The Top Five: Breaking down the Atlanta race

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.

Unhappy Harvick

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.”

Kahneiacs Rejoice!

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.

17 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Atlanta race”

  1. I think Dale Jr said something about getting rid of “those stupid splitters” during his stint in the Fox broadcasting booth a while back.

    Couldn’t agree more.

    But I also agree that the engineers are dictating how the cars drive and NASCAR has their hands tied when it comes to getting anything past them. Time to see how this all flies at Las Vegas and down the line……..

  2. I know it’s only 2 races in but I am super excited for the 5 car this year. Keeping my fingers crossed for much needed consistency.

  3. I’m just wondering what our standard for a “good race” is now. We had a lot of hard racing mid-pack, good tire fall-off, a late mistake by the driver dominating most of the race, and a pass for the win with 7 laps left. It seemed pretty good to me, but a lot of people are calling it a snoozefest.

  4. I like the stages, but my complaint would be the way the points are distributed. How is it that Kurt Busch won Daytona and finished 7th at Atlanta, but Harvick is leading in the points? With worse finishes? Seems like the points are a bit bloated..

  5. I have a feeling Harvick and the SHR teams will struggle more when they aren’t using Hendrick chassis they purchased from Hendrick last year. I’d be interested to know if all of the SHR cars are still using the old Hendrick chassis or have they actually switched to their in house stuff yet? Jeff do know how the in house program is coming for them?

  6. I can only hope that the drivers will be as loud & voice full over no more stage/participation trophy as they were on the repaves! Dumbest idea ever!

  7. Like you, I didn’t expect much from SHR this year. Switching manufacturers is not all that simple, but they are really producing everywhere. Speed weeks, practice, qualifying, big track, medium track, they killing them all. But your last poster says they are using Hendrick chassis’ with their Ford motors. So now I’m just waiting for them fully implement the change.

  8. I like the trophy. It’s called a win, you get 10 points and a bonus point going toward the playoffs, so why not a little trophy. Now if the 10th place finisher got one, then you could call it a participation trophy.

  9. The trophies are dumb. I honestly didn’t know anything about them until I read this article though, so at least they aren’t making a big deal out of them. Yet. NASCAR has a tendency to push things the fans don’t like, so let’s hope they take this idea and bury it right next to the 2nd Vegas race idea and the Atlanta repave.

  10. I agree about the trophies being unnecessary. But if a track wants to do that as a fun element, I say “Why not?” It makes it more about the unique experiences at each track. I don’t think I’d like NASCAR to hand out stage trophies though.

  11. Loved the “drive home podcast” and your quick takes. No mention of P2 Larson in either, though? 3 races in a row with a shot to win, but no dice. Is it a Ganassi resurgence, or evidence Larson just can’t close? Both?

  12. Sitting high up at the end of Turn 4 yesterday, it appeared that more guys were unwilling or unable to run the high line than in the past. McMurray was up there some, but most cars were locked on the white line. The old, fast line was from high up in Turn 4 and then cutting down near the white line entering the tri-oval. Didn’t see that line used at all.

    Once you got past the 4 and the 24, there was good racing going on all over. Not the best race I’ve seen there, but a good one. And the stages gave a nice break and tightened up the field.

  13. I’ve been a motorsport fan for decade,engineering has taken over in Nascar. 70 at RCR to upgrade their game trying to comeback to victory lane in Cup? windtunnel / simulation / aero

    I even saw some ex F1 engineers in the garage starting in 2013 & they were not working for McLaren on their ECU units.

    Usually it’s bad news for the fanbase = less action ontrack. The mix of driver in Cup now is safer.The driver w less experience are in great car they don’t have to go over the limit for result they only have to take what available performance wise & bring the car home.Congrats to Ford Perfoemance 2 wins in a row!

  14. Stage trophies are not “participation trophies.” It’s a trophy for a win. What’s wrong with that? It’s not all that different from a pole position award, either.

    i also like the idea that the pre-chase points champion be recognized. Is that a “participation trophy” too, or is it recognition of a competitive win?

    I like the stages because they’re sort of like short track heat races with the third stage as the main. It definitely makes the first two-thirds of a race more interesting and strategic. And it cuts down on stroking, IMO.

Comments are closed.