Not that anyone can claim to possess the secret to navigating traffic in Atlanta, but Kevin Harvick is as close to a master as they come.
The reigning Lord of Atlanta Motor Speedway led the way Sunday like the grand marshal of the world’s fastest Mardi Gras parade. And this time, unlike last year, there was no penny-ante pit row speed trap to get in the way of a relatively carefree victory in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.
As you read this, Brad Keselowski may be just coming across the finish line second.
What a weekend here for Harvick, who on Saturday won his fifth Xfinity series race in Atlanta in dominating fashion, leading 141 of 163 laps.
Sunday was but the second chapter of the same story. Nothing could deny him. Not rain, which pushed the start of the race back to mid-afternoon. Not some balky air gun that wheezed during a couple of his tire changes. Not any funky pit strategy that allowed Denny Hamlin, for one, to make one fewer stop than Harvick, but amounted to only a fourth-place finish. When it was over, Harvick led 181 of 325 laps. Most importantly, he led the last one.
“Nobody had anything for Kevin today,” Keselowski said. “I think we threw everything at them. If he didn’t have the pit row problem he would have lead 320-some laps,” Keselowski said.
The sentimental value of the victory pushed Harvick’s wonderful weekend over the top. This was the site of his first-ever Cup victory, in 2001, under the most somber of circumstances. It was Harvick who inherited Dale Earnhardt’s car after his fatal wreck at the Daytona 500. Three weeks after Earnhardt’s death, his car given a new paint scheme (from black to white) and number (from 3 to 29), Harvick drove it to victory in Atlanta.
Sunday, reprising the tribute he gave Earnhardt 17 years ago, Harvick circled AMS holding aloft three fingers during his victory lap.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to do that,” Harvick said. “That year (2001) was such a confusing time in my life. It was fun to be actually pay tribute and smile about what was going on in the night.”
Between Earnhardt’s old No. 3 winning at Daytona 500 a week ago, and now Harvick replaying his tribute to the late seven-time champion, the season has had a distinct throwback feel to it. “It’s almost like it’s meant to be,” Harvick said.
Dominance has not been a problem for Harvick at AMS.
This being his 28th start here, Harvick has driven 13,676 miles on this rough asphalt. He certainly has the experience. And looking at the top five finishers Sunday, experience was the not-so-secret ingredient. Between them, the top five averaged 19 starts at AMS. NASCAR’s youth movement took the week off (Chase Elliott, for instance, finished 10th). Maybe the kids can’t take the dampness.
In his last five Cup races on the track, Harvick has led an astounding 915 laps. He has been the good kind of front-runner.
Winning has been another story. He hasn’t broken through in a Cup race since that 2001 win, becoming the kind of reluctant finisher too familiar to the Atlanta sports fan. Last year was the most dramatic of his failures, when he led 292 laps before finishing ninth after being hurt by a late pit road speeding penalty.
“We’d joke there was a curse here. It seems like forever since he has won a race here,” Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, said.
When trying to explain Harvick’s gift at AMS, third-place finisher Clint Bowyer had a simple answer: “He’s damn good at this place.”
And then a little more detailed one, pointing to Harvick’s singular ability to stick his car low on Turns 1 and 2 while maintaining his speed, “better than anyone.”
Certainly better than anyone I know driving any stretch of road in this metropolitan area.
Attention Atlanta drivers.
That means you in the Lexus who cut me off at the last moment at the exit for Georgia 400, because you obviously are of royal blood and just too precious to fall into line like everyone else.
And, you, too, in the BMW, taking selfies of yourself applying makeup while you wander between lanes like a blindfolded golden retriever.
And you in the Ford pickup riding so close to my rear bumper that we may need the jaws of life to separate us.
All of you pay attention to the flow of Sunday’s race. If only to show that this driving-in-Atlanta thing can be done with a high degree of civility and grace. There were fewer incidents at 180 mph than in any afternoon at a third of the speed anywhere else in town.
Sunday was a fine example of idiot-proof driving, something we all could take to heart. They could have used the wreckers as planters Sunday, it wouldn’t have mattered.
Jimmie Johnson blew tire and ended up sideways. Do that on the Connector and they’re cleaning up the debris for hours. But no one here Sunday was inconvenienced in the least.
And, thank you once more, Mr. Harvick, for showing us how to to handle the ultimate rush hour.