Kevin Harvick had set the benchmark of excellence at Atlanta Motor Speedway over the past four years, yet until Sunday, the driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing #4 Ford had only one NASCAR Cup Series win at the Georgia speedway, despite having led the most laps of each race.
Starting from 3rd in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, Harvick paved over his competition and avoided any untimely mistakes, leading 181 of 325 laps to capture his 38th career victory at the track where he also notched his first breakthrough Cup victory back in 2001.
As the Atlanta race wound down in the final segment, Harvick was so dominant that at one point only six cars remained on the lead lap. Roared Harvick, “I love racing here, and it’s good to be back in Victory Lane – finally. It took a while.”
Totally locked in, Harvick also won the XFINITY Series Saturday race in similar dominant fashion, cruising to lead 141 of 163 laps for his fifth XFINITY Series victory at the 1.5-mile track.
Will Atlanta Motor Speedway Finally Get Its Repave?
After such supremacy, Atlanta Motor Speedway (AMS) President and General Manager Ed Clark may well be inclined to request a few bids this week for repaving the speedway to shake up next year’s storyline, and Harvick’s competitors may be more eager to embrace such alteration.
Now 21 years in the making, AMS’ track surface was supposed to get a refresh after last year’s race, but an outpouring of resistance from fans and drivers alike delayed the inevitable. The well-aged racing surface has widened the racing groove and created a track with limited grip that chews up tires.
Drivers embrace Atlanta since the expanded racing groove, along with its unique bumps and demanding tire wear, showcase drivers using their magic to come to the front, rather than banking solely on having the best equipment.
Undeniably, skilled veteran racers demonstrate their talent at Atlanta to rise to the top. This year’s race featured five former Cup Champions finishing in the top 10. The highest finishing rookie, William Bryon, only placed 18th.
At AMS, these savvy veterans are well versed in taking care of their equipment and not burning up their tires over the course of extended green flag runs between pit stops.
Notwithstanding the three-wide racing that the track offers, a repave is inescapable. The surface is at risk of tearing apart as well as generating weepers anytime it rains. NASCAR dodged a bullet by squeezing in this year’s Folds of Honor 500 race between thunderstorms.
However, having personally witnessed six hours of weepers back in 2008 at the Auto Club Speedway during NASCAR’s failed effort to dry the two-mile oval before postponing that race, I foresee the time for the AMS repave has arrived, if only to shake up the level of coziness that certain drivers have for this track.
Ford Launches Strong Out of the Gate
Equally as impressive as Harvick’s win was the strong showing by the Ford brigade, sweeping the top three podium spots, and five of the top 10 positions. Heading into 2018, many Ford insiders and fans alike fretted about lagging both the Toyota juggernaut and the new Chevy Camaro ZL1 body.
However, Ford Performance appears to have done its homework in the offseason, and the Stewart-Haas team’s switchover to Ford last year may finally be hitting its stride.
Doug Yates, CEO of Roush Yates Engines, blasted out his enthusiasm on Twitter for the strong Ford Performance showing, congratulating the five Ford drivers for their top 10 finishes on the strength of the Ford powerplant under the hood.
Congrats to @KevinHarvick @StewartHaasRcng for getting the win at @amsupdates . Also to @FordPerformance @keselowski , @ClintBowyer , @joeylogano , & @KurtBusch for top 10 finishes. Great win & power @roushyates @NASCAR #FoHQT500 pic.twitter.com/DyprD9R9LD
— Doug Yates (@Yates_Doug) February 26, 2018
Undoubtedly, Toyota will continue to be a force building on last year’s on-track accomplishments, and Chevrolet will need to fine-tune its new Camaro ZL1 body, since Kyle Larson was the only Chevy that was remotely competitive Sunday. Still, if Sunday at AMS is a sign, the Blue Oval brigade will be a strong contender on the intermediate speedways this year, where speed was most lacking in 2017.
Should Qualifying Be Ditched?
Last year’s Cup Champion, Martin Truex Jr, driver of the Furniture Row Racing #78 Camry, stealthily showed he will continue to be a threat in 2018, coming from the back of the field to finish in the top 5, after having failed pre-qualifying inspection and starting last.
Truex’s success, despite missing qualifying, makes one wonder about the significance of qualifying in today’s NASCAR environment. Despite NASCAR revamping its qualifying system by moving away from single-car to knockout-group qualifying, attendance at these sessions remains sparse and not particularly enthralling.
Given NASCAR’s 2018 efforts to help teams control costs (Exhibit A being refinements in pit road procedures that reduced crew sizes and instituted standardized air guns), a radical scheme would be to do away with qualifying altogether (instead relying on season point totals to set the starting order each week).
Given guaranteed starting spots for those teams with charters, and corresponding lack of independent entries, teams are no longer at-risk of being sent home because they failed to qualify. This weekend at AMS, the Cup race included only the 36 charter teams, with no independent entries to expand to the 40-car field maximum. At Daytona, only 40 teams entered, so all were guaranteed a starting spot.
As a result, Furniture Row Racing can fail pre-qualifying inspection three times, miss qualifying entirely, yet start the race on sticker tires that are fresher than any other competitor.
Capitalizing on the tire wear differential, Truex was able to deftly slice through the field, moving up to 4th by the end of Stage 1 to score playoff bonus points.
With the level of investment curbing new entrants, NASCAR certainly will need to oversee the potential for such gamesmanship among teams, which could trigger a fundamental rethink of the entire qualifying process.
By Ron Bottano
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