Kevin Harvick may have led 292 of 325 laps in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, but a pit road speeding penalty with just 13 laps to go cost him the victory.
Enter Brad Keselowski, in the hunt all day, as he took advantage of the opening to claim his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at AMS.
“Kevin was very, very strong and probably the guy to beat, but we persevered,” Keselowski said. “We had our own issues with a tire and a loose wheel and fought through it all day. This is a big deal. Autotrader’s headquartered right here in Atlanta and we’ve got all of them here.
“First win of the season, locks you into the playoffs, that’s great for our team. And I got to fly a flag at the Folds of Honor race so it seems right.”
Keselowski finished in the top 10 his last two Cup races at Atlanta and was runner-up to Kyle Busch during Saturday’s XFINITY Series race. The win comes on the heels of a tough 27th-place result in the season-opener at Daytona.
“I love winning,” Kelseowski said with a wide grin. “When you win, you don’t know if you’re ever going to win again and you go through some spells. Gosh, it feels good to get one early in the season like this.
“I’ve got to thank my whole team. They’ve been digging. I thought we had one of the cars to beat at Daytona and kind of got wrecked out and didn’t get to show our potential. But everybody kept their heads up and moved on to next week. This is what you get with that kind of effort.”
Kyle Larson, one of the series up-and-coming young drivers, battled with Keselowski in the finals laps and ended up second. Larson had 10 top-five finishes in 2016.
“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 tried to commit myself to the bottom throughout the race. On the restart, when Brad lined up behind me, I knew he was going to be the one to beat.
“I knew I was going to have to try to take his line away. I tried a few times and he finally guessed where I was going. I’m disappointed we didn’t get the win, but we typically struggled badly in the early races of the season. So to finish second so early in the year is awesome. We had a shot to win the 500 last week and a shot again today. That’s all you can ask for.”
Matt Kenseth was third, Kasey Kahne was fourth and Dawsonville native Chase Elliott rounded out the top five.
Elliott dogged Harvick for much of the race and was also penalized for a pit road speed violation with 110 laps left. He fought his way back to second place, but didn’t get a good restart coming out of the final caution.
“I thought our Chevy was awesome,” Elliott said. “I really didn’t feel like Kevin’s car was any better than ours. I just feel like he did a little better job driving and managing the bottom of the racetrack. I think we made a big chunk in the right direction for me being able to keep up with him moving forward.”
The last time Kevin Harvick won a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event at Atlanta Motor Speedway was 16 years ago in his debut race. Harvick won Stages 1 and 2 with so dominating a performance that only 12 cars were still on the lead lap at the start of Stage 3.
Harvick finished ninth, his ninth top-10 finish in his last 11 races at Atlanta.
“I was going too fast on pit road, apparently,” Harvick said. “I really hate it for everyone on this Jimmy John’s Ford. They put a great car under me and did everything we thought they needed to do. I knew I needed to be close to pit road because we were having trouble getting out of the box, but I didn’t think I was pushing it that close.”
Two-time defending race champion Jimmie Johnson finished 19th. No Cup driver has ever won three in a row at Atlanta. It was the 2,500th Monster Energy Cup Series race in NASCAR history.
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