NASCAR Barometer: Harvick Dominates Atlanta

NASCAR Barometer: Harvick Dominates Atlanta

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kevin Harvick was the master of Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday. He won the Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup series races, and was the fastest car throughout both days on track. After missing out on a win at the track in 2017 due to a mistake on pit road, his win this weekend came as something special. The track was the site of his first victory in the series back in 2001, and it took 17 years for him to do it again.

Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway turned into a strategy game, as rain threatened to end the day prematurely after initially delaying the start. Teams split their pit strategies in the final segment as they tried to make sure they were out front at the opportune moment. Harvick and Brad Keselowski had the fastest machines on track, but tire wear and fuel mileage saw them cycle in and out of the lead positions in the final miles. A late caution gave everyone the chance to pit, which allowed everyone to race on equal footing to the finish. It wasn't the ideal circumstances for Harvick, but with the fastest car at his disposal he was able to get the job done.

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick – Harvick dominated the entire weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. After thoroughly trouncing the Xfinity series race competition on Saturday he did almost the same on Sunday. He was the fastest car early on in the 500 miles, and led most of the first segment

Kevin Harvick was the master of Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday. He won the Xfinity and Monster Energy Cup series races, and was the fastest car throughout both days on track. After missing out on a win at the track in 2017 due to a mistake on pit road, his win this weekend came as something special. The track was the site of his first victory in the series back in 2001, and it took 17 years for him to do it again.

Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway turned into a strategy game, as rain threatened to end the day prematurely after initially delaying the start. Teams split their pit strategies in the final segment as they tried to make sure they were out front at the opportune moment. Harvick and Brad Keselowski had the fastest machines on track, but tire wear and fuel mileage saw them cycle in and out of the lead positions in the final miles. A late caution gave everyone the chance to pit, which allowed everyone to race on equal footing to the finish. It wasn't the ideal circumstances for Harvick, but with the fastest car at his disposal he was able to get the job done.

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick – Harvick dominated the entire weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. After thoroughly trouncing the Xfinity series race competition on Saturday he did almost the same on Sunday. He was the fastest car early on in the 500 miles, and led most of the first segment as he cruised to his first stage win of the year. The following pit stop, during which he had air hose trouble, lost him track position, but that mishap didn't hold him back for long. He charged back to the front and persevered through a strategy game, ultimately cruising to victory after a late caution. Harvick's lone Las Vegas victory came in 2015, which was one of his three top-10 finishes from the last five visits. Last week's win could just be the start of a long run of top finishes.

Brad Keselowski – While he may not have had the pace of Kevin Harvick, Keselowski played the role of shadow extremely well in Atlanta. The former champion was second best throughout the afternoon and was poised to take advantage of any of Harvick's mistakes. That included a late restart where he capitalized to win stage 2 to gain points for the playoffs. He also ended the day running second in an impressive afternoon. Momentum should continue rolling, too. Keselowski has two Las Vegas victories from just nine career starts. He started on pole there last season and finished fifth after leading 89 laps. It's another strong start to the season from the Penske organization, and Keselowski seems to be making the most of it.

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex failed to make a qualifying attempt last week after failing inspection multiple times, but he charged forward through the field quickly once the green flag waved. He dropped out of the top 10 through the middle portion of the race but successfully climbed back inside the top 10 as the finish approached. By the end, he was inside the top-five to gather more points in his quest to repeat as champion. The 1.5-mile ovals were his specialty in 2017, and the team appears to be right on song on them again in 2018. Truex started on the front row at Las Vegas last season before going on to lead 150 laps and taking the victory. He should be an early favorite.

Kurt Busch – Busch's Stewart-Haas Racing team was fantastic on pit road in Atlanta. The stellar pit stops enabled him to gain the advantage of track position and to use that to race among the top five throughout the race distance. That work was critical to his top-10 finish since the car did not have the on-track pace of Harvick or Keselowski. Busch's Sunday afternoon proved that NASCAR racing is a team sport, and all components need to be firing on all cylinders to succeed. Busch has never won at Las Vegas, but led 31 laps there in 2016 after starting on pole, and his pace in Atlanta suggests he will be one of the stronger contenders early in this 2018 season.

Aric Almirola – Almirola's speed in Atlanta on Sunday showed that being in position to win the Daytona 500 was no fluke. He was solidly inside the top 10 and making gains early in last week's race in Atlanta, but faded during the final segment through the cycle of pit stops as he struggled to find grip. Despite the team's inability to close out the afternoon, it was still a nice performance for the new driver of the No. 10 after spending much of his career fighting for mostly top-20 finishes. This season is already an uptick. Almirola has never finished inside the top 10 at Las Vegas, but fantasy players should start expecting him to outperform his past statistics from now on.

DOWNGRADE

Ryan Newman – Newman had a very fast car early in Sunday's race, but clouted the wall after dealing with tight handling toward the end of the first stage. The damage was heavy, and that incident ruined Newman's chances of racing up front for the rest of the day. In fact, he never made his way back forward and spent the rest of the afternoon running well behind the leaders. It was a wasted opportunity for the team, but at least they learned the car could be fast. Piecing an entire race together is the next step. Newman has never won at Las Vegas, but he qualified on pole in 2005 and has two top-10s in the last five races at the circuit.

Ryan Blaney – After a stunning week in Daytona, Blaney was almost nowhere to be found in Atlanta. The Penske Racing driver was not among the fastest cars throughout the weekend, and then suffered a penalty on pit road that made his task even more difficult. In all it was a difficult struggle to climb into a top-10 finishing position, and he spent most of the afternoon running just outside. Blaney has two top-10s from in the last two Las Vegas races, though. While fantasy players should expect some teething periods with the new team, Blaney should still be a regular fantasy contender most weeks. Don't entirely dismiss him this week, but watch his pace early in the weekend.

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson spent Sunday's race fighting to stay on the lead lap. He simply did not have the pace, which was surprising given how quick he had been at the track in the past. He lost a front tire and spun to bring out a caution flag in the second stage, too. It was an afternoon to forget. Like Atlanta, Las Vegas is another circuit where Johnson has a strong history. His 11th-place finish at the track last season is evidence of that, but fantasy players would be right to be a bit more cautious heading into the weekend. Johnson may be a driver where practice and qualifying times early in the weekend determine whether or not he is worth a spot on the roster.

Darrell Wallace Jr. – The Cinderella weekend Wallace enjoyed in Daytona did not repeat in Atlanta. While Wallace showed speed in practice the race was an entirely different matter. Wallace spent most of the distance running well down the order, and then crashed into the back of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. after being unsighted by the smoke from Trevor Bayne's blown engine. The team made rudimentary repairs to send him back on track, but the race was already over for them. Wallace has said he and the team expects some weeks to be good and others to be difficult, and Atlanta was definitely on the challenging side. However, he'll get another chance in Las Vegas. Wallace continues to show speed, but will take some time to build consistency.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Daniel Suarez – Suarez drove an impressive race in Atlanta last week. He was quick early in the weekend's practice sessions, and then made himself a fixture inside the top 10 once the race got underway. He hasn't proven to be as flashy as some of the other newer drivers to the series, but his consistency has been among the best. He improved in the second half of 2017, again in Daytona as this season got underway, and then again last week in Atlanta. Wins will start coming to this team if they continue to run as they did last week. Suarez's only Las Vegas Cup series start gave him a 20th-place finish, but his Atlanta performance would suggest he could improve upon that this week.

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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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