HAMPTON, Ga. – When race leader – and eventual winner – Kevin Harvick came to pit road on Lap 212 of Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano stayed on the track.
Brad Keselowski inherited the lead two laps later, and still Hamlin and Logano stayed out. Not until Lap 226 did the two drivers come to pit road, after running laps at a far slower speed than those with fresh tires.
Staying on the track was a deliberate strategy play, designed to run the final 155-lap stage of the race on two pit stops, rather than the customary three. Indeed, Hamlin picked up the lead after Harvick pitted for the third time during the stage on Lap 288, but his stint at the point was short-lived.
Rocketing around the track on fresh tires, Harvick passed Hamlin for the lead on Lap 291 and regained control of the race.
Crew chief Mike Wheeler prepped Hamlin for the strategy before the start of the third stage.
“As soon as I left pit road, he said I was going to have to go 50 laps the first time, so I immediately knew he was going to break it up into two stops instead of three,” Hamlin said. “I wasn’t surprised at all about it. Worried about it, a little bit in the second stint, because I wasn’t running really fast lap times on new tires – I think 32 (seconds) flat or something like that.
“Other guys were able to run some 70s (31.70) and 80s (31.80), and it seemed like we got to the lap time of like 33 or whatever pretty quick, and I was just worried that the strategy… you need the lap times to be pretty linear for that strategy to work, and we kind of leveled off a little bit, and some of the field leveled off.
“I was worried a little bit, but I kept seeing it cycle around to where I was in a good position.”
Hamlin rolled home in fourth place and left Atlanta third in the series standings, 12 points behind Logano, who assumed the lead with a sixth-place run.
A glance at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings reveals a real shocker. After finishes of 38th at Daytona and 27th on Sunday at Atlanta – both after crashes – seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is 35th in the series standings, behind Mark Thompson and D. J. Kennington, neither of whom raced at Atlanta…
Brad Keselowski, the runner-up in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, couldn’t match the speed of race winner Kevin Harvick. “Nobody had anything for Kevin today,” Keselowski said. “Not that I’m aware of. Shoot, I think we all threw everything we had at him. He drove a great race and he had a really fast car, and that’s a potent combination. If he hadn’t had the pit road issue today (a malfunction of the front tire changer’s air gun), he probably would have led almost 300 some laps.” As it was, Harvick led 181.