Story via Hunter Thomas from TheFourthTurn
HAMPTON, Ga. – In a race that was dominated by Kevin Harvick, Team Penske's Brad Keselowski was able to overcome adversity to win the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
A costly speeding penalty on pit road with just 14 laps to go cost Harvick the race. The driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Jimmy John's Ford led a race high of 292 laps, and he also won the first two stages, but when the final caution of the afternoon came due to Austin Dillon stalling on the track, Harvick was forced to surrender the lead to Kyle Larson and restart at the tail end of the field.
"I was going too fast on pit road apparently," said Harvick after the race. "I really hate it for everybody on this Jimmy John's Ford. They put a great car under me, and we did everything that I thought we needed to do. I knew that I needed to be close to pit road speed because we were having trouble getting out of the box, but I didn't think that I was pushing it that close, but it gets to bouncing there, and you can't really tell where you're at, and that's why there are so many pit road speeding penalties here because you have to run it so close, and I was too fast."
Kyle Larson was scored the leader on the restart with 11 laps to go, but with just six laps remaining, he was passed by Keselowski in the No. 2 Autotrader Ford. Larson kept Keselowski in sight, but he was unable to get back around him. Keselowski went on to win his first race of the season while claiming the second victory for Ford Performance in 2017.
"Well, you know, wins are always special, but early in the season they're really good," Keselowski said. "You just can't take any wins for granted. I know I don't. I always feel like before a race, you obviously always want to win, and you always wonder yourself when your last win is going to be, and I'm not anywhere near retirement age, but you still think about those things and you think about how tough it just is to win at this level and how lucky you are to have a team to win."
Although Keselowski flew by Larson in the closing laps to win, he had struggles of his own throughout the 325-lap race. In Stage 2, Keselowski had two unscheduled pit stops. The first stop was for a tire issue during green flag conditions, and the second was due to a loose lug nuts following a pit stop.
Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Keselowski's team said, "Yeah, well, it was definitely a long day, and we had our fair share of issues and adversity we had to overcome with the tire trouble there mid-part of the race with the right front coming apart, and then we had to come back down at one point for some lug nuts on the left rear. But Brad just drove a smart race.
"I mean, it's all about managing your tires and taking care of your car. It's such a long race here, and it's easy to get down when we have issues like we did, but he stayed focused all day and was able to get us back in position there at the end, and the 4 (Kevin Harvick) was definitely strong, but we felt like we weren't far behind, and when he had his issue there at the end, we were able to capitalize on it."
Larson was trying to capture his second career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday, and he was just six laps from doing so, but Keselowski just had the faster car. In the closing laps, Larson moved to the high side of the track to try and find more speed, but his Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Target Chevrolet couldn't find enough grip to hold on for the win.
"Yeah, I mean, I can make the high line work at most tracks," Larson said. "Here at Atlanta, I don't do a good enough job up top. That's why I try to commit myself to the bottom throughout the race. There when I restarted the leader after our Christmas present we got there, and Brad lined up behind me, I knew he was going to be the one to beat. The solid runner-up finish marks Larson's second top-10 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He finished eighth back in 2014.
"I'd spent a lot of time around him throughout the race, especially on the short runs he was better than I was, and he would always pass me in (Turns) 1 and 2. I knew I was going to have to try and take his line away. I tried a few times, and he finally kind of guessed where I was going right one lap and got to my inside."
Despite being caught speeding on pit road on lap 36 and 89, Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth was able to recover for an impressive third-place finish. The driver of the No. 20 DeWalt Flexvolt Toyota now has 17 career top-10 finishes at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"Yeah, it was a good comeback," Kenseth said. "It was an uphill battle all day. For some reason, our speed was off on pit road and we got two penalties there that put us behind and just the cautions fell and everything and it took all day to get our laps and get back in position, so everything kind of when our way at the end, except for that outside restart hurt us, but we had a good car and glad we got a decent result."
Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott rounded out the top-five. On lap 212, Elliott was caught speeding on pit road, so a top-five finish was quite a comeback for the driver of the No. 24 NAPA Chevrolet. Atlanta Motor Speedway is Elliott's home track. He grew up in Dawsonville, Georgia that is about two hours away from Atlanta Motor Speedway by car.
"Our car was really good," Elliott said. "I don't think Kevin's (Harvick) car was any better than ours. I think he was just doing a little better job driving than I was and being consistent and doing a good job around the bottom and conserving his tires and still running fast. Something for me to try to improve on coming back. I think we made a big step into being able to keep up with him. We just need a little more."
Rounding out the top-10 on Sunday was Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray.
Throughout the afternoon, there were only six cautions and none of them were for multi-car accidents. The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 saw nine lead changes among five drivers.
With a ninth-place finish, Harvick now leads his teammate, Kurt Busch by four points in the standings. Keselowski's win catapults him to third, just six points back from the lead. Elliott is fourth, eight points back and Logano rounds out the top-five, 10 points behind Harvick.