(VIA NASCAR Wire Service) HAMPTON, Ga. – Thanks to the unintentional generosity of the dominant driver in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, opportunistic Brad Keselowski won the second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season.
Kevin Harvick led 292 of the 325 laps at the 1.54-mile track, but a pit road speeding penalty under caution on Lap 311 sent him to the back of the field for the final restart.
That gave Keselowski the chance he needed, and on Lap 319 he surged past Kyle Larson for the top spot and pulled away to win by .564 seconds.
Larson came home second, followed by two drivers—Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne—who lost laps early but recovered to run third and fourth, respectively. Daytona 500 runner-up Chase Elliott overcame a pit road speeding penalty incurred on a green-flag stop on Lap 212 to finish fifth.
Keselowski overcame his own issues to put his No. 2 Team Penske Ford in position to win the race. Keselowski beat Harvick off pit road after stops under caution on Lap 264, but the lug nuts on his left rear wheel weren’t tight, and Keselowski had to return to pit road and give up the No. 1 position for a restart on Lap 270.
But Keselowski persevered, and by the time the final caution flag waved on Lap 309, he had worked his way up to third in the running order. When Harvick drew the penalty on Lap 311, Keselowski restarted third after pitting for tires, got past Kenseth in the first corner and tracked down Larson five laps later.
“We had a lot of adversity today. There’s no doubt about that,” said Keselowski, who won for the first time at Atlanta and for the 22nd time in his career. “These races aren’t easy. They’re 500 miles, and a lot can happen, and when you think you’ve got it, they slip away. I know how it goes.
“This one kind of fell in our lap at the end, and my team put it all together when it counted. They gave me a great Autotrader Ford Fusion, and we were able to get by Kyle there at the end. I knew that he wasn’t going to be easy to pass. His car was great, and I was able to make the right moves to get by him.”
Larson, who characterized Harvick’s speeding penalty as “a Christmas present,” knew what to expect from Keselowski after the final restart on lap 315, but he was unable to prevent the winning move.
“I raced around Brad a lot throughout the day,” Larson said. “Any time I was in front of him on short runs, he’d drive around me up top. And so I knew I was going to have to take his line away on that start there for a couple of laps and try it. I just didn’t have enough grip—or not as much as I’d hoped. He did a good job being a lane lower than me and getting to my inside.
“So, it was disappointing not to get the win, but I’m happy about our second-place run at a 1.5-mile (track) where I struggle. I had a blast today. The Target Chevy was good. I ran the bottom a lot, which is not typically something I do. So, it was a lot of fun to learn how to kind of use both feet to get around the bottom and to do a good job with that.”
In the first Atlanta race since NASCAR added more timing lines to measure pit road speed, the sanctioning body gave out more speeding tickets than a county sheriff in a one-stoplight town. Harvick was penalized for the 13th and final speeding infraction of the race.
“Yeah, this place, for whatever reason, I just feel like I’m snake-bitten,” said Harvick, who won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at the Georgia track in 2001 and hasn’t won here since. “It’s my own doing today. I really didn’t think I was even close on pit lane.
“It gets to bouncing around, and I thought I was being conservative. Apparently, I wasn’t. … I was just pushing it too hard.”
On the positive side, Harvick leaves Atlanta with two additional playoff points for winning the first two stages of the race. He also holds the series lead by four points over Stewart-Haas Racing teammate and Daytona winner Kurt Busch.