Splitter to Spoiler: Harvicks brilliant day ends in heartbreak in Atlanta … again

Harvick loses in the pits, Ford pulls out another win, Gibbs off to slow start and Atlanta rethinking repaving

Jasen Vinlove—USA Today Sports
NASCAR Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick (4) stands in the garage during practice for the Advance Auto Parts Clash At Daytona at Daytona International Speedway.

For 313 of 325 laps in Atlanta, it appeared Kevin Harvick was unstoppable. He guided the No. 4 car to 292 laps led, two stage victories and did it all from the pole. For all intents and purposes, Harvick was on the cusp of putting two Stewart-Haas Racing machines in Victory Lane to start the season.The only person that could stop Harvick, as it turned out, was Harvick.On a late caution caused by Austin Dillon deciding not to pit with a dead battery, Harvick headed to pit row for another flawless stop by the No. 4 crew. Harvick left the pits with the a victory in sight at the top of the leaderboard again and just 12 laps remaining.Then the word came down: Harvick was penalized for entering pit road to fast. After tearing his pit crew a new one last year for losses on multiple occasions, it was Harvick who had to own up to his miscue on Sunday in Atlanta.”I just made a mistake that I preach all the time that you don’t need to make and beat yourself,” Harvick said. “Then you go out and make it yourself instead of following all the things you preach. That part is hard for me to swallow. … Man, I just, one way or another I have figured out how to lose races here at Atlanta after being so dominant.”The last part is the most puzzling for Harvick. Despite completely owning Atlanta since his move to Stewart-Haas Racing, his lone win at the track came as a rookie with Richard Childress Racing in 2001 — the first victory of his career.Over the last four years, Harvick has led 734 of 1,315 — or 56 percent — of all laps ran in Atlanta. The common theme? None of those laps have been the last one. Despite two polls and three consecutive top-10 finishes, Harvick has been shut out of Victory Lane in one way or another in all four attempts.”This place, for whatever reason, I just feel like I’m snake bitten,” Harvick said. “It’s my own doing today. I really didn’t think I was even close on pit lane. It gets to bouncing around, I thought I was being conservative, apparently I wasn’t.”Ford putting NASCAR on noticeThe last time Ford won the manufacturer’s championship in NASCAR’s premier series was 2002. Kurt Busch won the last championship for Ford in 2004 for Jack Roush. Joey Logano, one of Team Penske’s current stars for Ford, was 12 and 14, respectively, when those accomplishments occurred.On Sunday in Atlanta, Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski personally handed Ford another checkered flag. It came after the aforementioned domination by Harvick, which gave Ford a combined 313 laps led between the two drivers.Despite issues earlier in the race with missing lug nuts that dropped him back in the field, Kes rallied and never wavered from believing he could pull out a win.”Everybody stayed focused and nobody had to say anything,” Keselowski said. “We know the deal. We know that this isn’t going to be easy. you have to keep your head down and keep fighting at all times and that’s what we did.”It’s no secret that Roush Fenway Racing is down in recent years with multiple experienced drivers jumping ship in over the last several seasons. After years of RFR carrying Ford, the manufacturer finally now has two championship caliber teams with SHR and Team Penske.After posting two wins to start the season for the first time since Matt Kenseth swept the Daytona 500 and Auto Club 500 in 2009, Ford is clearly a force to be reckoned with this season.JGR heading in wrong directionIf you don’t see a Joe Gibbs Racing driver when visiting the NASCAR standings webpage, just keep scrolling down. They’re still on the list, just a little further down than usual.Two races into the season, the highest ranking JGR driver is Matt Kenseth in 16th place. Next on the list is Denny Hamlin in 19th, the only other driver inside the top 20 for a team typically seen as a juggernaut in the sport.Kenseth secured a third-place finish on Sunday while Hamlin and Daniel Suarez finished outside of the top 20. Meanwhile, 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch was barely able to remain on the lead lap while coming away with a 16th-place result in Atlanta.Despite the issues for the program, Hamlin was confident in his car prior to a mechanical issue sending him to the garage.”We had a decent car — top-10 car — and it’s up here hanging out around seventh or eighth all day,” Hamlin said. “We kept gaining on them, which is a good thing, but just had a mechanical failure here.”Even attempting to sound confident in his team, Hamlin didn’t sound convinced. JGR is almost always contending for wins, not “hanging out around seventh or eighth” in races.It’s a long season, and there’s no doubt that Gibbs will turn things around. I still expect at least three drivers will make the NASCAR playoffs, but a misfire for all four teams has to be concerning for the guys in the garage in Huntersville.Re-thinking the Atlanta repave?Sunday’s race was a notable one before the green flag ever waved due to the repave project scheduled to take place afterward. The current track was last repaved in 1997, with the grooves firmly worn in after two decades of racing on the same surface.Several drivers voiced their displeasure with the move on a track, including defending champion Jimmie Johnson.”I think we all appreciate tracks with so much character,” Johnson said. “To have the bad news that two of the tracks with the most character are going to be repaved this year, I think 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.”With the response from NASCAR drivers taken into account, there might be a change of plans for the aging surface. Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., wasn’t willing to say whether or not the repave will still take place following Sunday’s race.”I love all the positive comments we’ve gotten [on the current surface],” Smith said. “We’re just going to have to look into it. I’ll tell you with all the positive comments that we’ve had, it definitely causes us to re-look at our plan.”Tracks are constantly repaved around NASCAR to avoid incidents like what happened at Dover two years ago when a piece of pavement broke off and hit multiple cars. However, it’s also great for a track to have myriad grooves drivers can work to use to their advantage.In recent years, tracks like Bristol and Darlington have lost some of their luster among drivers due to repave projects. While the races have been exciting on both tracks, the criticism by those actually racing on the surfaces has been anything but.”I can’t really say the status has changed,” Smith added. “We’ve looked at the track a lot over the years. We feel like we’ve gotten three more years out of the track right now. The challenges are still there in keeping the track raceable, making it something we can have a race on today and making sure we have a quality race.”After the snoozer of a race the 20-year-old pavement put on Sunday afternoon, maybe it is time for change in Hotlanta.