta will live up to its name again in more than just air temperature.

On that note, while Wallace’s fainting spell during post-race remarks was concerning, seeing both he and Ryan Newman in literal exhaustion is concrete evidence as to why 500-mile races remain a necessity in the Cup ranks. Yes, the cars have gotten rock solid to a point 500 miles isn’t the test it used to be, but it does push the drivers to their limits. That’s important. The difference between 300-mile Xfinity races and 312-mile Cup races is not enough to separate the two, especially given that Cup already has too many outclassed drivers in its ranks as is.

Besides, from a race fan’s perspective, I’d wager cutting the race distance wouldn’t do a damn thing to cut ticket prices.

There may well be a reason that the drivers of Rick Ware Racing amalgamation at the back of the field change numbers seemingly every race. But the continual change of entry number had Mike Joy completely befuddled when he confused the No. 7 of Reed Sorenson with Bilicki as he was being lapped around lap 50. If the shuffle is too confusing for the folks actually covering the race, it begs the question of how these drivers and teams are ever going to build the type of identity and recognition that would actually be conducive to finding a sponsor and some stability at the racetrack. 

As mentioned earlier, the pass-through penalty Kurt Busch incurred for failing pre-race inspection three times was nullified by lap 25, as the competition caution gave him an easy free pass back to the lead lap. Between competition cautions becoming routine practice, drivers starting from the rear easily winning stages and NASCAR since last year playing fast and loose with the “start at the tail end” rules, it seems most penalties thrown at the top Cup cars in 2020 have lost their bite. For this week, we’ll stick with Kurt’s episode, and ask the question: is failing pre-race inspection really that big a deal? It’s not like the No. 1 team gets any benefit from having to continually reset their hot rod that close to race day, and they’re obviously not gaining any competitive advantage in pre-race. Why not just let this faux drama go?

It was comedic to watch much of NASCAR’s driver and media corps get all social-justicey for much of Tuesday, only to go on a rampage Tuesday night about the decision to add Nashville Superspeedway to the 2021 Cup schedule instead of the Fairgrounds short track. I say that because the entire pipe dream of Cup racing returning to a refurbished fairgrounds hinges on an SMI proposal that is nearly entirely funded by taxpayer dollars, while the Superspeedway deal involved NASCAR giving owner Dover Motorsports Inc. a four-year sanctioning contract to ensure their (apparently private) investment in the facility can be returned. The borders of activism are ever blurry. 

In discussing the 2021 schedule last year, I brought up returning to the Superspeedway as a stepping stone for a revamped calendar that is going to likely disappoint. It’s not a short track, but this is a win for the Cup schedule. It’s a new venue taking a date from Dover that a) doesn’t remove Dover from the schedule (please don’t) and b) from a track that hasn’t put on much of a show of late. It’s a track configuration not currently on the Cup schedule. It brings a ghost track back to life. And it’s a place whose past history is really irrelevant in an era that use of the PJ1 compound has breathed life into tracks across the Cup circuit. And because Twitter can’t get it right even five days later, it is not 1.5 miles long!

I’m going to take it one step further. Put the Fairgrounds pipe down. All of this romantic thinking that Nashville taxpayers are going to cough up money to the same promoters that put on a Bristol spring race at 35% capacity is ridiculous. They would then have to rejuvenate a racetrack within literal yards of a MLS stadium development project that is supposed to include apartments and millions in revenue.

The other problem is this debate has given the entire NASCAR community tunnel vision on the larger issue of adding short tracks to the schedule. Iowa Speedway could host Cup tomorrow. Memphis International Raceway could host Cup tomorrow. And in a post-coronavirus environment, where limits on crowd size are a reality and midweek races have found support among drivers, fan-free midweek races opens the door for a ton of bullrings to host Cup competition. Yes, the Fairgrounds would be rad, but short tracks? They be nationwide. 

I’m not getting into the corn stalks for this one. Paint scheme of the race goes to Blaney.

Who says classy can’t be sexy?

Where it Rated: This race gets one drugged can of room temperature Busch Light. Between the copious amounts of amateur political science and being drowsy for hours at a time, Sunday felt like being on the wrong end of the bar at a shady frat house.

What’s the Point(s)? Hamlin, Logano, Alex Bowman, Harvick, Keselowski and Elliott have locked themselves into the playoffs with race wins. If the postseason started today, Truex, Blaney, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola, Bowyer, Johnson, Dillon, DiBenedetto and Jones would point their way in. Jones holds a 20-point lead over Byron for the final playoff spot.

Up Next: This one hurts. The first ever Martinsville Cup race under the lights will go off on Wednesday night in front of an empty house. Coverage from the first race of the year starts June 10 at 7 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.

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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    I’m with you that shortening races won’t shorten ticket prices, just the ‘bang for the buck’. I confess I was amused that Nascar, that bastion of Republicans, made such a show of supporting ‘BLN’…after Bubba Wallace shamed them into it. Nascar has never been able to do anything with subtilty. I’ts either over the top or nothing. While I admire their support of our military and realize the many of the drivers individually so much to help and support, the excessive gushing at races sometimes edges toward being Nascar’s idea of an easy way to get support from fans. The Bandwagon syndrome. I’m sure many people will hate this, and I’m NOT saying anything against supporting the military, but making sure they publicize it extensively seems more for the benefit of Nascar than the troops.

  2. Avatar

    i don’t know why, except for tv and west coast viewers, the race didn’t start earlier in the day. fox in atlanta has on paid endorsement tv up until the race hub show. it was a muggy weekend all weekend long in atlanta. summertime in the south. just think of what homestead will be next weekend and then dega.

    leaving the house this morning at 5:45 am, the humidity slapped me in the face here west of atlanta.

    i know they have sponsor obligations, but eating mcd’s and chugging coke isn’t good to keep hydrated.

  3. Avatar

    I agree. Are they deaf or just not listening. Playing shell games with tracks a mile or longer is not giving fans what they’ve been asking for…. more short tracks (less than 1 mile).

    I will say if there are two 1.5 mile tracks I would like to see remain it would be Atlanta and Homestead. IMO they usually produce a more interesting race than the rest. And given the fact that they host The 600 and have changed the 2nd date to the roval config, I will give Charlotte the nod to be included. At least Atlanta has tire wear going for it and cars really can rise and fade during a run. Also, any track wear tires are needed before gas gets a point from me. So I will give it 2 and a half cans.

    My biggest gripe was the number of wave arounds. There were a kit as a result of cautions coming out within 10 laps of stage 1 and 2 breaks. Another reason to hate the stage breaks. They take away the uncertainty that make races more interesting. The whole idea is that there is supposed to be a risk factor when someone stays out on old tires. When you know another “caution” will come out in 10 laps there isn’t much risk because you can easily stay on the lead lap.

    I for one am happy when they run 500 mile races. Right now fan attendance at tracks is not an issue, but I can assure you that the distance someone is willing to drive for a race is directly proportional to the length of the race. Harder to justify driving 3 hours each way for a 2 hour race than a 4 hour race.

    I won’t say much about the public service posing by NASCAR other than, the mute button isn’t just for Michael Waltrip.

    Man am I looking forward to Wednesday night’s race. I love Martinsville. I hope the short-track package changes they’ve made this year work. Bristol seemed to be better this year than last year, although that may be as much luck as the result of the changes. Even so, bring it on!

  4. Avatar

    It’s a good thing the event ran long or else a driver who shouldn’t be in the event would have had to scratch an itch on his arm going through turn 4 and almost spin out all by himself again and bring out a caution to set up a GWC to give Baby Busch his win.

    For the event at Martinsville they should qualify the cars at noon and take the top 30 cars because 40 is way too may for a half mile track, just like short tracks all over the countries. We already know which cars they will be. Pay them in the order they qualified as if they finished in that position. They can take the money and not have the expenses, like tires at $2500 a set, if they ran the event.

    • Avatar

      I don’t know about the 30 cars but there is no track where the cone rule is needed more than Martinsville. Being on the outside on a restart is the kiss of death. I used to hate it when I had a driver and he’d get stuck on the outside.
      And sometimes a back marker can pull a decent finish out of a short track like Martinsville. Be lucky and keep your car clean, hope there is some attrition, and you may wind up with a top 10. Being a short track is kind of an equalizer. Horse power and aero are both less important.

      • Avatar

        30 cars will get rid of the cars that everyone knows are in the event to get in the way or cause cautions. But that’s why NA$CAR won’t get rid of them. Gotta get as many restarts as possible. Especially at the end of the events, their vision for the product.

  5. Avatar

    What do you mean first Martinsville race under the lights? They’ve had lights for several years now.

    Or you mean the first race totally at night under the lights? Subtle difference.

    Yes this race was a snoozer, even though my driver won.