Following the wreck-fest of the Daytona 500, the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was essentially a cool down race for fans. The race was originally moved up from a later afternoon start time to shortly after 1 PM. But due to rain the race was rescheduled to start at 3:30 PM. Once the jet-dryers dried the surface of the track, race officials quickly got the race underway as rain was still in the forecast.
Stage one was a relatively uneventful stage. After 30 completed laps, race officials threw the yellow flag for the “competition caution”. When rain falls on the track surface the day before or the day of the race, NASCAR institutes a competition caution between 20-30 laps into the race. This allows for the teams to evaluate the track and how it affects the cars since the rain. It also allows for teams to make necessary changes early in the race. Following the competition caution, Kevin Harvick led the field for the majority of the stage and took home the stage win, pocketing one playoff point. On pit road between stages, Harvick’s crew experienced an air-gun issue while changing the tires. This would result in him starting at the back of the lead-lap cars for the start of stage two.
Brad Keselowski was able to get out in front of field to start the second stage because of Harvick’s issue. Although he restarted 19th, it wasn’t long before Harvick fought his way through them and back to the front. Kyle Busch, the pole-sitter for the race, took the lead from Keselowski, but shortly handed it over to a hard-charging Harvick just a few laps later. Once grabbing the lead roughly halfway through the second stage, he began to run away with it. Harvick had led the most laps in the previous four races at Atlanta but was never able to park it in victory lane.
With just 12 laps to go in stage two, Jimmie Johnson blew a tire and spun off the track. This brought out the caution flag and erased Kevin Harvick’s large lead. The flat tire on Johnson’s 48 car ripped apart as he drove back to pit road, tearing up the front fender of his race car. Johnson’s 2017 year-end struggles have surely followed him into 2018. He came into the race on a 24-race winless streak, tied for the longest of his career.
On pit road, Keselowski’s team got him out first and he assumed the lead on the restart with under 10 laps to go in stage two. Harvick came out of the pits second and started on the outside of Keselowski in row one. On the restart, Keselowski jumped out to a decent lead and Harvick spun his tires. Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano all got around Harvick on the restart and finished in that order at the completion of the stage. Keselowski got his first stage win of the season and nabbed the one playoff point that comes with it.
The final stage started out with some drama. Many Crew Chiefs told their drivers that they may not be racing to the end of the race; but instead, possibly to the next rain storm. Once 50 percent of the laps are completed, should it rain, NASCAR can end the race. Whoever is in the lead when the rain-caution comes out, gets the win. Soon after the stage had begun, rain showers appeared to be in the near future for the track. Keselowski, Kurt Busch, and Harvick all were running nose-to-tail when they heard the rain was coming. Although more than 100 laps remained, the three drivers raced each other hard like it was the final lap, and for several laps. Eventually the storm clouds passed and the full race was run.
Soon after, green flag pit stops cycled around while Harvick led the field. Keselowski pitted early out of second and when the green flag stops cycled around, he was in front of Harvick.
Denny Hamlin and Logano realized that they couldn’t beat Harvick or Keselowski outright with just their speed. They began to try to run a fuel mileage strategy. Instead of pitting three times in the final stage, they would stretch their fuel runs as long as they could and attempt to only have to pit twice.
With under twenty to go Trevor Bayne’s engine gave out, filling the track with thick white smoke. As the cars slowed behind Bayne, the smoke covered the entire width of the track. Darrell Wallace Jr. was unable to navigate through the smoke cleanly and rear-ended Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the confusion. The caution flag would fly and the field would be re-racked for a late restart.
On the final restart Harvick pulled away from the field for the victory to cap off a dominating weekend. On Saturday afternoon he won the Xfinity Series race at the track. He led a whopping 141 of the 163 laps and cruised to the victory. Although he faced tougher competition on Sunday from the likes of Keselowski, Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Kurt Busch, the race always seemed to be in his hands.
Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top-5.
Next Sunday NASCAR will be racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for a 3:30 PM green flag.
Featured image courtesy of NASCAR.com
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