By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
Kevin Harvick has to be scratching his head right now. Since winning at Atlanta Motor Speedway in his first attempt — the 2001 spring race — he has not been able to record a win at the 1.5-mile speedway in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Sunday, the trend continued Sunday in heart-breaking fashion.
Harvick started the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 from the sixth position, and early on he showed patience. While other drivers blast past his No. 4 Chevrolet early in the race, Harvick would sit back and let the race come to him. With an abrasive track surface, tire wear would become a huge story and with a tight race car on the first run Harvick himself suffered a tire that nearly came apart.
Harvick would pit early at lap 38, for four tires, gas and a handling adjustment. After adjustments, Harvick’s car would loosen up, and tires wouldn’t be a problem the rest of the afternoon for the No. 4 team. Harvick would continue to log laps inside the top-five, and by lap 100 he was looking like a threat to lead the race.
The middle-to-late stages of the race belonged to Harvick, as he led 131 laps from laps 116 to 284.
When Harvick made his final green-flag pit stop at lap 285, he had a very comfortable lead. Unfortunately, Harvick’s pit crew had a slip-up, which led to him losing about four seconds on pit road. In addition, Jimmie Johnson who was running second before the sequence of pit stops, pitted nine laps early. This gave Johnson the advantage of running laps with faster fresh tires, while Harvick and the rest of the field were stuck on their slower worn tires.
As a result, Harvick went from leading by over three-seconds to trailing Johnson by over 13 seconds with just under 40 laps remaining in the race.
“We had issues about the last three runs. I had to start driving the car different. It just required a little bit different handling. And then we had a slow pit stop there,” Harvick said after the race.
Harvick would cut into Johnson’s lead quickly, as he would erase half of a second to a second of the deficit to Johnson per lap. But with about 12 laps left, Harvick stopped closing in as the handling began to go away on his car and Johnson’s lead stabilized at around six seconds.
“We got way behind and the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) was way out front and I had to drive the car really hard and got the right rear burned up.
With Harvick’s brakes cooked, Johnson looked like he had an easy victory locked up, and Harvick looked destined to bring home a runner-up finish. Then with three laps remaining, Ryan Newman spun after cutting a tire. This brought out a caution, which sent the race into overtime. Harvick would essentially become a sitting duck.
On the final restart of the race, Harvick lined up in the outside lane of the front row. When the green flag was shown, Harvick spun the tires, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. quickly got around him. In turns one and two, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards would also fly by as Harvick adjusted to his soft brake pedal. As vicious accident involving Aric Almirola, David Ragan and several others on the backstretch ended the race, Harvick would race back to the start finish line with a disappointing sixth place finish.
“We just didn’t execute today, but everybody on our Jimmy John’s/Busch Chevrolet hung in there all day and we’ll keep at it,” a dejected Harvick explained after climbing from his car.
When asked what he took away from the first race with NASCAR’s new lower downforce package, Harvick said, “Don’t worry about how fast you are in practice. Make sure it drives good.”
In Harvick’s last five races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he has been stout to say the least. Harvick has led an impressive 543 laps in that time, but has been shutout from victory lane in the state known for their amazing peaches. Harvick looked absolutely defeated in his post-race interview, understandable after a rough loss, but one has to wonder if it could be the carry over effect from last season.
Harvick and his No. 4 team had without a doubt the fastest car week-in-and-week-out in 2015, but after leading over 2,200 laps and recording 15 top-two finishes they were only able to muster three wins, and ultimately came up short with a second-place finish in the final race of the year in Homestead. Harvick will look to find his closing ability again next week in Las Vegas.
Image: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images