Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Today: Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Kevin Harvick absolutely destroyed the field in a performance reminiscent of the ass-kicking Martin Truex Jr. laid on everyone in last year’s Coca-Cola 600.
But there was a big difference. Truex finished off his win, where Harvick blew it with a speeding penalty Sunday on the final pit stop.
At least Harvick owned up to the error after ripping his pit crew multiple times last season when they cost him races. This time, the pit crew was outstanding all day long — and Harvick was the one who failed to close.
“I just made a mistake that I preach all the time that you don’t need to make and beat yourself, and then you go out and make it yourself instead of following all the things you preach,” he said. “That part is hard for me to swallow.”
The talk coming out of Atlanta will focus on his mistake, but in reality, there’s a huge moral victory to be had. The fact Harvick could come out in the first intermediate track race of the season after switching to Ford and be that good is a really positive sign for the rest of the season.
Personally, I thought Stewart-Haas would struggle after leaving Chevrolet and the Hendrick Motorsports alliance. As it turns out, Harvick is as good as ever.
The mistakes? It’s a long season, and they can always be cleaned up.
Don’t give Keselowski a chance
I don’t have the stats to back this up, but it seems like whenever Brad Keselowski gets an shot at a victory — after fighting his way through a comeback — he often capitalizes on it.
Keselowski thrives on adversity and loves when people count him out. It brings out the blue-collar fighter in him, and you can’t let him sniff the lead in that situation or he’ll snatch it away and end up with the trophy.
That’s what he did at Atlanta. His team had a major screw-up after Keselowski had taken the lead on a late pit stop, and Keselowski had to return to the pits to add some lug nuts. He came out 13th, and his chances looked to be over.
Did he have a meltdown or flip out on his team? No. He went back to work, rallied back and was able to pull off one of those signature scrappy wins.
“Everybody stayed focused and nobody had to say anything,” he said. “We know the deal. We know 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.”
Keselowski is easy to overlook. He can come off as a bit of a dork, and other drivers dismiss him at times when he spouts off. But that’s almost always a mistake with Keselowski; he might not look like he could beat you in a fight, but it’s best not to give him a chance.
Hey Dale, so about that new aero package…
What the heck? For all the talk and hype about the new even-lower downforce package, combined with an old track surface that eats tires, the expectations were pretty high for a thrilling race.
As it turned out, there wasn’t much in the way of action until the end. I asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. about why the race seemed, um…
“Uneventful?” he said.
Exactly. No wrecks? No spins?
“We’re all pretty good, I guess,” he said with a smile.
Look, it’s obviously way too early to judge the new aero package. But it was kind of weird that last year’s Atlanta race seemed racier than this year’s. And Earnhardt knew what I was getting at.
He suggested (perhaps half-jokingly) NASCAR should “take more downforce off til we start wreckin’ more.”
“These cars, they did take a lot of spoiler off,” he said. “But we all still have a lot of side force. You can’t even read the damn sponsors on some of the Toyotas, they’ve got such big quarterpanels.”
Side force keeps drivers from spinning out, Earnhardt said. And all the cars –not just the Toyotas — have a lot of it.
“You know how they talk about the Trucks, when they get sideways and they kind of straighten themselves out because they’ve got that big flat side?” he said. “We’ve all kind of got that same thing going on here. The spoiler makes it harder to drive, but still, when we get (out of shape), we get a little side force kicked in and it helps you save it.”
The problem, Earnhardt said, is even if NASCAR cut the side skirts or something along those lines, the teams would likely figure out how to get the cars back to where they were before.
“Look at a picture of Carl Edwards when he won here, passing Jimmie (Johnson in 2005),” Earnhardt said. “Look at where the splitter on those cars is when they cross the finish line. They’re like six inches in the air.
“That’s what we really need to be doing, but you can’t unlearn the engineering we’ve done in these cars. So we’re all going to find a way to keep them sealed up.”
Kasey Kahne has missed the Chase for two straight years. Last year, he didn’t lead a lap.
But Kahne’s fans? Man, they are so impressively loyal.
I asked one Kahne fan in Daytona: “If he doesn’t start doing better, how long will you stick it out?”
“Until he retires,” she said. “He’s my driver.”
So those dedicated Kahne fans deserve something to cheer about. And they might get it this season.
Kahne was all smiles when he emerged from his car after a fourth-place finish on Sunday — and not because the car was that good all day. Actually, Kahne and the No. 5 team struggled with many of the same things they had in the last couple seasons. They weren’t very good for much of the race.
But this time, unlike in the past, the team made the right changes, got the car better and got themselves out of a hole. I asked Kahne how significant that was.
“That’s actually really hard to do,” Kahne said. “It’s hard to do when you’re one of the best teams and drivers and running up front all the time. So for us, the last year or two, it’s been really hard — and today we did it.
“That was really nice to see and be part of. We’ll just keep building from there. But yeah, it feels really good to dig out of where we started.”
Another week like this, and Kahne fans might really have reason to start feeling optimistic again. Combined with a top-10 finish in the Daytona 500, Kahne’s Atlanta finish has him eighth in the point standings.
Kahne isn’t starting the season with a deficit this year. That’s a good sign for a driver who needs a rebound.
Get that outta here
At the end of Stage 1 and Stage 2 — during the race — small trophies were awarded to the No. 4 team. Stewart-Haas Racing tweeted pictures with crew chief Rodney Childers holding the trophy.
Now, I like the stages and all — they provide a good break for mostly uneventful races like Atlanta — but come on, people!
A trophy for winning a stage?? The stages are cute little excuses for cautions and there are definitely some benefits (I’m a fan!), but let’s not overdo it by giving away trophies. Isn’t a playoff point enough for a stage win?
Fortunately, I’ve been told this is not a NASCAR thing but a track thing. I hope other tracks don’t follow suit. No offense to Atlanta, but one trophy is enough for the race.
NASCAR fans don’t seem like the kind of people who like participation trophies, so let’s just forget this little incident ever happened and bury the stage trophies idea along with the Sprint narwhals.