NASCAR Barometer: Keselowski Snatches Atlanta Win

NASCAR Barometer: Keselowski Snatches Atlanta Win

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kevin Harvick led the field to green at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday and proceeded to dominate most of the next 500 miles, but a mistake on pit road opened the door for Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski to sweep in for the victory. It was the second win of the season for Ford, and the second week in a row Harvick went home knowing he could have won. Instead, Keselowski overcame an up and down afternoon and multiple unscheduled trips to pit road, and outdueled Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson on the final restart to get ahead and cruise to his first career win at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Atlanta was the debut of NASCAR's new 2017 rules package at one of its more traditional circuits. The 1.5-mile oval produced close racing and even provided an exciting finish despite most of the race being dominated by Harvick. Two races in, fantasy owners should have learned that Ford has the measure of Toyota, which dominated much of the 2016 season. Mistakes on pit road continue to be a top concern for all drivers and teams, and the segmented races offer the ability for drivers to maintain standing in the championship despite not finishing a race on top.

This week the series begins its three-week stint on the West Coast with Las Vegas Motor Speedway on deck first. Keselowski won that race last season and also in 2014. Kevin Harvick won the 2015 edition, but fantasy owners shouldn't count out drivers who have

Kevin Harvick led the field to green at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday and proceeded to dominate most of the next 500 miles, but a mistake on pit road opened the door for Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski to sweep in for the victory. It was the second win of the season for Ford, and the second week in a row Harvick went home knowing he could have won. Instead, Keselowski overcame an up and down afternoon and multiple unscheduled trips to pit road, and outdueled Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson on the final restart to get ahead and cruise to his first career win at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Atlanta was the debut of NASCAR's new 2017 rules package at one of its more traditional circuits. The 1.5-mile oval produced close racing and even provided an exciting finish despite most of the race being dominated by Harvick. Two races in, fantasy owners should have learned that Ford has the measure of Toyota, which dominated much of the 2016 season. Mistakes on pit road continue to be a top concern for all drivers and teams, and the segmented races offer the ability for drivers to maintain standing in the championship despite not finishing a race on top.

This week the series begins its three-week stint on the West Coast with Las Vegas Motor Speedway on deck first. Keselowski won that race last season and also in 2014. Kevin Harvick won the 2015 edition, but fantasy owners shouldn't count out drivers who have started the season strongly like Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray.

UPGRADE

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski may have been the only driver with the machinery capable of challenging Harvick for the Atlanta win, and he capitalized on that to take his first victory of 2017 when Harvick stumbled. After an up and down afternoon, Keselowski was back in contention for the win in the final segment but had to make a return to pit road after the crew failed to tighten all of the lug nuts after a stop under caution. However, he had time remaining in the race to recover. With two wins and two top-10 finishes in the last four Las Vegas races, it isn't inconceivable to imagine that the No. 2 driver could pick up his second win of 2017 this week.

Chase Elliott – Elliott picked up right where he left off in Daytona and had a very respectable outing in Atlanta. Despite being one of the many drivers assessed pit penalties, he still was able to recover to finish in the top five. The young driver is already using his second season in the Cup series to take a step forward from his impressive 2016 results. Las Vegas wasn't a great race for him last year, but with Elliott's newfound confidence in 2017, fantasy players should expect another top-10 from the Hendrick Motorsports driver. By continuing to run like he has in the first two races this season, it won't be long before he winds up in Victory Lane.

Ryan Newman – The qualifying effort from Newman on Friday was reminiscent of his early days in the sport. He stormed to a top position in the first practice and leveraged that to start Sunday's race on the front row alongside Harvick. By running a steady race and not making any mistakes, he cycled back into the top five runners in the final segment. A battery issue ultimately eliminated the small chance he had a winning, but it was still a strong run from the team. Newman has never won in Las Vegas, but he did score four top-10 finishes in the last six races there. Sunday's Atlanta performance could be a signal that Richard Childress Racing has turned a corner and is on its way back to consistent competitiveness.

Kevin Harvick – Harvick started Sunday's race from pole and dominated, continuing his run of top form at the track where he scored his first series win. He won the first and second stages, which was similar to what he did in Daytona before being involved in one of that race's crashes. Unfortunately, Atlanta's ending was similar to Daytona's too. A speeding penalty on the final stop of the race put him at the end of the line and took away Harvick's shot at winning. He recovered to finish in the top 10, but it was a victory lost. Harvick won at Las Vegas in 2015 and finished seventh there last season but he needs to avoid trouble and mistakes this week.

DOWNGRADE

Ryan Blaney – Tire pressure caused Blaney to undergo an unscheduled pit stop in the first segment of Sunday's race in Atlanta. He finished second in the Daytona 500, and an unscheduled pit stop in Atlanta didn't help him maintain that momentum. The incident was a deathblow to his chances for winning and he ran two laps behind the leader in the final segment of the race. His Daytona performance was enough to give fantasy owners some optimism, however. Blaney has two Cup starts under his belt at Las Vegas, and his average finish is 12.5. He finished sixth there last season, which means owners shouldn't write him off but should proceed with caution.

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson fell afoul of the pit road speed limit in the second segment of Sunday's race multiple times. The resulting drive-through penalties put him well behind the rest of the competition and out of contention for a top finish. Johnson spent most of the final segment two laps down to the leaders, and a lack of caution periods meant he was stuck deep in the running and destined for a poor finish. Mistakes are weakening this team and they're not getting fixed. Johnson is the king of 1.5-mile ovals, however. He has four Las Vegas wins on his resume and led more than 30 laps in each of the last five races at the track.

Denny Hamlin – Mechanical failure put Hamlin well behind the rest of the field in Sunday's race. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver should be one of the leading drivers early in the season with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing's strength, but the race results haven't fallen his direction. Sunday's terrible result is an example of that. Most should expect that he will eventually win in 2017, but the first two races simply didn't deliver the results fantasy owners expect. He has never won in 11 Las Vegas starts and with just one top-five in the last five starts at the track, it may be wise for fantasy owners to rest him until his bad fortune is a memory.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Earnhardt was one of a handful of drivers to suffer tire failures early in the race. The incident was a disappointment after his pace in practice and qualifying suggested he'd be in line for a top-10 finish. Instead, he finished the race multiple laps behind the leaders in what was a wasted opportunity. Fantasy players should proceed with caution as Earnhardt makes his full-time return to racing after missing most of last season. His single-lap pace in Atlanta should indicate that he will be fast this week in Las Vegas as well, but he may need another week or two to put together all of the factors that turn an entire race distance into a top finish.

Clint Bowyer – While Bowyer has shown significant improvement from last season, he still needs time to settle into his new surroundings at Stewart Haas Racing. A blown front tire sent him into the wall late in Sunday's race after he spent much of the afternoon running inside the top 10. Bowyer's potential with this new team stands in stark contrast to his terrible season in 2016, but more time may need to pass before fantasy players can select him with less risk than he currently presents. Bowyer has just one top-five from 11 career starts at Las Vegas and hasn't finished in the top 20 at the track since 2012. That should be enough reason for fantasy owners to be very cautious about selecting him this week.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Erik Jones – Despite having never raced in Atlanta as part of the Cup series, Jones put on a veteran performance. The Xfinity champion started outside of the top 20 but spent the afternoon racing inside the top 10. It was a remarkable performance from one of the up-and-coming stars of the series. He successfully avoided the issues that plagued the veterans of the series and confidently navigated his way to a 14th-place finish. The team's goal for the week was to run all of the laps and finish in the top 20. Jones raced twice at Las Vegas in the Xfinity series with a best finish of third. While he has plenty of learning left to do, he showed what he's capable of in Atlanta.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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