Atlanta Motor Speedway, Sunday, February 25, 2018, 3:30 pm
Despite a gloomy forecast, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race from Atlanta Motor Speedway took the green flag Sunday afternoon. Just 90 minutes past the originally scheduled starting time. The Folds of Honor QuickTrip 500 began under cloudy, but not threatening skies.
Pole sitter Ryan Newman(31) jumped to the lead as drivers tip-toed around the green race track. Rubber laid down in yesterday’s doubleheader was washed away by morning showers. Then blown off the track by the Air Titan Jet Dryers.
Last year’s Cup Champion, Martin Truex Jr.(78) started from the rear of the field. Truex Jr. missed qualifying Friday evening after failing the inspection process three times. By lap 15 Truex had worked his way into the top 10.
Daytona 500 winner, Austin Dillon, also started in the back of the field because his team opted to change the rear differential gear. By the time NASCAR waived a competition caution at the 30 lap mark, Dillon had moved into 14th.
As driver’s adjusted to the clean slick track, Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series winner, Kevin Harvick(4) moved to the lead on lap 18. Kyle Busch(18), who probably should have won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, followed Harvick around Newman.
Harvick and Busch exited the pits first and second after the field stopped for new tires and fuel. On the restart, Harvick took off and Busch did not. The 18 car dropped to seventh as more drivers joined the fight at the front of the pack. Newman, Truex Jr., Joey Logano(22), Kurt Busch(41), and Brad Keselowski(2) all raced past Kyle into turn 1. Busch never contended for the lead again.
Interestingly on one of the circuits toughest tracks to drive, only veterans and none of the Young Guns occupied the lead group.
Stage 1 Points
Harvick dominated the first Stage. Only 18 cars remained on the lead lap after the 85 laps of Stage 1. Of the top 10 cars earning Stage points, six were Ford Fusions(*).
Some of the notable drivers a lap down at the end of the Stage. Jimmie Johnson(48), who fortunately earned the lucky dog moving him back to the lead lap. Trevor Bayne(6), Darrell Wallace Jr.(43), Jamie McMurray(1), William Byron(24), and Ryan Newman who pitted before the caution with a flat tire.
Harvick’s stop was marred by a faulty air gun. The air guns, regulators, and hoses are provided by NASCAR to even the playing field for all competitors. The issue forced Harvick to return to the pits for the front lug nuts to be checked. He started the Second Stage at the end of the lead lap in 19th place.
The weather held and offered no threat of rain to begin Stage 2. However, in the distance rain could be seen falling. The race becomes official at the end of Stage 2. Keselowski and Bowyer(14) lead the field to the green flag restart on lap 88. Kurt Busch moved to the front quickly as his teammate Harvick began working through the field.
On lap 117 Harvick held down fifth place. On lap 118 he took fourth from Kyle Larson(42). The next lap he passed Truex Jr. for third. On Lap 123 Harvick passed Keselowski coming to the start-finish line. By the time he reached turn 1, he took the lead away from Kurt Busch.
Pits stops began on lap 127. After cycling through the stops for fuel and fresh tires Harvick again lead the race. With Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Larson, and Truex Jr. the remainder of the top 5.
Harvick built his lead to four seconds until a caution slowed the field on lap 158. Jimmie Johnson’s right front tire gave out bringing out the first non-scheduled yellow flag of the day. On Truex Jr.’s pit stop his crew had problems with an air gun costing the team valuable time. The 78 car exited the pits in 15th.
On the restart, Keselowski and Harvick led the field to the green. Harvick spun his tires and Keselowski jumped out to a sizable advantage. Keselowski held on to capture the Stage win that also made the race official. NASCAR gave a huge sigh of relief. With the series moving to Las Vegas next week and an uncertain forecast for Monday it would have been difficult to restart after a rain delay.
Stage 2 Points
Again six of the cars in the top ten sported Blue Oval badges on the nose of the car.
The Final Stage
For the first time today a stage began under the threat of rain. A small cell of showers hung off the backstretch. If that threat passed it is quite possible the race will go the full distance of 325 laps.
The two fastest cars all day, Keselowski and Harvick, trailed Kurt Busch by about one second as things settled out after the restart. By lap 196, the three cars were nose to tail. Crews informed their drives that rain was minutes away. Keselowski took the lead on lap 199. On Lap 200, Harvick moved to second dropping Kurt Busch to third.
Lapped traffic allowed Harvick to close up within a car length of Keselowski. But, in clean air the number 2 car pulled out to a 5 car length lead. More lapped traffic brought them together again, but Keselowski prevailed a second time to hold onto the lead. On lap 212 Harvick pitted for four new Goodyears and fuel. Keselowski followed suit on the next lap.
Harvick to the Lead
The importance of an efficient pit crew showed on green flag pit stops. Harvick returned to the track 2.5 seconds ahead of Keselowski. However, Hamlin and Logano choose to stay out in an attempt to stretch tire life. If successful the pair could benefit from making one less stop than the leaders. Or catch the rain just right and be at the front when the showers started.
The weather continued to hold as the closest rain passed the Speedway with only a couple of light sprinkles. Not enough to trigger a caution or stoppage of the race. Once the number 11 and the 22 cars pitted, Harvick returned to the front with a five second lead over Keselowski.
Although they lost a lap on pit road. Hamlin and Logano, with fresher tires, passed Harvick to return to the lead lap. With 85 laps to go, only 11 cars remained on the lead lap.
More Green Flag Pit Stops
Green flag pits stops began again with 75 laps to go. This time Keselowski shaved a couple of seconds off Harvick’s lead. Still, the number 4 car was out front by six seconds. With 60 laps to go Harvick passed Hamlin to move back into first. The Hamlin and Logano plan began looking less and less likely to produce a winner other than the number 4 car.
Harvick stopped for likely the final time with 38 to go. He returned to the track less than two seconds behind Hamlin. Passing Hamlin with 34 to go, the race belonged to Harvick barring a late caution.
The Late Caution Happens
With 28 laps to go Trevor Bayne blew an engine going down the backstretch bringing out the caution Harvick dreaded. A huge plume of smoke followed the car causing Darrell Wallace Jr. to make contact with Ricky Stenhouse in the whiteout.
Harvick was first out of the pits followed by Keselowski, Hamlin, Logano, and Bowyer. The drama was short-lived as Harvick speed off into turn 1. Keselowski followed but quickly fell 10 car lengths back.
Harvick cruised to victory unchallenged over the final 20 laps. Fox Announcer Mike Joy summed it up. “He put on a clinic here today.”
Fords took the first three finishing positions and 5 of the top 10. The Dearborn, Michigan based manufacturer continues their hot start to the 2018 season.
The series travels to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube. Another mile and a half track Vegas always produces excitement. Coverage is scheduled for 3:30 pm on Fox.
Results of the 2018 Folds of Honor 500
|5||78||Martin Truex, Jr.||325|
|16||17||Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.||-1||324|
|32||43||Darrell Wallace, Jr.||-6||319|
|7||Martin Truex Jr.||78||69||-20||0|
|14||Darrell Wallace Jr.||43||52||-37||0|