HAMPTON, Ga.—For the fifth time in the last six years, Kevin Harvick led the most laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And for the sixth time in the last six years, Harvick didn’t come away with a victory.
Harvick had absolutely owned the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, owned it with a degree of excellence not often seen at this level. Harvick won the pole, won both of the first two stages, and his usual lead over the field could be measured in full seconds. But with just 13 laps remaining in the race—with 96 percent of the race complete—Harvick got nailed with a pit-road speeding penalty, one that dropped him deep into the field.
That left Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski to duel for the lead, and Keselowski had little trouble outrunning his younger rival. Keselowski mirrored Harvick’s hug-the-low-line method and brought home Ford’s second victory of the season.
For all of his success everywhere else, and for all his in-race lap-leading totals, Harvick still has only one victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway: his emotional victory way back in 2001, when he took the repainted #3 of Dale Earnhardt to victory lane in just his third race.
Atlanta’s aged surface, a likely candidate for a repave in the coming months, chewed through tires like a college student attacking a 3 a.m. pizza. That meant drivers with new tires enjoyed an astonishing advantage. Nowhere was this more evident than midway through Stage 2, when Keselowski, off pit sequence because of tire issues, took a 10-second lead over Harvick. But once Harvick slapped on his own set of new tires, he closed the gap in just over 10 laps.
Speeding cost Harvick a near-certain victory, but pit-road penalties also bit several other major teams, with Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among many others, suffering race-hampering speeding penalties on pit road. Denny Hamlin broke a track bar and spent nearly 80 laps in the garage. And Kyle Busch could never get rolling, spending much of the day wallowing down in the unfamiliar 20s.
The race ran under brilliant blue skies, but—as is always the case with Atlanta Motor Speedway—metaphorical clouds loomed in the distance. Track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc. had announced several months ago that this would be the final race on the track’s current pavement, a pitted and cracked mile-and-a-half. SMI engineers have indicated that the track is an estimated three years past its prime.
Atlanta’s surface is the second oldest in NASCAR, after only Auto Club Speedway in California, and is one of the few pavements remaining that legends like Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip raced on. Drivers may enjoy racing on history, but they enjoy the track’s multiple lines and gritty surface much more. Drivers across all three of NASCAR’s national series groused at the news of the repaving announcement in January, and mounted a full-on resistance this weekend.
“We all appreciate tracks with so much character,” Jimmie Johnson said, noting that news of the repaving “shocked and upset a lot of us. We get it. We understand. But it’s just going to take a long time for the track to get back to this condition.”
“Please, please do not repave this race track,” two-time Camping World Truck Series champ Matt Crafton said. “This is by far the coolest track we race on.”
The driver outcry, while not new, nonetheless prompted a direct reply from SMI chairman Marcus Smith just hours before the race. “I can’t really say that the status (of the repaving project) has changed, but (the outcry) definitely has caused us to think about what we’re doing,” Smith said. “The challenges are still there on keeping the track raceable and making it something we can have a race on today and make sure we have a quality race.”
Smith promised to reassess the possibilities of repaving after the conclusion of Sunday’s race, a pledge that took on ominous overtones in the wake of news that Las Vegas could be close to landing a second Cup-level race. Vegas is an SMI track, which means that the easiest route to getting Vegas a second date would be taking one from another SMI track. Could Atlanta, which has struggled with attendance woes for years, worry about losing its lone remaining race?
“No, I don’t think there’s any reason for worry,” Smith said. “Like I said, it’s been great to have feedback from drivers saying how much they like the surface, and it definitely has caused us to say maybe we should look at it again.”
Perhaps coincidentally, and perhaps not, AMS enjoyed one of its largest crowds in recent memory, even despite considerable in-town competition from an NBA game, a Monster Truck rally to close the Georgia Dome, and the debut of Atlanta’s new Major League Soccer team.
The fans in attendance saw excellence, but sometimes, even excellence can be dull. Even losing this race, Harvick amassed effectively a full race’s worth of stage points and is atop the point standings.
It’s far too early to even begin thinking about the playoffs, let alone Homestead, but Harvick is already staking out his territory in NASCAR’s postseason. Chances are, if he gets there, he won’t take anything for granted, not until he’s holding another championship trophy.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.